Why the Left Can’t Meme

By Emily Finley
Emily Finley
Emily Finley
Emily Finley is the author of "The Ideology of Democratism" (Oxford University Press, 2022). She holds a doctorate in politics from the Catholic University of America and is currently an instructor at Pepperdine University.
June 30, 2020Updated: June 30, 2020


It was hardly an exaggeration when Elon Musk said recently, “Who controls the memes, controls the Universe.” This is akin to Harvard literary critic Irving Babbitt’s observation a century ago that “the imagination … determines action and so ‘governs mankind.’”

Just last week, the right’s arch-memer Carpe Donktum was banned from Twitter, ostensibly for copyright infringement. It was only a matter of time before some pretext was found to finally oust this conservative meme savant. Well aware of the power of these aesthetic morsels, the left is quick to denounce memes deployed against its sacred shibboleths as racist, “made by Nazis,” and akin to the Soviet dezinformatsiya campaigns.

Because of the incredible political power and broad appeal of these memes, liberal gatekeepers, influencers, and overlords go into overdrive trying to shame and discredit their producers and consumers and, when that fails, to scrub them from Internet history.

The most effective memes originate, according to a 2018 meme forensic analysis by a group of concerned academics, from the same couple of “fringe and potentially dangerous” online communities. In other words, the conservatives are producing the best memes.

The conclusion of these professors? The meme-ing must be stopped! The study provides a “building block” for “building systems to protect against the dissemination of harmful ideologies.” In addition, “our pipeline can already be used by social network providers to assist the identification of hateful content; for instance, Facebook is already taking steps to ban Pepe the Frog used in the context of hate.”

From the pipeline of the Gramscian march through the institutions, these academics have emerged to aid in our Ministry of Truth’s online censorship. Imagine that. The viral meme icon, Pepe the Frog, is being fast-tracked into oblivion through computer algorithms under the auspices of curbing “hate speech.”

But Internet meme culture is a Hydra. If the powers-that-be censor Pepe the Frog or the leftist-triggering “non-playable character” (NPC), for example, then people will invent new meme characters, which will undoubtedly have the same effect and convey the same message in a new way. That’s the beauty of the memes for conservatives. They’re truly organic and decentralized and spread by their own merits.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), correctly sensing the power of the meme to sway the political imagination, attempted to put together a “meme team” in order to bridge the meme inequality gap. Apparently dead on arrival, understanding the failure of this endeavor helps to reveal the nature of memes and also why meme territory seems to belong almost exclusively to the populist right.

Warren’s team had hoped to mass-produce memes like political brochures. They should be “Fun,” “Viral,” “Expressive,” “Personal,” and “Robust”! Lost on the corporate meme team, as others have hilariously noted, seems to be all understanding of the ways in which both memes and human beings work. Before Warren could even enter the meme race, her team’s public meme manifesto was ripped to shreds by Twitter users through, of course, memes. The responses were everything that Warren Meme Team, Inc. memes could not be: spontaneous, funny, incisive bursts of creativity in response to an actual issue at hand.

Donald Trump’s posting of a meme video that had won an online contest prompted one journalist to complain of the action with the subheadline, “Providing No Additional Context.” Exactly. Successful memes speak for themselves.

Carpe Donktum and the like draw on popular culture and symbols to convey some truth through the aesthetic medium. They’re successful because their memes are not intended as political propaganda, although the subject may be and often is political. Successful memes require no explanation because their truth, like that of all art, is an unmediated truth—the eternal enemy of ideology and propaganda. The left likes to call this “dog whistling.” What they mean is that the memes resonate among those who share in its social meaning and speak its language. This is not dog whistling but simply culture.

Memes cannot flourish in a cancel culture. Where meaningful shared understanding and experience is seen to occur only within various “identity” groups lest one be charged with “cultural appropriation,” there’s little universal symbolic material available for the modern liberal bard, the left’s universal hatred of Donald Trump notwithstanding. The left is fractured along the lines of race, gender-identity, and other protected classes, taking these ontologically arbitrary categories as primary and definitive. A meme could hardly go viral among those tethered by shared ideology rather than shared culture, an environment that seems increasingly characteristic of today’s Democratic Party.

It’s for this same reason that so many comedians refuse to go to college campuses anymore, the locus of militant political correctness. Within the “community” that’s the modern university are various competing identity groups, with different taboos largely defining the raison d’être of each one. The available shared cultural material is severely and jealously circumscribed, effectively shackling the comedian or artist, whose medium—humor—knows no such bounds.

The primary function of a good meme, which is so often humorous, is to cut to the truth in a witty and unexpected way. That those on the right seem to be able to do this better than those on the left doesn’t indicate that conservatives prefer pictures to reading facts, as one liberal friend of mine remarked pithily, but rather suggests that those on the right are less ideological.

So-called conservative memes rarely have more than a couple of words and require no explanation. Memes that must add to the art with layers of explanation, to the great detriment of the meme, do so out of a perceived need for the audience to “get” it in the correct way. These memes, rather than illustrating a truth that requires no mediation to “get,” must explain to the viewer the message, which then defeats its aesthetic purpose. At best, it becomes an analytic point overlaying art. At worst, it’s mere propaganda, directing the viewer to the proper narrative. That the left seems to have such a difficult time creating memes suggests that the medium defies its message, which must stick closely to party lines and continually refer back to the ideology.

In March 1935, Joseph Stalin equated political jokes with the leaking of state secrets. These dangerous thought crimes were considered so powerful that the jokester’s words were scarcely quoted even in official court documents. Yet to cope with the stifling “lie,” in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Soviet men and women would persist in their joke-cracking, finding refuge in its ineffable truths. We seem to be witnessing a similar phenomenon today among conservatives, defying the oppressive official narrative through the withering critique of memes.

Emily Finley holds a Ph.D. in Politics from The Catholic University of America and is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. She is the managing editor of Humanitas, a journal of politics and culture, published by The Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.