The Politics of Dancing:
Jimmy Carter, Square Dancing,
and Embodied Populism on the Campaign Trail

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2012, Volume 11, Issue 1


Justin Patch
Vassar College

In a July 1976 interview with AP reporter Kathryn Johnson, Rosalyn Carter was asked how the White House would be different if she and Jimmy Carter occupied it instead of Gerald and Betty Ford. Rosalyn Carter candidly replied that for one thing, there would be square dancing in the White House. The humorous quip eloquently composed sharp distinctions between the earthy populism of the Carters, the erudite cosmopolitanism that symbolized the flamboyant Kennedys, the Johnsons’ Texan charm, and the drab conservatism of the Nixons and Fords. It was also Rosalyn Carter being characteristically honest. She and Jimmy Carter enjoyed square dancing, and were avid participants in Georgia (and according to Jimmy Carter in a recent personal communication concerning this article, they still are). As far as the truth of this comment is concerned, square, circle, and line dancing, as well as a host of other American folk and ethnic cultures ranging the performing and visual arts, were featured in what the Carter administration dubbed "The People’s Inauguration" in January of 1977. The Carters also hosted square dances on the White House lawn during their tenure on Pennsylvania Avenue.

This particular comment sparked a unique outpouring of enthusiasm from square dance enthusiasts around the country. Many took the time to write letters of gratitude to the Carters on behalf of themselves and their organizations, which are now housed in the Carter Presidential Archives in Atlanta, in a box oddly labeled "Unsolicited Occasional Music." The letters in the archive emphasize an affective connection between dancers, their communities, and the Carters through square dance. For the writers, square dance embodied distinctively American hopes, dreams, and practices, an ethos of American populism: embracement, egalitarianism, integrity, and timeless, wholesome simplicity. Respondents noted the significance and importance of square dancing in and to American life, nationalistically projecting outwards by generalizing their own interests, ethics, and assumptions onto the populace at large. For them, square dance was a personal practice that embodied the melting pot, inclusive ideals of Americanism, civility, and community – and connected them to the hopeful first family and others around the country. This art form was accessible (regardless of age, race, gender, economic and social status, geography), communal, cross-generational, appropriate, and enjoyable for all. It is clear from the letters in the archive that the writers also felt a personal resonance with the Carters. They read the ideals of the dance into the personal stories and personas of Carters – being uniquely American, accessible, populist, humble, organic, locally grounded but nationally fit, and in many ways, collectively shared, a veritable couple for, of, and from the people.   
The Rantoul Running Bears, from Rantoul, Illinois, wrote a lengthy letter to the Carters thanking them for emphasizing an important part of American culture and offering them honorary membership as Running Bears. Along with the letter was a signature page on which each member couple signed both their names and where they were from, indicating what while the group was based in Illinois, their members hailed from across the country. There was no indication in the archive as to whether the Carters accepted. The International Association of Square Dance Callers – housed in Los Angeles, California and Lexington, Massachusetts – sent a formal citation of appreciation, along with a healthy handful of their promotional material. In their letter, they emphasized the benefits of square dancing as a wholesome social activity as well as a salubrious form of recreation for all ages. More interestingly, they touted square dancing as a unique American Folk expression which embodied many aspects of our American culture, history, and values.

After Carter’s victory in November of 1976, his fledgling administration was approached by Congressman Richard Nolan of Minnesota who advocated on behalf of his constituents in St. Cloud. Members of the St. Cloud Square Eagles volunteered to fly to Washington at their own expense to participate in the Carter Inauguration. At the time of Congressman Nolan’s request, the Square Eagles were fifty couples and a caller strong, but anticipated many more inquiries from dancers who were interested in attending and participating in the inaugural ceremonies. They volunteered to both dance and host an instructional workshop so that others who were not familiar could join in and make it a communal and collective event. The Square Eagles wanted any and all present at the Inaugural festivities to step out of the role of observers and become participants and performers, collectively embodying The People. Like the sentiment of the Running Bears, the Square Eagles saw square dancing as an activity for the entire nation (or at least in this instance, all of its representatives).

