Popular TV Characters Have Become a Part of the 2020 Campaign. Here’s WhyRoundup
tags: popular culture, 2020 Election, television
Oscar Winberg is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Åbo Akademi University, working on the political history of television entertainment in the 1970s.
Newman is back.
Jerry Seinfeld’s nemesis on the popular 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld” (NBC, 1989-1998), played by character actor Wayne Knight, returned last Friday — in time for the 2020 presidential election — with an important message. In an advertisement by a political action committee associated with the political organization ACRONYM, Knight channels the voice and mannerism of the fictional postal worker to condemn much-publicized Republican efforts to assault mail-in voting and to encourage people to vote in the upcoming election. The return of Newman garnered attention online with more than 60,000 likes and over 20,000 retweets within a day on Twitter alone.
On the same day, actor Milo Ventimiglia urged his followers on social media to vote and drew on his popular character in the successful television drama “This Is Us” (NBC, 2016-), Jack Pearson, to convey his message. “If you like JACK/Vote for JOE,” the actor wrote on Twitter. The attempts by liberal actors to use their beloved television characters for political gain is nothing new. In fact, it is a practice that began in the 1970s. But contrary to conventional wisdom, it was a political strategy pursued by both the Democratic and Republican parties to use one of the most popular characters in television history, Archie Bunker, to reach new voters and draw on the emotional connection that viewers had with characters to turn them into voters.
Played by Carroll O’Connor, Archie Bunker was the star of “All in the Family” (CBS, 1971-1979) — the most popular show on television — and a political icon of the White working-class conservatism that was ushering in a realignment of American politics in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Producer Norman Lear wanted to take on political, social and cultural conflict within the sitcom format. Transforming television entertainment, which in the 1960s was more focused on talking horses, flying nuns and bewitched housewives than the Vietnam War, civil rights or student unrest, the show courted political controversy. By addressing issues like residential segregation, hate crimes against sexual minorities and environmental campaigns, the show presented the liberal perspectives of the producers and writers. Though the centerpiece of the show, Bunker, the voice of the right wing, always ended up on the losing side.
With the show the talk of both Hollywood and Washington, candidates across the political spectrum attempted to use Bunker for political gain. Following reforms sparked by the tumultuous 1960s, politics was moving away from party-centered campaigns toward candidate-centered campaigns — introducing a showbiz politics where both Republicans and Democrats courted Hollywood. When in 1971 Mayor John Lindsay of New York, announced he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination only months after leaving the Republican Party, he lacked a distinct voter base within his new party. Television, the Lindsay campaign concluded, would make or break the campaign in early primary races. Lindsay appealed to liberals but needed to expand his base to the White working-class and those seduced by the conservatism of segregationist George Wallace. For this Lindsay turned to Archie Bunker.
Carroll O’Connor was a bona fide liberal: a strong supporter of civil rights, opponent of the war in Vietnam and a proud champion of labor unions. But his character could be used to attract the more conservative blue-collar support that Lindsay needed. So, he endorsed Lindsay and made television ads blurring the lines between actor and character. “He can’t actually endorse him in character,” explained a spokesperson for the campaign, “but he uses some language that will make it recognizable.” Media attention soon followed. Rivals acknowledged the television strategies of the campaign. Still, not even the beloved character could save Lindsay’s campaign. The innovative strategies, however, would prove lasting.
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