American Hunger

How presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders devour pop culture for political gain.

American Hunger   Illustration by Duncan Cooper

“I don’t know how we’re going to open the door for more girls and boys to live the lives they choose,” said Hillary Clinton on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in early January, “until we get rid of a lot of these stereotypes and caricatures, and break through together.”

Minutes later, as Fetty Wap’s infectious “Trap Queen” splashed against studio walls, Clinton gracelessly cast her left arm back while briefly resting her head in the crook of her right elbow. Ecstatic applause enveloped Stage 1 of Burbank’s Warner Bros lot. Clinton—the milk-white Democrat with presidential aspirations—had just dabbed on ‘em in front of 3.9 million viewers, a convenient public relations maneuver as much as it was a shallow one. The pervading dance move, which has roots in Atlanta’s youth-driven rap scene, became cultural shorthand for contemporary black culture last year; everyone from Tom Hanks to news anchors on Good Day Philadelphia playfully gestured when a given moment called for a dab, and especially when it didn’t.

In part, Clinton’s dab was intended to convey her grasp of—or, at least, her willingness to grasp—black youth culture, a base she’s relying on to win the White House (if we were to divide voters for the 2016 election strictly along racial identifications, the black voter base would be the second most powerful voting bloc in the country). The move was certainly less calculated than her decision, in December, to capitalize on the announcement of her own daughter’s pregnancy when she posted the BuzzFeed-styled “7 ways Hillary Clinton is just like your abuela” to her website (after some public furor, she later changed it to: “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela”), but its conceit was no less telling. Clinton’s eagerness to pander to diverse communities, whether on a daytime talk show or out on the campaign trail, reflects a symptom of our time: an emptying out of identity. The alchemy of formation, in reverse.

The question of blackness, Hilton Als once wrote, has taken a strange and unsatisfying journey through American thought. Consider this: What does it mean to self-create a thing only to have that thing taken from you and refashioned into something other? And the ugliness of the act arises not from the actual theft—that’s just the process by which culture is rationed in America—but from the looter’s disregard for this thing, this very beautiful thing, once he or she is done with it.

The form of cultural negotiation that has manifest in today’s public space is akin to what feminist scholar bell hooks wrote about in 1992. Americans are, at our most essential selves, consumers: we watch television, read books, scour social platforms, and listen to music, consciously and unconsciously, absorbing messages and mantras; we buy just-released fashions and products without a second thought; overtime, we collect things and people and long-ago memories, becoming bloated cultural hoarders who grow fat off the blood of the world’s possibility and devastation.

Politicians like to discuss what voters will gain once they’ve won office, but so rarely do we consider what we lose as a result of someone like Clinton’s fleeting interest in our way of life.

Published in Black Looks: Race and Representation, hooks' essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” explored our need to devour and destroy. Her examination focused on the ways in which the white public commodified otherness for pleasure in an attempt to satiate sexual desire and reaffirm dominance. As history pushed forward, hooks believed our racial differences would continue to be “offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate” whereupon the Other would be “eaten, consumed, and forgotten.” (As it does with Clinton, this argument holds up with regard to this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, where a white screenwriter is nominated for a film about a radical black rap group—Straight Outta Compton—and a veteran white actor is nominated for a supporting role while the visionary black director and the beyond-talented black actress are overlooked for their brilliance in a boxing movie—Creed—that is so blatantly and beautifully rooted in blackness.)


“The commodification of difference,” hooks wrote, “promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization.”

Being born into black skin has afforded me a peculiar kind of lens through which to be consumed. I have lived, often powerless, under the gaze of privileged eyes, and know what it means to be fully devoured, what it means to be made small and unimportant. This isn’t shocking news, not any more at least—before America became America, black and brown folk were, literally and metaphorically, being consumed by forces beyond their control—but it’s worth considering where we exist in the context of this year’s election.

Although it wasn’t always this way—authentic black narratives were once denied admission to mainstream outlets, television and otherwise—we now live in a time that offers us instant access to varying permutations of black identity. It’s siphoned across social timelines at a rapid pace, and increasingly sucked of its true value and worth.

Clinton has become, as politicians often do during major election cycles, a hoarder of cultural identity. Yet, what value is there in her dabbing on Ellen, creating t-shirts that read “Yaaas, Hillary!” or offering reasons she’s “just like your abuela” if she’s not committed to the restoration of those neighborhoods and the people who birthed that dance move or live and breathe that language everyday? “Several of the core demos the Clinton camp hopes to mobilize—black people, gays, young women—are on the cutting edge of online cultural production,” Amanda Hess wrote in December, “so you can see why the campaign is eager to get on their level.” But what Hess refers to as “online cultural production” is really so much more: it is a lived existence for many, not some manufactured product meant to be discarded once an audience decides there is something or someone better to watch or use (though, admittedly, the act of scrolling through videos on Vine can often feel like that).

Even so, identity is not always consumed outright by politicians. Consider Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator competing with Clinton for the Democratic nomination, who is wholly supported by Atlanta rapper Killer Mike. Sanders, 74, has profited from Mike’s endorsement; it’s afforded him entry into the same space Mike’s fans occupy. Since Sanders announced his candidacy, the Run the Jewels affiliate has acted as an unofficial mouthpiece, introducing Sanders at an Atlanta rally, talking with him in a widely watched six-part interview, and generally going to bat for the senator. Other rappers have also come out in support of Sanders: OutKast’s Big Boi and Bay Area wunderkind Lil B. For Clinton, she’s secured the support of artists like Snoop Dogg, Waka Flocka Flame, and Usher, according to a campaign aide who spoke with the New York Times. The impact of celebrity endorsements has diminished over the years—they don’t entirely sway voters one way or another in general elections—but they are important when it comes to introducing outmoded politicians to younger constituencies. Eighty-four percent of Democrats between ages 17 and 29 voted for Sanders in Monday night’s Iowa Caucus. Perhaps it didn’t hurt that, only two days before, Sanders held a rally in Iowa City where members of Vampire Weekend and The Dirty Projectors performed together.

But how truly invested are presidential candidates in black and Latino communities, and what do they take from them as they go about securing votes? Though Sanders has fared well among black voters—his style of consumption is less calculated than Clinton's out-and-out appropriation—he still faces criticism from the black left. Jamil Smith, in the New Republic, essentially wondered whether black and Latino voters would be able to trust Bernie Sanders. Slate, in a headline, protested: “Bernie Sanders ‘Revolution’ Isn’t Good Enough” Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates recently called Sanders’ radicalism, which he has long worn like a badge of honor, into question. “One cannot propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt, propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously engaging in the fight against white supremacy,” wrote Coates.

Politicians like to discuss what voters will gain once they’ve won office, but so rarely do we consider what we lose as a result of someone like Clinton’s fleeting interest in our way of life. She says she wants to end mass incarceration in the U.S., but only recently stopped accepting money from private prison lobbyists when the information was made public. She says she wants to move the country forward, but has an irresponsible understanding of the way racism has sowed its venom into the fabric of America. As Clinton powers her campaign—consuming our otherness for political gain—she has, in some measure, become the very thing she warned about on Ellen: a caricature of herself.

American Hunger