Embedded in these personal and institutional shows of solidarity and appreciation are the ways in which square dancing, as a common practice of both the Carters and these enthusiasts, is characterized. In the letters and citations, the activity acquires vivid metaphysical dimensions. The specific Anglo-diasporic roots of the dance are erased (more on this below), and the art form is generalized to become an all-American activity that holds within it the essence and aspirations of a nation and an edifying pastime fit for everyone (something often advocated for in popular literature on square dancing from the 1950s). There is a unique populist political tone in these views that resonates with Jimmy Carter’s public persona and policy platforms – and with those who supported and contributed to his ideological stances. These written traces of sentiment are a window through which the significance of popular/populist culture on the campaign trail can be viewed. While the use of popular culture extends into many aspects of the campaign – then and now – this example is compelling because it concerns a collectively embodied practice and a set of assumptions that map neatly onto both square dance and the populist policies and attitudes of Jimmy Carter and 1970s Democratic Left politics. Through an examination of this particular example of popular culture on the campaign trail, we can open up space to query the successes and failures of politically deployed popular/populist culture. 


Deployment, Reception, and Dynamics

There are three significant issues that this comparatively tiny campaign incident generates concerning the use of popular/populist culture as a campaign tool: use, reception, and the historical dynamics of the cultural product itself. To begin with the first: how do political campaigns use popular/populist culture  (from here on, referred to only as popular culture) to generate appeal across disparate and contentious populations? How does the selective deployment of popular culture, which by definition appeals to many people and is commonly held and understood, play into political campaigns? This issue is essentially one of evidence, where we can examine the successes and failures of cultural campaigning in their historical context, and by quantitative and qualitative means (rapid polling and focus groups make quantitative analysis in more recent campaigns more accessible). There are countless examples to choose from, and perhaps the unique challenge is to narrow down the focus to particularly significant exemplars and thoroughly analyze each instance for intent and efficacy. In the case of square dancing, the Carter campaign was able to smooth over conflicts between conservative nostalgia and progressive populism as well as the geographical issues of Southern locality and nationalism. This seamlessness is what makes the Carter campaign and square dancing a unique example worth detailed attention.

The second issue is the question of reception, which holds substantial potential for cultural analysts as well as applied research. There is a reason and social logic behind why such non-policy cultural issues are often front and center in political campaigns: it is primarily because we, the electorate, are stimulated by it. Research into campaigning has shown the efficacy and significance of culture (as opposed to detailed policy information) as a campaign tool for winning hearts and minds (see Brader). Why then do we care so deeply about the cultural dimensions of political campaigns, and how do we individually and collectively identify with culture in common? Within these two broad questions are a number of interconnected dimensions, which together generate a path towards a clearer understanding of political campaign mechanisms and their effectiveness. These are the element of believability, an emotional possessive investment in culture, and the internal dynamics of the culture itself before it is drafted into the service of the campaign.

When examining the successes and failures of cultural campaigning, there is believability factor involved in making popular culture resonate with a specific or general population. By definition, there are numerous people who enthusiastically consume and identify with any given form of popular culture. However, a connection that smacks of verity is required to form a bond between culture and candidate. For a candidate to be possessed of the values and associations that are imaginatively embedded in a cultural form, they must embody it in a participatory and knowledgeable fashion, and their public must find this connection to be tenable (i.e. the Carters having square dance proficiency, and also being publicly believed to be square dancers, truthful or not). This factor is constantly experimented with by campaigns, political surrogates, and the population at large who participate in political debate. In addition, this dimension of inquiry depends largely on public perception – and is often hotly debated by pundits, surrogates, and commentators. The electorate is often more fond of debating the cultural dimensions of a candidate or campaign than the policy platform and a sizable portion of these conversations concern the candidate’s participation. In our current information era and twenty-four hour news cycle, there is no shortage of fodder for deliberation.

In addition to believability, there is a possessive investment in specific practices, tastes, aesthetics, and meanings on the part of the electorate. It matters to us that our representatives hold within their bodies, minds, and souls practices, beliefs, and activities that are similar, familiar, and beloved by us. How these cultural dimensions map on to policy, platform, and ideology is highly flexible, and at times seemingly contradictory, but the fact remains that they are consequential. So why are we so invested? Is there a clear reason why we, as an electorate, continue to consider culture in common as a precondition of electability and viability? Regardless of the logic, or lack thereof, that causes us to put so much affective power behind culture, we have strong possessive investments in culture that pervade our concepts of policy and politics.

