Last Wednesday, a picture of Bernie Sanders sitting at the inauguration went viral. It was a sweet image, an old man in his sensible coat and mittens looking extremely uninterested. Almost immediately, memes of him sitting in various situations flooded everyone's timeline. Not missing a beat, his team quickly turned the picture into merch — a tee and a sweatshirt, which promptly sold out.
Over the last few years, merch has enjoyed an outsized role in popular fashion. Music merch is constantly being released; new drops from artists like Travis Scott or The Weeknd arrive so fast they're hard to keep up with. But recently, political merch is has been taking things up a notch. Joe Biden's team seized on viral moments so quickly that you could buy a “Will You Shut Up Man” T-shirt while the Presidential debate was still happening. Similarly, less than two hours after a fly landed on Mike Pence's head during the Vice Presidential debate, you could buy a "Truth Over Flies" Biden fly swatter.
It's not just official merch either, in the last few months alone both Etsy and Shopify were flooded with merch referencing niche political moments, like Pence and the fly, Trump's Four Seasons Total Landscaping venue, and Kamala Harris saying "I'm Speaking." If something even vaguely funny happens in politics, you can get a T-shirt referencing it.
Political memes are not the problem, if anything they're an extremely welcome relief from doomscrolling. But why do they need to be made into merch?
The fashion industry is finally owning up to the huge amount of waste it causes, and so are consumers. Phrases like "conscious consumerism" have entered our lexicon and people are attempting to step away from fast fashion and "buy less but buy better." Yet somehow that all gets forgotten about if there’s a joke involved.
It's understanding that politicians find it hard to resist releasing these pieces. Candidates need to grasp on to any publicity they can get, they need to look relatable, and they need to constantly raise funds. So why not board the meme merch train, especially if bootleg versions will be circulating anyway?
However, it’s slightly more egregious when the item is coming from a climate-progressive politician. 100 percent of the proceeds of Bernie’s merch went to Vermont Meals on Wheels, a vital organization that’s even more needed now, but just because something is giving to a charity doesn’t cancel out its climate impact.
The real question we should be asking ourselves is: Why are we buying this in the first place? Meme culture is designed to be ephemeral, why are we trying to make memes stick around? Or more to the point, why are we insisting on turning memes into fast fashion?
Back in 2018, Jason Wong, founder of e-commerce site Dank Tank that sold meme merch told The Atlantic that the meme cycle was moving too fast for merch to be profitable. “People today are consuming more memes than ever. The expiration date for them has shortened more since even last year. Memes used to last for two to three weeks, but recently we’ve noticed they die after just a few days.” Now sometimes they last mere hours.
What makes it worse is that most of these products are pre-orders. The “Chairman Sanders” sweatshirt, for instance, won’t arrive for another 4-8 weeks, in which time the joke will already be extremely played out. No one is going to be sharing the Sanders meme in two months, so why do we think we'll want to wear it?
Campaign merch is slightly different. While it is memorializing a certain moment in time, that moment lasted more than a meme cycle so it has more meaning in our collective memory. Those Bernie “Rage Against The Machine” tee or the Joe Biden thirst trap tank not only look better, but they’re something you could wear in a few years as a throwback. Or like a ‘90s band T-shirt, even something you could pass on to your kids (or sell for hundreds of dollars on Etsy) in 20 years. It’s just a hunch but it’s hard to imagine meme merch having the same longevity factor.
Let people enjoy things, you cry. Why are we begrudging people who get a modicum of happiness from a novelty T-shirt? We get it, find joy where you can, but do we really need to buy the T-shirt to be happy? Is the image of Sanders, in his little hand-made mittens not enough? Do we need to make it into a capitalist enterprise? Are memes alone not enough anymore? Come back in 4-8 weeks and let us know.