Wearing your party on your sleeve

Would you like to “Re-Defeat Bush?” Maybe you’d rather, “Flush the Johns” and send Kerry and Edwards packing. These days there’s a slogan for every political position and a T-shirt to match.

We’ve come a long way from “I Like Ike.” Now political slogans aren’t just engineered by candidates; they’re cooked up by organizations, businesses and individuals who want to voice their opinions. And what better way to tell the world about a political stance than by wearing a T-shirt?

“It’s a form of expressing yourself but not a demand for attention,” freshman Gillian McHale said of her collection of liberal leaning T-shirts. “I’d like to think it gets people to think about the issues, to pay attention to the election.”

McHale began wearing political T-shirts back in her hometown of Doylestown, Pa. – a traditionally GOP dominated area – as a way of showing that vocal Democrats existed in the area.

“Shirts like this help the minority show their presence,” McHale said. “They help fight stereotypes about an area.”

Few people on campus understand that feeling better than junior Jeff Holth, vice chair of the College Republicans. Holth spent Wednesday afternoon wearing a Republican National Convention shirt and a giant Flip-Flop costume (symbolizing the GOP contention that Kerry flip-flops on issues) to get the word out about conservatives on campus.

“There are conservatives here,” Holth said. “People think only liberals go to GW, so we want to make our voices heard.”

Unfortunately, politically active young people like Holth and McHale are exceptions to a national trend of political apathy among people ages 18 to 24. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that only 36 percent of all eligible voters in that age demographic voted in the 2000 election. Organizations across the country have been trying for years to mobilize the youth vote, yet the rate has steadily declined since 1972. But that was before P. Diddy got involved.

Sean “P. Diddy” Combs recently founded Citizen Change, a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to mobilizing the young vote, and of course, there’s a T-shirt. The controversial “Vote or Die!” shirts have been appearing on MTV on the backs of artists like 50 Cent and Mary J. Blige. While the extreme message has generated plenty of press, it’s hard to tell whether the shirt will help Citizen Change win over young people to the democratic process. While Combs has been lauded for his efforts, not everyone agrees that it’s enough to simply get young voters to the polls.

“It’s important to vote, but I think that voter education is key – making sure that people know what they’re voting for and what the issues are,” junior Stacey Garfinkle said.

Controversial shirt designer John Foster-Keddie, however, points out that in order to get someone interested in the issues at hand, you have to first grab their attention.

“I think T-shirts can force people to think about voting, if only for a second,” Keddie said. “And since the biggest problem affecting the youth vote is indifference, even thinking about voting for the split second it takes to read somebody’s shirt is a step in the right direction.”

Last winter, Keddie’s vintage shirt company, Vintage Vantage, sold a design to Urban Outfitters that read, “Voting is for Old People.” Keddie insists that he was just “trying to be funny and start a dialogue,” but not everyone saw the humor. Urban Outfitters yanked the shirt from its shelves under protest from the Harvard Political Institute and Fox News, among other groups, so Keddie is taking the shirt’s message into his own hands. He’s offering the shirt for free through his Web site if shoppers promise to send him a picture leaving the voting booth in his shirt this November.

While Keddie said he thinks shirts can get people to think about the upcoming election, he questions whether or not a shirt is a useful tool for making a political point or influencing someone else’s opinion.

“Wearing a partisan T-shirt is a pretty non-confrontational way to broadcast your political views to others,” he said. “I think people who wear them are trying to inspire like-minded people to take action. If somebody changes their mind, that would be great, but that’s a tall order for a piece of cotton.”

Increasingly, however, partisan political T-shirts aren’t just about stating a preferred candidate or an issue position. They’re about making a point in the funniest way possible. Jonathan Rosenberg, a cartoonist from the typically apolitical humor site goats.com, recently entered the fray with a shirt that read, “Republicans for Voldemort.” Connecting the GOP with the villain of the Harry Potter children’s book series may seem flippant, but Rosenberg reasons that if he can grab someone’s attention with a witty phrase, then he’ll have kick-started a debate.

“Humor allows us to communicate an idea concisely. It allows us to get people’s attention in a way that dry statistical analysis can’t. People are more likely to show a humorous political T-shirt or cartoon to their friends, which in turn is more likely to spur political discussion,” Rosenberg said. “I’d like to think that people only take facts into account when they make their political choices, but more and more, campaigns have relied on deception … So we have to turn to other tools to fight disingenuous, morally bankrupt, criminal politicians. Humor is one of the most effective of those tools.”

While politics have always inspired debate and controversy, having to use humor or T-shirt slogans to get a hold on people’s attention is a relatively recent development. Candidates used to rely on their own slogans, bumper stickers and signs to promote their campaigns. While candidates still have their own merchandise, their effectiveness may have been co-opted by the private sector. GW political science professor Lee Sigelman argues that perhaps the shift to the commercialization of political merchandise has to do with the candidates’ own lack of creativity.

“I think they’re running out of good slogan ideas. Think back on the last three or so elections. What was Gore’s slogan, or Bush’s or Clinton’s?” Sigelman said. “My memory may have slipped, but I don’t think so. I think they just weren’t that memorable.”

Sigelman explained that displays of political support for a candidate aren’t really about converting the swing voters but counteracting the support of the opposition.

“It becomes a sort of arms race,” he said. “Someone may put out a sign for candidate X, and another may see it and not want everyone to think the whole neighborhood supports candidate X. So they feel a psychological need to go tit for tat and put out a sign for candidate Y.”

Holth said he dismissed this view:

“I wouldn’t say we’re out here because the Democrats are out here. We’re here to spread our message, not to counteract theirs,” Holth said of his flip-flop garb. “We feel that a lot of the country is behind President Bush and his vision for the country, so we don’t feel like outcasts.”

Whatever the logic or the methodology, the Internet makes it easier for anyone to find the right shirt to express his or her ideology. Caf? Press, a company that makes print-to-order T-shirts in a variety of categories, allows users to design and sell T-shirts of their own creation over the Web.

“T-shirts are part of our popular culture,” said Julie White, spokesperson for Caf? Press. “They’re part of our shared heritage because they’re so personal and so literally in your face.”

Whether or not they can make young people care about the election or swing a voter from one candidate to another, political T-shirts have an unmistakable conversation starting, laugh invoking, thought provoking power that lets a wearer define himself to the public. Even with 50 days until the election, young Americans have already started to vote with their backs.

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