These election memes want voters to be friends. Good luck!

In the wake of the 2016 election, messages of unity proliferated on the internet. Bountiful social media posts promoted the idea of being stronger together, urging those across the political divide to move past their minor (or major) disagreements.

Particularly memorable was the “Bob and Sally” meme, which originated in January 2017 and swiftly gained popularity alongside Trump’s inauguration the same month. The image, which showed stick figures of a man and a woman holding hands and wearing wide smiles, could be found in abundance on bipartisan Facebook feeds. The meme proclaimed that even though one had voted Democrat (for Hillary Clinton) and one had voted Republican (for Donald Trump, who won), “Bob and Sally are still friends, because Bob and Sally are both adults.”

At the time, this meme received plenty of derision, mainly from leftist voters who believed it trivialized the many issues they had with a Trump presidency. It also spawned lots of mocking spinoffs and long, incensed Facebook and Twitter comment threads. After all, as many were quick to point out then, it’s easy to get along when you’re not directly impacted by the more dangerous aspects of Trump’s presidency — as many white people aren’t:

In 2020, as the meme makes the rounds once again following an even more polarized election season, it’s clear that the last four years have only heightened these ideological tensions — and that there’s no clear consensus from anyone on how to move forward as a united nation, regardless of politics.

The “let’s try to get along” memes have proliferated during election season

There weren’t just two different political platforms at odds in the 2020 election, there were fundamentally different views of America. At the center of those polarized sides — one staunchly in support of the Trump administration, one staunchly opposed — remains the idea that after the election is over, we can all move on and be friends again.

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And what better way to convey this notion in 2020 than flimsy social media posts:

The “we can still get along” mantra has long been a popular way to try to get past a polarizing election, but over the course of this year, the atmosphere felt much different. Calls for compromise poured in before Election Day itself, as did blowback against them. In September, fierce backlash hit CNN’s attempt to joke about the nation’s polarized status. Its “Any room in the middle?” promotion drew scorn from its audience.

A meme mocking the idea of “compromise” posted in response to CNN’s ill-fated tweet gained particular traction. But it was just one of an overwhelming number of replies pointing out that there’s not much middle ground to be found between a fair and just society and an administration fueling white supremacy.

The ridicule the CNN tweet received should have served, perhaps, as a warning to anyone looking to try this sort of argument closer to the election, but it seems many people (and corporations) didn’t get the memo. As election week neared, examples of this type of point-missing were plentiful:

Among the latest, most quickly notorious instances of failed middle-ground-seeking was a now-deleted Gap tweet that stressed, “The one thing we know, is that together, we can move forward.” Attached to the tweet was an image of a (really ugly) varsity-style hoodie, half-red and half-blue, emblazoned with the Gap logo, zipping both sides up together. (The Gap later admitted that the hoodie design was not actually a real Gap product.)

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A Gap hoodie that is half red and half blue.

It’s probably a good thing The Gap never produced this hoodie for sale.
The Gap/Twitter

Criticism came swiftly. Gap’s mistake: using the inanity of a hoodie to express such a complicated and polarizing idea, as well as attempting to commodify and capitalize upon election-related emotions.

One would think that, considering the potential for blowback, people would be discouraged from posting these pleas for compromise. But people with varying degrees of influence and visibility continue to post this type of compromise-peddling meme online, spawning heated reactions in response.

After having lived through a tense and divisive four years, many people no longer see compromise and unity as a desirable outcome. The backlash over social media pleas for agreement reflects as much. And it’s the Bob and Sally meme in particular that seems to have re-emerged as a conduit through which this conflict has played out.

For many on social media, “Bob” and “Sally” have become ironic symbols for denial, indifference, and privilege

The age-old push to find a middle ground has been an ongoing theme throughout the Trump administration. In one such plea, self-declared Bernie Sanders supporter and urban fantasy writer Connie Huth used the Bob and Sally meme as a starting point in a 2017 Medium post. “Crazy thought,” she wrote. “Sally and Bob could both sit down and actually talk about what the election meant to them beyond the superficial level thrown out as truth by the mainstream media and come to the understanding that both sides want the best for our country.”

