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« Third party laziness, 2012 edition | Main | Home rule on that ballot this election season: activists versus institutions »

Empty chairs and missing signs in Ohio

This year’s presidential election has produced a brand new form of messaging. It isn’t very cutting edge, though; not some kind of recently developed social media application or scary new number crunching technology. No, it’s empty chairs. Really. People (in northeast Ohio at least) have been putting them on their front lawns as a tribute to Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Sometimes the chairs are completely by themselves, unaccompanied by any election signage or word of explanation:

When they began sprouting up a month or so ago I expected them to be a short lived phenomenon. Now, though, it looks like we will be seeing them all the way until election day. There are a lot of them, too. It’s a remarkable phenomenon for several reasons. (Caveat: all that follows is idle speculation based on what I’ve seen while driving around. If you want hard numbers go to Nate Silver’s place.)

First of all, I deliberately avoided describing these “chair people” as Mitt Romney supporters. It has been my general impression that there have been more chairs than Romney signs, so I decided to do a count on my way home from work one day last week. There were eight chairs out and only six signs for Mitt Romney. That tracked with my general impression (there seem to be fewer signs for Obama too; again, not scientific (Nate Silver)).

In other words, these people are more interested in demonstrating their opposition to Obama than their support of Romney. One of the consistent themes in the presidential race has been Romney’s struggle to get his base excited. The chairs indicate the base may well be excited, just not about him. And it is a fairly unusual way to show that enthusiasm. It basically amounts to tribal signalling. No one I know who isn’t already wrapped in whatever right wing cocoon this emerged from knows what it’s about without having someone tell them. Hell, I had to have someone tell me what it meant, and I like to think I keep up pretty well with current events.

If you are going to advertise your beliefs right before an election, presumably part of the reason is to encourage support for those beliefs. Yard signs do that; drive by a “Romney for president” sign and even if you don’t really keep up with politics you know what the message is. But an empty chair could just be a remnant of a yard sale. You don’t put a reference that oblique out there unless it’s meant strictly for those in the know - a secret handshake to fellow travelers. While I understand there being a certain amount of satisfaction in that, wouldn’t you prefer to help out, however infinitesimally, your preferred candidate’s chances on election day?

Then there’s the reporting on it, or lack thereof. These chairs are all over the place, but I have not seen any media coverage of it at all. There may have been a stray item here or there, but for a story that thrives on newness it certainly hasn’t attracted much attention. I’m not claiming conspiracy here; I don’t even know what the purpose of one would be in this case. It is strange, though, to not see reports on something so oddly striking.

The final somewhat off-kilter aspect to the empty chairs is the source of their inspiration. Eastwood’s speech was not very well received. He came across as somewhat confused and disjointed, and the delivery was weak. The message was at odds with reality to anyone who has not spent the last four years marinating in conservative narratives. Say what you want about the president, but it’s hard to imagine him telling political opponents to fuck themselves.

Yet this is the event that many have decided to advertise to the world. Maybe it was received much better by partisans than everyone else, or maybe it has taken on a life of its own in their imaginations. But it seems a really curious symbol to rally around.

In any event the chairs are out there, the Romney For President signs not so much, and who knows what effect (if any) they will have. You can say this much about them, though: In a campaign where seemingly every cliché of horse race politics has been dragged out and beaten senseless, they have escaped saturation coverage. And for better or worse they are unquestionably novel.

Reader Comments (6)

The 'wingers don't seem to care about anything except p--sing off the liberals, so they regarded Eastwood's speech as brilliant. Not that it p--sed off anyone, but liberals obviously didn't like it, which is almost as good for conservatives.

It's a sorry time in America when someone whose talent left him years ago can do a performance that looked like something out of Samuel Beckett and get applauded for it, while the people who work hard and produce what weath this country produces are treated like so much human manure. But then, the Republicans have apotheosized yet another shallow rich man who made his money by shady dealings and family connections. In their eyes, what makes a person great is the size of his bank account and his proximity to power.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles

Re: "In their eyes, what makes a person great is the size of his bank account," I thought Romney's most animated moment in the third debate was on China. Obama talked about saving the tire factory as an example of getting tough. Romney went off on China's currency manipulation and patent infringement. Americans losing jobs, eh, big deal - but intellectual property theft erodes the value of one's portfolio, goddamit, and that's something to get riled up about.

As you say, Romney is the apotheosis of a certain strain of conservatism. He seems to care more about amassing wealth than anything else. I think that explains his ideological flexibility. Those kinds of changes make sense if one considers the positions in question trivial.

October 29, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

In a related but entirely pedestrian matter...

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCMike

There's humor in these chairs that I just don't associate with the right! And they probably don't think the chairs are funny themselves. It's the kind of gesture progressive Austin neighborhoods go in for -- or did when I lived there. But I think of that as long gone. Nationalist movements in the grip of ignorance, totalitarian politics, and an "every man for himself" way of thinking don't tend to embrace humor...

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPW

Thanks for the link CMike - I hadn't thought about sign stealing as a possible factor. PW, it struck me more as an attempt at humor than the achievement of it. Much like the event that inspired it.

I'm sure conservatives driving past give a mental Heh Indeedie, but it's not the kind of thing the layman will instantly grasp. And even on that level it doesn't work as well as something like this did. But I'm not the target audience, so I doubt any of that matters.

October 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

Coming or GOING, the chairs' The Zer0bamanable EPIT0ME!

November 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBruce

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