Third is the question of the specific cultural product, its adherents, and resonances within a larger field of other histories and practices. Some forms of culture, like Christianity and marriage, are more generally understood and produce more positive associations among the general electorate, although by no means all. Others have associations of a dualistic nature – appealing to some while simultaneously being distasteful or meaningless to others (John F. Kennedy’s and Mitt Romney’s religious backgrounds, John Kerry’s and John McCain’s military service, and Barack Obama’s love of basketball and hip-hop are examples). How are specific forms chosen for politicized deployment within these considerations? How do common forms of politically available culture – sport, religion, music, literature, language, food, etc. – gain their cache, and with whom? Some examples, like that of square dancing, have roots that can be traced to a string of organic social movements and legislative policies. Square dancing began as a cultural retention practice among Anglo immigrants and was later institutionalized in community centers, clubs, public schools, and in a host of popular literature that touted the physical and psychological benefits, as well as a generalized nationalism. This effectively disconnected it from its formal Anglo roots and allowed it to be adopted simultaneously as Southern, Western, popular, and American culture. Other popular cultural deployments, like Bill Clinton appearing on late night TV, took the vision (desperation and daring) of a particular candidate. How do these practices resonate with the population or specific demographics within it? How do they create or aid in the crafting of personal narrative and persona? Do these associations help to sell concrete policy? How does this art form acquire these associations, and can they be effectively mobilized by versed performance or referential rhetoric?


Cultural Property, Investment, and Participation

Two trains of thought, when combined, are essential to systematically navigating and integrating these issues into a general framework investigating square dance in particular. The first is Charles Keil’s concept of participatory discrepancies or what I would prefer to call participatory idiosyncrasies, as the term discrepancy implies an aberration or conflict. Published in various forms between 1987 and 1995, Keil theorized that in any genre of musical performance (which often includes dance as a necessary component) there are elements that are idiosyncratic, necessary for a proper and effective performance, and are readily identifiable to participants, even if they are not part of the general discourse. According to Keil, these participatory discrepancies define a successful performance and elude the confines of language, rather manifesting in the bodies of performers and desired forms of participation by the audience. The presence or absence of these idiosyncrasies triggers feelings of in/authenticity by experienced participants, and separates those in the know from amateurs and imitators. When effortlessly included in performance, they indicate emotional, temporal involvement and embodied association; when absent, they point towards aping and hollow mimesis. Their presence also affects participation, especially where coterminous activities and modes of sociability like dancing, collective response, and heightened mood are involved. Cultivating the desired actions and feelings are essential to generating the intended outcome (as is the case in particular with dance and religious music). Part of accomplishing a successful performance is a complete understanding of the unique aesthetics of musical and extra-musical behaviors that are shared between musicians and audience, along with a correct rendering on the part of the performers and audience (keeping in mind that dancing and audience participation – like clapping or shouting – can be a co-performance). While Keil’s analyses tend to be audio-centric, auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile and gustatory elements are all part of determining credible participants. While Keil tends to look at more complex cultural practices, even simple ones, like removing the corn husk from a tamale before eating it, a mistake made by Gerald Ford on the 1976 campaign trail in Texas, can change perception.

