Monday, July 17, 2006

Visual Rhetoric & Digital Politics III: Democrats

Visuals of Epic Proportions:
Democratic Heroes and Republican Monsters

The politics of emotion must appear
To be an intellectual structure. The cause
Creates a logic not to be distinguished
From lunacy
-- Esthétique du Mal

Politics is the struggle for existence
- Adagia

These two quotes from Wallace Stevens illustrate our political landscape quite well: the lunacy, the emotion disguised as logic, single-issue voters casting ballots for causes rather than candidates. Because political omnipresence is fast becoming the reality, political parties and action committees engaged in the "struggle for existence" must have a constant media space, a role fulfilled quite well by the World Wide Web.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the World Wide Web is the role played by non-photographic visual elements: banners, buttons, colors, and relational aspects of each. Biases established by print and television have made these blend into the background, just as a network logo and a small ink drawing do in traditional media environments. The power of seemingly minor visuals is subtle; however, the role they play is crucial: these messages pass into the brain unfiltered by the critical eye that looks for text and photographs. Because of this, these visual elements play an increasingly important role in creating the drama portrayed on the contemporary political website. Political entities with a strong web presence, such as the Democratic National Committee, use these visual elements to provide a setting that supports their particular message. Using principles of dramatistic criticism outlined by Roderick Hart (pp. 259-82), we can discover their rhetorical function.

The dramatic picture portrayed by the Democratic Party closely resembles the classical epic. The protagonist is defined by personal characteristics, painting a portrait of an individual embodiment of cultural identity myths. The antagonist is defined by verbals, that is, by actions serving as adjectives: his actions label his presence as monstrous, as the antithesis of the cultural myth. Perception of the cultural myth as "good" or "benevolent" is embodied in the very human actor of the protagonist; likewise, the embodiment of negative social forces must be antithetical to the human, and thus monstrous. The antagonist must be monstrous and powerful, but beatable by the human protagonist. The seemingly minor visual elements that appear throughout the Democratic Party's homepage establish a representative anecdote that identifies the characteristics of the cultural myth embodied by the Democrats. By serving an agonistic role, the visuals transform the Republican Party into the epic antagonist, a monstrous scapegoat embodying corrupted wealth, which is the root of America's contemporary political troubles at home - economic corruption - and abroad - the war in Iraq. Through this lens, the Party sets the stage for its transcendent message: if you vote Democrat, we will put an end to this corruption that is destroying our nation.

The foundation of the site lies in its background elements, the first elements to load: the banner and background colors. These graphical elements used to set the dramatic scene and character identity. The color blue, traditionally associated with the Democratic Party in American politics, is everywhere: blue comprises the background as well as the banner for eighty percent of the page. Photographic elements have a white background in the central information box. The rest of the page is red: an American political website would be remiss if it did not include red, white, and blue, but the red sidebar is cluttered with calls to action, and as a minor player in the page, red - traditionally associated with the Republican party - is clearly overwhelmed by the omnipresent blue. The hierarchical message is plain: the Democrats, even if not presently in power, are somehow stronger and better than the Republicans are.

The presence of American iconography throughout the page, as well as the use of American colors, establishes another portion of the Democratic Party identity: they are Americans, seeking to establish identification with other Americans. The banner is a deep, midnight blue, with a powerful, Romanesque font declaring the identity of the party in steely blue and gray capital letters: "The DEMOCRATIC PARTY." The turbulent blue, enhanced by a rippling flag, sets the stage for a coming storm. With the steely typeface, the banner's message is complete: the Democratic Party is establishing its identity as standing defiant against a coming storm, with the type establishing a classical republican (Roman) identity and setting the battle stage as epic in proportion.

The identity established by the Democratic Party thus sets the scene for its rhetorical message. Continuing the narrative requires developing the preceding hierarchical aspects and fitting them to the scene. The dissociative inverse of the implicit egalitarian values portrayed in the "Neighbor to Neighbor" iconography begins to establish the antagonistic relationship: because we support the everyday American, we are opposed to a social hierarchy that establishes privilege based on wealth. Instead of wearing suits and sitting in a boardroom or at a hundred-dollar-per-plate banquet table, the volunteers in the "Neighbor to Neighbor" picture are wearing blue jeans and sitting in a kind of institutional aluminum chair with which most Americans are instantly familiar: these are chairs we see in church basements, school auditoriums, and community centers nationwide.

