Review of Tobias Carroll, 'Political Sign'

The board of elections for Washington, D.C., where I live, forbids campaigning or any form of disruptive activity “in, on, or within a reasonable distance outside the building” used as a polling place. As with much else about the process — including the count, as we’re reminded daily now — the administration of voting is regulated at the state and local level, even in a national election. Still, some variant of the “reasonable distance” rule is pretty standard. The code in D.C. spells it out as “approximately 50 feet” — the degree of give or take being a judgment call left to the precinct captain, as is defining what counts as interfering with the orderly conduct of voting.

Per election rules here, the 50-foot limit is to be indicated “whenever possible … by a chalk line, or by some other physical marker.” In my neighborhood, that has always meant a posted sign warning not to campaign any closer than where it is posted — with a cluster of yard signs for the candidates forming about a centimeter away. By the time I get there, the queue usually stretches beyond that point, to the end of the block and around the corner, while campaign workers hand out fliers to anyone outside the invisible boundary line who will take them.

The posters and handbills are one last effort to summon name recognition: a chance of “newfound familiarity with a candidate’s name translating into a vote cast for that candidate,” as Tobias Carroll puts it in Political Sign, a volume in the Object Lessons series published by Bloomsbury Academic. Carroll is a novelist and cultural journalist, and while the publisher lists Political Sign under the heading of literary theory, the author is much more engaged with concrete situations and ordinary enigmas than with semiotics. Carroll describes his book as being about “the stories political signs tell, the stories we tell ourselves about them, and the stories they become after time has passed.”

The Object Lessons series, published in cooperation with The Atlantic magazine, includes volumes on the stuff of ordinary life that is for the most part taken for granted (eggs, socks, dust) — or would be, except that forgetfulness sometimes makes them a problem (remote controls, passwords). Like other volumes in the series, Political Sign tries to defamiliarize a part of the world that tends to escape notice, or that holds our attention only on occasion, and then briefly.

The political yard sign — like its near-sibling, the political bumper sticker — is “a kind of coelacanth,” Carroll says, “something that reached its ideal form long ago and has contentedly stayed there, not evolving because it didn’t need to evolve any further.” There’s something formulaic about most such signs, making them easy to recognize and not much more difficult to create: “If you’d like to go online to purchase a yard sign for your own political campaign, you can easily find a template to do so, and the same design and color scheme can be used by candidates from rival parties, by potential officeholders from sheriff to Senator, and for residents of nearly anywhere there’s turf to put one’s stake into.”

Political messaging of this prefabricated sort is far more expressive than persuasive. “Vote for X” on a lawn means “I will vote for X”: a statement of preference but not of motivation. An abundance of “signage,” in Carroll’s preferred term, suggests that a corresponding share of the population agrees.

That also creates the opportunity for a kind of vicarious, low-stakes voter-suppression effort. Stealing, destroying or defacing the opponent’s signage may not defeat them, but it’s meant to take them down a notch. The potential for things to go meta is reflected in the case of a campaign for Passaic County sheriff from a few years ago that Carroll recounts. One campaign accused the other of stealing its yard signs and offered surveillance video to prove it, only to have the second campaign accuse the first of faking the incriminating video. “As political scandals in New Jersey go,” he notes, “this is a relatively mild one.”

Political signage more broadly defined includes such message-bearing objects as hats, protest signs and tattoos — things with a family resemblance to the placard or billboard, though often with a greater investment of personality or creativity on the part of the individual sporting it.

But Carroll’s scattered observations on these spin-off forms interested me less than how he identified something implicit in the more template-like sort of political sign — the ones crowding each other at the very edge of the permissible distance from the polling place in my neighborhood. They imply a last-ditch gamble on the possibility of, as Carroll puts it, “newfound familiarity with a candidate’s name translating into a vote cast for that candidate.”

I always wonder about this. Is the magic of name recognition a real thing, perhaps even at work on skeptics? “Is it too ephemeral to measure?” asks Carroll. “Or is it simply, like so many things in life, a tradition that feels more effective than it actually is?” Either way, the artifacts he examines look more curious than their familiarity would suggest.

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