Most startling and prescient, Keil places a great deal of faith in participation, stating that “the language of participation offers hope” ("Participatory Discrepencies and the Power of Music" 276), as opposed to the language of criticism. This comment was pointed at analytical frames common to Marxist analysis, but it is notable that the liberatory qualities which Keil attributed to communal musical spaces are also part of our political language of generalized mass involvement and free expression. Both participation and hope are essential to a well-run, successful campaign – recently demonstrated in the presidential election of 2008 – and provide a crucial connection between Keil’s theory of participatory discrepancies and the efficacy of cultural campaigning. 
This idea of participatory idiosyncrasies can be generalized to many cultural practices where participants can, and often do, claim to recognize adherents versus imitators. In the realm of political theater, when a candidate is presented as an enthusiast or aficionado of particular cultural practices, they are subject to specific judgments on the part of observers in the electorate. Does Barack Obama actually listen to hip-hop, Hillary Clinton shoot whiskey, John Kerry windsurf, George W. Bush ranch, or Mitt Romeny like dogs? Each of these actions communicates a specific set of assumptions and characteristics to a particular audience. The question then becomes: does the audience believe this portrayal enough to positively associate candidate and culture, with all of the attendant assumptions? In the case of the Carters and square dancing, popular discourses about the folksy, wholesome, community-oriented, all-American qualities of the dance were projected upon the Carters by many across the US. Politically, the ideologies of the dance correlated with policies of equal opportunity, cultural pluralism, and economic/cultural populism (affirmative action, minimum wage increase, support for public education, legalization of home brewing, progressive tax structure, and environmentally conscious policies). In the case of square dancing, the Carters were believed to be participants in square dance culture by enthusiasts. The archived letters indicate that fellow dancers did make the association between the popular ethos of the dance culture and the persona of the Carters. In fact, the Carters were avid square dancers, included square dancing in the inaugural ceremonies, and photographs from the Carter administration show Jimmy Carter participating in square dancing on the White House lawn. While square dance does not have the implicit vocabulary or virtuosity of jazz, bluegrass, or polka, presidential hopefuls have been criticized as imposters for simply using specific recorded music that did not fit their public image.

Along with participatory idiosyncrasies is the concept of a possessive investment, borrowed from Cheryl I. Harris’s influential legal article concerning race and legal rulings, “Whiteness as Property,” and George Lipsitz’s sociological analysis in “Possessive Investment in Whiteness." In Harris’s sweeping legal work, being racially identified and publicly recognized as being white entitles and confers tangible and material benefits, like economic access, judicial preference, and exemption from outside [racial] competition. The legal protections that rendered those of African descent property also ensured specific social benefits to those who were visibly and legally white. As chattel slavery ended, these protections from contestation for everything from economic resources and home ownership to public respect were emblazoned into a suite of rulings that merged racial identity and property through various legal mechanisms. Rights and access that were once specifically afforded by formalized racial inequality become inalienable, creating scarcity and deprivation for those already systematically dispossessed. These legal rulings essentially rendered whiteness private, protected property with rights that those of other hues did not have. Additionally, the rights of use and enjoyment, standard for property rights, become grafted onto personal rights, involving exclusionary practices where the presence those of unwanted race would impede enjoyment (public pools, parks, unions, public transportation, etc.). These rulings continued racial segregation physically, psychologically, and economically.

Following Harris, Lipsitz sees what begins as legal then rendered affective, defensive, and prejudicial. The results are material evidences, experiences, and statistics which sharply contradict widespread feelings and perceptions of equality, equanimity, and meritocracy. For Lipsitz, imagined racial communities are transformed into antagonistic groups onto which are projected negative stereotypes and erroneous assumptions, often labeled as differences in culture rather than outright discrimination and exploitation.

Politics works via strikingly similar mechanisms, where imagined and often contradictory communities are formed and mobilized, each believing in the verity of their opinions and ideologies. Politics often finds its engine in an us-versus-them mentality similar to that which lurks behind the pernicious examples in Harriss’s legal history and Lipsitz’s data-driven sociology. These groups have various ideological and identity criteria for inclusion and clear terms of exclusion. As Lipsitz pointed out, these boundaries are often bolstered by some "objective" measure: think tanks, statistics, carefully chosen anecdotes, and ideological causal scenarios (as well as earlier "sciences" like eugenics, phrenology, and Social Darwinism) (Lipsitz 370-380). While these political ideas and proposed legislation are forwarded in campaigns, it is often cultural practices that compose the stakes to which these political polemics are tethered (think of how often the phrase "our way of life" is utilized by both power and opposition). These campaign signifiers are the face of data, policy, and polemics that construct formal rhetoric. Politically utilized cultural practices are semantically dense, tend to gather steam during the intense periods of campaigns, and provide narratives which are uneven or not completely accurate. Musical taste, religion, and gustatory preferences become far more meaningful and telling during campaigns than in every day community, when they are simply part of daily activities.   

