Bumper sticker. Or window sticker.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Honk If You Like Bumper-Sticker Politics

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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The other day I spotted an arresting bumper sticker: “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for the Other Guy.” Unlike so many similar decals, it bore no hint of which “other guy” was under discussion. Just blue words on a plain white background. The driver might have been a Republican angry at Barack Obama, but the sticker was so weathered that she might just as well have been a Democrat angry at George W. Bush. Or the message might have been generic, like the fan who wears both teams’ colors to the big game, intended to cover all contingencies. Whatever the driver intended to convey, the effect was to remind me of how frustrated we children were by our father’s refusal to allow bumper stickers on the family car -- and why, looking back, he might have had a point.

Think about how a bumper sticker works. Through the words plastered on the back of the car, the driver in front proclaims that she has been places  I haven't, that his child has done things mine hasn’t, that her religion is better than mine, that his atheism is better than my religion, that she loves -- sorry, that she hearts -- her sports team or her alma mater or her cat. All of this is innocuous if occasionally annoying.

The trouble arises when the bumper sticker offers a message about politics. Sometimes the messages are clever, whether or not one shares the sentiment (one that sticks in my mind is “I’ll Keep My Laws Off Your Body If You’ll Keep Your Laws Off My Money”) but more often they run toward solemn silliness (“U.S. Supreme Koch,” for example). But, clever or silly, the assertion is squeezed into a space so small that it cannot possibly offer an actual argument.

The biggest problem with bumper stickers is that they’re ... well ... bumper stickers. They’re affixed to the rear of the car. The driver wants to force his views upon me, but is determinedly uninterested in mine. A bumper sticker might state a belief, but it doesn’t invite question or debate. Whatever the sticker purports to convey, its subtext is this: “Here’s what I think, and I don’t give two hoots what you think.” A bumper sticker, in short, is a metaphor for what ails our democracy.

I don’t know that my father had this in mind in his stubborn determination to keep our bumpers pristine, but he always proclaimed the values of tolerance, reflection and thoughtful disagreement. In politics, he hated slogans and appeals to emotion. Even the ordinary upbeat campaign message -- “Vote for Kennedy” -- seemed to bother him on some level. He compared bumper stickers to graffiti. Maybe he had reason.

Bumper stickers first came into use in the late 1920s, mostly as advertising. Their use in electoral campaigns dates from the 1930s. But these were clumsy decals for the most part, attached, poorly, by metal wire. The bumper sticker in its modern sense stems from the 1940s, when (so legend has it) one Forest P. Gill, a Kansas City printer, figured out how to create advertisements against a backing that would adhere firmly to the bumper.

The electoral bumper sticker was popularized in the years after World War II, when the draft-Eisenhower movement began distributing “I like Ike” stickers. By 1956 the message was ubiquitous.

The Democrats came late to this discovery -- or at least couldn’t figure out how to use it. Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 campaign tried a sticker that imposed “I’ve switched to Adlai” over “I like Ike,” but it was so poorly designed as to be almost unintelligible. Another read “X for Adlai” -- but I would imagine it took some viewers a moment to work out that this meant to vote for rather than against. Probably the plain word “Stevenson” in red against a blue background fared better, but, looking over the collections, one cannot resist the idea that the Republicans handled the new invention a little bit better. My father was a big Stevenson man, and I’ve often wondered whether the wounds from those campaigns played a role in his views.

By the 1960s bumper stickers were everywhere. Here as in so many areas, my brothers and sisters and I longed to be like everyone else. Dad disagreed. As the years went by, he offered reasons. Bumper stickers debased not only the car but democracy as well. They presupposed that the issues of the day, in all of their complexity, could be reduced to a few cleverly chosen words. In that direction, he said when I was a teenager, lay fascism. It took me decades to understand what he meant.

Although fascism is an unreasonably strong word, it’s fair to describe the emphasis on slogan and hatred as the essence of a reactionary politics. A 1995 study of bumper stickers found that those carrying political messages tended to be “positive and intense” whereas those carrying ideological messages tended to be “negative and intense.” There’s a big difference between the driver whose bumper tells me whom she plans to vote for and the driver whose bumper tells me whom I ought to hate.

Nowadays, the function that was previously served by bumper stickers has arguably moved online. At least with Twitter and Facebook, one can try to argue back. But only a little. More and more of our politics is dominated by the tools of emotion and slogan. Fewer and fewer of us seem to care what others think. Which is another way of saying that maybe Dad was right all along.

  1. Perhaps the argument doesn't matter. A 1996 study by political scientists James W. Endersby and Michael J. Towle concluded that the function of the sticker is to signal membership in a group -- that is, “Vote for Smedley” has the same essential purpose as “Girl Scouts of America,” informing the viewer that the driver is part of a larger whole, and proud of the fact. (In trademark law, a symbol so used is called a “collective mark” -- a way for members to advertise their membership, to each other and to the world.) But I think arguments always matter.

  2. The study also found significant variation in bumper sticker use based on race and class, with upper-class whites, for example, more likely to display upbeat political messages, and working-class blacks more likely to display decals celebrating particular universities or sports teams.

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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net