Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

September 12, 2012

Where Are All the Bumper Stickers?

By David K. Shipler

I just spent two days driving from Maine to Maryland and saw a total of five bumper stickers for presidential candidates. [Postscript: In 10 days of driving 1300 miles in rural Alaska, I saw no bumper stickers at all--only one for Romney when I got to Anchorage.] This is disastrous for undecided voters who are waiting for a revelation on the highway.

The first was a snappy slogan on a pickup in Maine: “Protect Freedom. Defeat Obama.” This was confusing. The young man behind the wheel didn’t look as if he meant a billionaire’s freedom from reasonable taxes, which Obama’s defeat would surely guarantee.

In Massachusetts, a hatchback came along with a red, white, and blue sticker in the middle of its cargo door: “NOT a Republican,” and an Obama-Biden sticker down on the bumper, where it belonged. The driver was behaving more safely than the young woman who cut me off at high speed on the interstate; as I hit the brakes, her “Romney” sticker loomed large. This is the kind of driving that can lose a candidate the election, as surely as Al Gore lost it when he sighed during a debate.

Here’s a reminder for drivers promoting candidates on vehicles: Undecided voters have X-ray vision.
 They read character with the acuity of astrologists. They are not swayed by all the weeks of blather about health care and job creation and national security. They are canny enough to see through the economic policies, the foreign policies, the budget priorities, the social issues, the tax proposals, and the multitude of actions that are called governing, and into the core of the candidate. This they do by various means. One says the key to watching a debate is not to listen to the words but to observe the body language, especially when the candidate it not talking. There went poor Al Gore. She dismissed Rick Santorum because she thought he looked like a Southern Baptist, although she told me she knew he was really a northern Catholic.

Before you hoot in derision, consider the impact of Mitt Romney’s hair, and the campaign’s attempt to manage it. First it’s too slick and looks stiff with 1950’s hair tonic. Then it’s studiously mussed up so it looks all spikey and goofy, kind of like the things Romney keeps saying. And Obama has to keep his hair cropped short, lest it grow into an Afro that would terrify whites who imagine black men as scary.

The trouble is, we learned about democracy back in high school when we voted for student government leaders on the basis of—what? Seriously considered policy positions on bike racks and cafeteria desserts? No, we chose people who had good “personalities,” were “cute,” ran with our crowd, flashed winning smiles, and maybe made witty speeches. Athletic ability didn’t hurt.

We’re still doing it. Good numbers of Americans have carried their early schooling in electoral politics into adulthood. Some of the grownups who retain the teenage impulses have become television pundits who tell us what to think after a convention or a speech. Mostly, their comments could be transported straight back to a high school auditorium, where they would fit perfectly into the 10th grade culture.

And what’s wrong with that? Stick to “first principles,” as constitutionalists might say. Cling to what you learned in school, freeze out evolution of every kind, hold on tightly to the child within you, and don’t let the gabby pols fool you into voting on the basis of dizzying statistics and intricate policy analyses. Use your eyes. Watch the body language. Study the hair style. And if American voters ever get interested enough in this election to paste lots of bumper stickers on their cars, judge a candidate by how his supporters drive!

What better way to take the true measure of leadership?


  1. Funny! And probably too true!

  2. Very plausible scenario. It makes the propect of Romney's winning even more frightening since Romney has lived in Belmont, Massachuetts long enough to have morphed into a Boston driver.

  3. David:

    I just read--and thoroughly enjoyed--your new book, Rights at Risk. I would like to send you a more detailed comment and share with you my personal perspective on the chapter, "Below the Law," and on another case that you discuss brilliantly in your chapter on false confessions abroad. I was wondering what the best way to do that is, if there is an email address where I can send this.

    Thank you,
    Madiha Qureshi

    1. Madiha, I'd be glad to see your comments and information. Please e-mail me at dkship2@comcast.net. Thanks.

  4. I'm on it. Need to go get my yard sign too! Thanks for the reminder. Looking forward to your visit to the University of Arkansas.

    Kevin Fitzpatrick

  5. One thing I hate about election season is those nasty bumper stickers. Much to my surprise I've still only seen two bumper stickers in the last several months. I'm glad to read that you haven't seen any either. I am wondering if people are just bored with the campaign. Even around town the only signs I see are for the local elections.