It is not a far step from this point to conceive of even the most public or common culture as a property – not in the sense of legal statutes, but in the affective sense. We have deep emotional investment in particular cultural forms and are defensive about who claims ownership and usage rights. As Harris points out, we are invested in exactly who has the rights of use and enjoyment to that which we hold emotionally close, as shared affective space is highly contested (282-283). We are undoubtedly invested in the popular culture that we participate in – from financial and temporal outlays to the communal ties, identity positions, and singular, inclusive, and oppositional feelings it generates. We frequently have informal tests, standards, or expectations of what a fellow partaker will know, feel, express, or embody (like participatory idiosyncrasies). Barriers are collectively composed around the cultural practices that we hold dear, to the embracement of some and exclusion of others. We assume that our comrades in shared culture are somehow similar to us and embody the soul of the culture that we hold dear. We then graft other positive traits on to approved fellow participants that bring us affectively closer to them, even if we are otherwise separated by wide gulfs. When practices in which we are invested are presented in a believable way, we are compelled to take stock in the candidate, and we imagine that they are in possession of the ideological, metaphysical traits that we associate with both ourselves and the larger generative culture.

The lens that we use to determine the verity of this shared possession, or to mete out scathing rebukes and claims of inauthenticity, politically motivated dilettantism and slimy mimesis, is that of participatory discrepancies. We, as practitioners, possessors, and critics, actively hold the microscope to candidates as they present their cultural politics. For those who are "in the know," we attribute the ethical, personal, and cultural resonances that we ourselves gain when we hang our coats of identity on the same hook.   


The (Future) President Dancing

To revisit Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail and through administration, he consistently emphasized and utilized popular culture: square and circle dancing, Southern Baptism, country and African-American music – specifically gospel and jazz. Popular, vernacular, and Southern culture were showcased throughout his tenure. In the case of square dancing, those who took the time to write to the Carters were invested in the importance of their culture in a way that motivated them to volunteer space in their organization, sacrifice time and money, and, most importantly, to affiliate with the Carter presidency. Their investment in square dancing also imbued them with certain traits they associated with the art form: being All-American and rooted in folk traditions with all of the sincerity, purity, and wholesomeness that this connotes, as well as being national, communal, and local without contradiction. They envisioned themselves as being champions and repositories of a practice that rooted them in important and timeless aspects of an American ideology, an unblemished microcosm of everything that the country should and could be.

More importantly for the Carter campaign, they projected these values on and affectively connected themselves to the Carters. They addressed Jimmy Carter in particular, as it was he they might vote for, as being folksy, honest, sincere and down to earth, like the dancing that he and Rosalyn practiced. In the three particular instances that I mentioned earlier – Honorary Membership in the Rantoul Running Bears, formal citation from the International Square Dance Callers Association, and proposed participation in the People’s Inaugural by the St. Cloud Square Eagles – the organizations and individuals were keen to affix themselves to the Carters and make financial sacrifices on their behalf, presumably with some implied social or cultural capital, or simply self satisfaction. In this case, the use of popular culture on the campaign trail did spark a feeling of resonance and verity which motivated people to invest in the Carter campaign and to imbue Jimmy Carter with the favorable characteristics of square dancing discourse.

As an art form, square dancing was a most remarkable and effective choice for the campaign. It embodies a series of public feelings and sentiments that mesh and fold seamlessly into the policies and politics that Carter promoted. To begin with, square dancing in the US is deeply connected to folk revivalism, which holds in it both dogged, exclusionary conservatism and nostalgic, pluralized, deeply democratic reinvention. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, American artists of all stripes, most notably the New England Transcendentalists, enlarged and prolonged the polemic against European-derivative aesthetics and emphasized a search for a uniquely American expression. Ironically, in the case of Walt Whitman, one of its most vociferous voices, the ideas of eighteenth century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder loomed large. For Herder, trying to unify a diverse German nation entranced by French culture, there could be no public concept of a nation or a people (democratic or otherwise) without a national culture. He went about this by training young students to collect and disseminate folk tales and songs. Whitman looked upon this Herder-influenced task as unique in the Americas, as US national culture would be built out of a plurality of vernacular traditions drawn from across Europe, without the impediment of existing high culture (see Bluestein).

