Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Dr. Gavan Duffy
Dr. Danny Hayes
Citizenship and Public Affairs
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
Other Political Science | Political Science | Political Theory
In the weeks preceding the 2008 US Presidential Election, both major party candidates and their running mates made appearances on several late night comedy programs. Candidates told jokes during campaign speeches. Advertisements from both sides featured humor. In examining the campaigns of candidates since the dawn of radio and television, humor is clearly a weapon politicians believe to be important when running for office. In my Capstone Project, I hoped to answer a very basic question: Why? Psychologically, what factors allow humor to be a valuable tool for politicians in appealing to voters?
For the following thesis, I examined research on the theory of humor from persons such as Sigmund Freud and Marvin Minsky. After establishing a basic framework for the theory of humor, I began dissecting specific examples of the use of humor by politicians to see how these examples fit into humor theory.
Essentially, there are three ways in which politicians use humor to win votes. Candidates use humor to disguise attacks on their opponents. Freud and Minsky, among others, believe humor can be used to make statements which could not be made without the benefit of a joke. Secondly, humor can be used to address concerns about oneself. Freud’s research shows that self-deprecation can be used to address weaknesses while at the same time linking these weaknesses to strengths. Thirdly, humor can be used to make a candidate appear more presidential and generally more appealing to the electorate. Research shows that persons who use humor are seen as more dynamic, trustworthy, and ready to lead than those who do not use humor.
The political landscape is rife with examples of politicians using humor in a manner consistent with the theoretical uses set forth in scholarly research. In the 2008 election season alone, Barack Obama used humor to disguise attacks on John McCain’s age. John McCain used self-effacing humor to make his age less of an issue. Both candidates used humor in various forms throughout the campaign to appeal to the electorate, culminating with their joint appearance at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner.
In the aggregate, humor can be an effective tool in politics. However, politicians must know their audience, prepare their jokes, and try not to provide any controversial material for their opponents to use to swing independent voters against them. If these rules are followed, it is possible for politicians to use jokes in an effective manner.
Harris, Matthew K., "The Political Application of Humor" (2009). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 497.
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