Locative circumstances are among the most powerful indicators of importance in website design: the placement of navigation is relegated to the outside areas of the page, while the most important content is found in the center. The Democratic Party's most important associative visual element is a small, map-shaped icon of Iraq found in the exact center of the page. The visual rhetoric of the Iraq icon holds a number of associative and agonistic messages in its color, presentation, and features. First, the social implications of the color red, which in this case hold dual meanings of blood - for war - and politics - the Republican Party, are difficult to ignore. Whereas the map associated with the Democratic Party's "Neighbor to Neighbor" button had no borders and no traditional political parties, which implied unity and equality, the map of Iraq is unmistakably similar to an electoral representation of a "Red" or Republican state in campaign and election maps nationwide, even including a small white star indicative of the capital city. Iraq may not be a part of the United States, as the first scan of this image may imply; however, upon deeper examination, the concept of imperialism, of Republican colonization and politicization of Iraq, begins to coalesce.

With this single, nondescript icon, the Democratic Party is thus able to associate the Republican Party with a bloody, imperialistic war waged for political and financial gain. Imperialism for direct political and financial gain is antithetical to the egalitarian image embodied by the Democratic Party; add war to imperialism, and the life or death struggle necessary for epic drama coalesces. By associating the Republican Party with imperialism and war - and by demonizing the two - the Democratic Party dissociates itself from the corruption of the Republicans and implying a binary message: "The Republicans will send you to die for their gain," it says, "but we will not, because we will protect the everyday American."

Anticipating and counteracting the inevitable retort, that those who would flee this conflict leave the nation vulnerable to attack, the Democrats place the rhetoric of warfare and defensive strength throughout the site. The "Fighting Dems" button links the visitor to a page displaying Democratic veterans who are running for office, men who have defended the country abroad, who now fight for its future at home. More important than the "Fighting Dems" button, however, is another simple graphic that advises visitors to "Rebuild America," below which is a simple bi-color button reading "Democracy" in white on blue atop "Bonds" in white on red, and framed by stars. The explicit association of blue with "Democracy" becomes an agonistic visual praise by virtue of the implicit cultural association of blue with the Democratic Party. The lower half of the image, "Bonds," in white and framed by white stars, on a field of red, continues to cultivate the associational cluster relating the Republican Party to war. First, the colors, white on red, mimic the Iraqi map icon in the center of the page, and serve as a visual Homeric epithet: a repeated phrase used to attach descriptive characteristics within epic poems. Second, it establishes historical congruity with World War II, during which posters and advertisements, which have now achieved the status of cultural myth, advised Americans to "Buy War Bonds."

War bonds, implicitly associated with finances, provide the final step in the recursive series of images linking Republican corruption with the ruin of the United States: "bonds" are easily connected to Wall Street, high finance, and the "bond" market, thus bringing onto the stage the cultural stereotype associating the Republican Party with wealth and privilege, providing an additional agonistic associative tool by which the Democrats can demonize and scapegoat the Republican Party. This association is strengthened by a similar visual epithet found just beneath the "Democracy Bonds" button, a small navigational banner inviting visitors to a page exploring, "Republican Culture of CORRUPTION."

The identity of the heroic Democrats, who faithfully support the everyday American, is established by the setting: a strong, patriotic, populist hero, preparing for battle. The identity of the Republican Grendel is a classical epic antagonist: evil social forces embodied in a single entity without humanizing characteristics. The epic antagonist was defined by verbals, or actions masquerading as adjectives: he or they "did" x, y, or z before any physical description was given. In this case, the Republican verbals are portrayed through a recursive cluster of images that play active roles in defining what Republicans "do," and by implication, what Democrats "do not." Republicans sympathize with the wealthy. Republicans, having been so corrupted by money, in turn corrupt the nation that they lead, sending it to bleed and die for no other purpose than political and imperialistic gain, both of which add to their already great wealth and power, and by extension, their corruption as well.

Visual images on the World Wide Web provide setting and context, which in our media-savvy culture, textual and photographic content cannot: the messages of text and photograph pass through a filter of objectivity and judgment that background imagery bypasses. Their rhetorical value stems from their unobtrusive presence: we see them, but focus on the overt rhetorical messages in the text. The visuals on the Democratic Party website dramatize a transcendent "politics of emotion" in the guise of an "intellectual structure": if we keep Republicans in power, their corruption will only grow. Buy Democracy Bonds, which support the Democratic Party, vote for Democratic candidates, and the corruption that has threatened our existence will plague us no more.

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