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, attempts were made to locate, promote and (re)create folk culture. One of the most common sites for explorations into rooted traditions has been the rural South and in particular, Appalachia. Hillbilly and country music, quilting and weaving, and even language and linguistic patterns from the Appalachians are often framed as being national culture, heritage, and roots (and in contradiction, as pure Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, or Scottish). In true Herder fashion, they are seen as being pre-modern, pure, pastoral, simple, and without the confusion that arises from the market system and slippery class, race, and gender hierarchies (see Satterwhite). In 1951, historian Robert Seager II wrote, “At any given stage in the historical development of a people, the folklore and legend of that people will serve as a sentimental and nostalgic link with the past. At the same time it will provide a cultural and emotional basis for contemporary group action and aspirations” (213). These words were prescient for a nation in the nascent throes of the postwar era, where northern and western migration, industrialization, and the GI Bill served as profound equalizers (for some) and gave the disenfranchised invigorated motivation to fight for a seat at the table. The folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, built on the foundations of nineteenth century Americanism, included a renewed interest and valorization of the blues, old-time, and country music, gospel, and folk dancing (square, circle, and line among them). In these revivals, we find both troubling and heartwarming conservatism (see Bluestein, Satterwhite, Anderson) as well as liberal populism. It is in the terms of revival that we simultaneously find specific resonances with Carter’s persona and policies. Remarkably, he was able to channel both the nostalgic conservatism and populism inherent in a revivalist practice and seamlessly connect it to his political platform.

Burt Feintuch notes that more is known about square dancing through its revival than through any variety of preservation, save for scattered oral histories (49). Likewise, Emily Satterwhite points out that some Appalachian dances can be traced back to urban folklorists like Cecil Sharp teaching Anglo-Saxon folk dancing to Kentucky school children and establishing a "folk" tradition that had been superseded or had never been practiced (Satterwhite 308). In this light, square dancing appears to be established, proliferated, nationalized, and solidified for both communal and national purposes. In her summary of folk revival dancing, Virginia C. Anderson states, “The greatest asset of folk dancing is the wonderful spirit of cooperation into being, the chance to be neighborly, the opportunity to be helpful” (164). At the same time, Gail Matthews theorizes that dancers (in this case not specifically square dancers)  achieve a collectively desired goal while retaining their individuality and unique identity. It is in these two complimentary social aesthetics, revivalism and community maintenance, that we see the essences of Carter’s populism.

On the one hand is revivalism, which is inevitably tethered to nostalgia and the idea of re-creating a better present and future through selectively reproducing (and selectively altering) the past, a familiar staple of any political campaign. According to one of Susan Spalding’s informants in rural Virginia, square dancing was about taking pride in something that they had once been embarrassed about and seeking a metaphorical return to a simpler and presumed better time (as well as being a novel form of recreation that was not mass market) (4). In the face of post-industrial realizations that modernity is an uneven quixotic utopia, square dancing served as a reminder of rose-colored days gone by. It resituated rural life as its own independent and proud entity, rather than the pre-development country cousin of the urbane, sophisticated city. Revivalism allowed for a selective re-composition of the past and the maintenance of social practices (discursively) untainted by modernity. Square dance (and other "country" art forms) became a metaphor for undoing the whitewashing and flattening that the US had undergone with suburbanization and post-war development (see Smith), restoring respectability after Vietnam, and reinstating national trust after Watergate. In light of this, the plainspoken, humble, pious peanut farmer from the New South represented a return to a dignified, grounded past in a way that erased the atrocities and imbalances of the antebellum era. He also represented a redemption that many in the South were searching for, a return to importance and an unapologetic seat at the national table after being overshadowed by the rapidly expanding and influential West and the Southwest. In square dance revivalism, the Carter campaign grasped a widespread national sentiment of return, respect, and humble dignity that fit the mood of the times.

