'Mad Men' of the GOP

Illustration for article titled Mad Men of the GOP

Obama supporters are fond of threatening to move to Canada if their candidate loses. Republicans looking for a similar retreat, if things don't go their way, can find a fitting escape in Mad Men.


The brilliant AMC cable series, whose season finale airs Sunday, portrays a fantasy world, a Leave it to Beaver, Norman Rockwell-inspired vision of a trusting, safe, lily-white, sophisticated and highly stylized Mayberry. It conjures up a 1950s-era America where yards were always manicured, wives and children were obedient and where everyone knew their place.

It is a place where straight white men, the corporate middle and upper class, are at the center of all things.


With its "regular Joes" from "Main Street" and its focus on "real America," the GOP has channeled nostalgia and a yearning for "the good old days" into a modern-day Mad Men narrative that serves as the driving force of its campaign. Even Sarah Palin, the party's supposed icon of advancement, is a living anachronism with her performance of a type of rural blackface, replete with affected folksy eye winks and exaggerated "you betchas." For the Republican base, Sarah Palin is a conservative feminist cast as a role model par excellence for the culture wars.

The pitchmen of Mad Men's Manhattan-based advertising agency  sell the good life. In turn, they are struggling to live it. The central characters massage the truth, manufacture desires and color how the American consumer perceives reality.

The show's protagonist, Donald Draper, is a junior partner and rising star in the firm. Draper and his cohorts live as princes: afternoon martinis, doting secretaries and mistresses, and dutiful and loyal wives. African Americans are nearly invisible and mostly silent in their roles as elevator operators, maintenance workers, house cleaners, nannies or waiters.

With keen, stylized force Mad Men shrewdly depicts white men's anxiety in a world that is changing around them. As society transitioned from 1950s innocence to the complex awakenings of the 1960s, the series captures the uncomfortable undercurrents as other communities and identities move toward the center of the American narrative: women resist their disempowerment; African Americans force the state to acknowledge their rights as full citizens; and young people organize to demand a change in the status quo.


The impact of these changing landscapes is both personal and professional. Draper's wife, Betty, knows he's cheating and ponders having an affair of her own. At work, the tactics once so successful in peddling products to the masses are threatened by a wave of new social freedoms.

Still, faced with the challenges of a new world, Donald Draper remains triumphant.


In an allusion to John Kennedy's race against Richard Nixon, a recent episode of Mad Men observed that, "campaigning is advertising." True enough. In the illusory world of the Republican Party, Obama is unqualified, John McCain and Sarah Palin are the real victims of "hate speech" and character assassinations, and millionaires are the "middle class." The reality created by the right's dream merchants is one in which trickle-down economic policies and mass deregulation will lead America to prosperity. In this alternate reality, profiteering robber barons did not cause the current economic tempest; the culprits are middle and lower class strivers.

Today, the fears and anxieties which underlie the right's myopic nostalgia are reflected by Republican attempts to depict Barack Obama as black, foreign and other. This leveraging of fear and dread is a tried-and-true approach which has served the Republican Party well since the 1960s.


Much like the GOP campaign, Mad Men depicts a world that never was. The idea that America was safe, stable, happy and secure before "those people"—the feminists, the civil rights organizers, the anti-war demonstrators and "the Liberals"—ruined it, is a narrow and illusory fiction.

Unfortunately, America's economic crisis doesn't give anyone, not even "real Americans"—those Joe Six Packs, Nascar dads, and soccer moms—the luxury of yearning for a nostalgia-laden past. The new mad men—the angry, anxiety-ridden white men of today—will have to come to terms with this truth. And if the GOP's next season gets canceled, well, there's always cable.


Chris Deis is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago where his research focuses on race, American politics, hip-hop music and the politics of popular culture. He is also a visiting instructor at Kalamazoo College.

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