On the other hand is preservation and community maintenance. As Spalding points out, dancers embody existing social aesthetics, but dance was also necessary for creating social cohesion in places where immigration brought together heterogeneous peoples (see Skiba; see also Jensen), and reinforcing it in locales where this is a long-established form of sociability. Early square dances were not only held for enjoyment, but also for the purposes of courting and gathering in places where every day contact was limited, introducing and socializing new members and emotional networking within communities that depended on informal ties of mutual aid in hard times. Both communal conservatism and melting-pot pluralism were experienced as the nation swelled with immigration as migration and development away from northern industrialized centers picked up steam. The highway system and increased communication put unlikely communities into contact, necessitating both renewal and reinforcement of identity and inclusion of others in common cultural practices. These competing ideologies are part of the social aesthetic captured in the space of square dancing. In the letters sent to Carter, marks of both conservatism and melting-pot nationalism are unapologetically placed together.

Finally, Carter’s use of square dance harmonized with and enhanced his and Rosalyn’s overall aesthetic of being communally situated. They were dancers, not experts or callers, but active participants along with other couples who, even if just for the night, were equals. Much like Carter teaching Sunday school and serving in the Navy, in this particular pursuit he acknowledged others’ expertise and his position within the community was one of a role player and not a star. Feintauch points out that square dance in Kentucky demonstrates the place of the couple within the community, the dyad being the operating unit for possession of a communal voice. For many years in politics, this was the case, where single men and women were unelectable. Although Carter was governor and was campaigning for the presidency, he projected the image of being an active member, along with Rosalyn, in a specific, dancing, New South community. In square dance, Carter’s campaign located an activity that showcased him as part of a couple, the essential unit of traditional communal participation. That image, enhanced by its perceived verisimilitude and resonance with his platform, was appealing to a diverse populace and a demonstration of the campaigning power of artfully-placed popular culture.

While there are untold failures in the use of popular culture in campaigns – witnessed almost nightly on sketch comedies and late night shows during election season – this particular deployment was successful. It positively resonated with a segment of the electorate, played into an existing persona and political platform, and, most importantly, was believable. Practitioners invested in square dance as an embodied activity also harbored associations that meshed with Carter’s populism. It effectively flattened contradictions between the national and the local, allowing those who believed in either side – the New South and rural America with its pure, traditional communal values, or the urban and suburban melting-pot inclusiveness of a booming post-war society – to associate dance, campaign, and candidate. It allowed for the sort of competing ideologies commonly found in American politics to be momentarily smoothed over and for deep cultural associations to be organically created by actors outside of the campaign. The possibility for affective possessive investment was available to a surprising number of citizens with different ideals. This is perhaps the very definition of an effective use of popular culture in a campaign.



While this is one small example among many, and one that pre-dates the explosion of new media, the twenty-four hour news cycle, the blogosphere, YouTube, and other technological innovations that are now part and parcel of the campaign, it is an excellent exemplar of the importance of artfully deployed cultural politics and the impact that cultural resonance has on potential voters. Had the Carter campaign failed to convince the electorate that Jimmy and Rosalyn were avid square dancers, or chosen a cultural form that did not carry with it assumptions that coupled so neatly with their policy platform and public persona, the outcome might have been distinctly different (although perhaps not in the electoral sense). We have more recently seen the substantial impact of Bill Clinton’s hipness – most memorably demonstrated by his legendary saxophone performance on the Arsenio Hall Show – and the flat response to John Kerry’s notable military service, both of which are relevant to their projected personas and objectively verifiable. However, their articulations resonated in completely different ways, one proving to be masterful campaigning and one a tremendous liability. The exact formula for perceived verity and possessive investment in the general populace and specific demographics is ultimately flexible and unpredictable, but taking time to examine specific successes and failures furthers our understanding of the role that culture occupies in political campaigning. In addition, it tells us about the nature of emotional perception and how embodied populism and popular culture references are received by the public.    


Works Cited

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Skiba, Bob. "Here, Everybody Dances: Social Dancing in Early Minnesota." Minnesota History 55.5 (1997): 217-227.

Smith, Jon. "Growing Up and Out of Alt. Country: On Gen X, Wearing Vintage and Neko Case." Old Roots and New Routes: The Cultural Politics of Alt. Country Music. Eds. Pamela Fox and Barbara Ching. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008. 51-82.

Spalding, Susan. "Definition of Community in Old Time Dancing in Rural Southwest Virginia." Dance Research Journal 26.1 (1994): 1-7.

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