But the basic belief underpinning Huth’s argument — that “it’s not you vs me, but We the People vs Elected Officials who are taking great advantage of the fear and hate in this country” — seems to be increasingly in question. The extremities of the Trump era affect many people on a personal level, from citizens impacted by escalations in hate crimes and violence under his presidency to LGBTQ minorities threatened by his policies to people battling Covid-19 in red states that have done relatively little to blunt the spread of the virus. Many of the rebuttal variants to the Bob and Sally meme stress this by pointing out that Bob the Republican has implicitly supported some policies most Americans find abominable.

Bob isn’t just supporting a traditional candidate; he voted for one who’s advanced causes that make life difficult for many sectors of society:

Tone-deafness in meme form.
Facebook

Of course, this idea often generated pushback of its own:

As the 2020 election neared, many people continued to greet the resurfacing Bob and Sally meme with overt hostility. The dismissive attitude behind it, critics implied, was part of the reason the era of Trump had been so divisive.

Memes reflect the times that we’re in, so it’s helpful to understand the many memes peddling the idea of “just getting along” as a crucial part of the ongoing gaslighting of American citizens. That might sound to some readers like exactly the type of hyperbolic rhetoric that got us into this mess, but I mean it very literally. Not only does Trump engage in gaslighting techniques, but, more broadly, there’s no longer a clear consensus about what is true, what American values are, or what things we should care about. This is the kind of gaslighting that arguably began with the presidential lie that led to the Iraq War and has continued ever since, as conservatives increasingly seem to embrace fundamentalist and regressive ideas about human rights.

And if there are many of us who can’t forget and forgive, say, when we see Ellen DeGeneres hanging out with George W. Bush, there are even more of us who are simply at a loss when confronted with the blatant racism, science denial, censorship, and authoritarianism of Trump and his administration.

Loren Piretra, whose quote about rejecting attitudes of compromise went viral on Instagram, suggested that much more was at stake in this election than policy. “What this election has exposed is the stark difference in fundamental values between those who supported Trump’s hateful, divisive rhetoric and those of us who voted for the future of society and its civility and betterment,” she told Vox in an email.

“While this administration’s reign will eventually end, it will be a greater challenge to forget those of our friends and relatives, whom we thought we knew and held to a higher moral standard, who ultimately voted against humanity. We always knew Trump lacked scruples; we didn’t expect to personally know people who unabashedly and at times even proudly shared those same ideals.”

The possibility of compromising with people who voted for Trump, especially in 2020, isn’t always feasible. A tweet from Hannah Chase, a 20-year-old college student from Ohio, went viral on Election Day for suggesting as much:

“This election is historically nothing like the last,” Chase told Vox. “Donald Trump has been hateful to every group you could categorize yourself in.”

“He has made derogatory remarks toward the disabled, the late John McCain who was a veteran, the Black, Latino, LGBTQ+, Muslim communities, I could go on forever. People who support this man and think they can be friends with me, the daughter of a Mexican woman who had to teach herself English at 5, are delusional. This election is too personal, and Donald Trump made it personal.”

To Chase, supporting Trump is a deal-breaker. ”I have had to cut people off because of their political views this election and it’s quite sad, honestly,” she told me. “Some of these people I grew up with, some even related. But my sister is African American, my brother is a little brown boy. So I feel when people praise Trump, they are discriminating [against] us all.”

She pointed out that the Bob and Sally meme and its ilk trivialize the high stakes of this election. “It’s hard for people to understand,” she said. “They make memes and make it a joke. Eighty percent of those people have never had to live through oppression. I’m sure they have all had their difficulties, as life is never easy. But a lot of them have never been mistreated for the color of their skin.”

But not everyone takes a scorched-earth approach with Trump supporters. Dylan, a Biden supporter who asked that I not reveal their real name out of privacy concerns, told me that shunning Republican voters won’t make the problems we’re currently facing go away.

“There’s such a balancing act right now,” Dylan said. “Folks in one camp saying, rightly, ‘white people need to address the issue of other white people,’ and folks in the other saying, also with good reason, ‘there is no point in talking to white Trump voters, they won’t change.’ Seems like a disconnect that will come back to bite us if we don’t address it?”

Dylan, who spent years working as a mediator in divorce settlements, described the process of mediating a divorce in a way that sounded awfully similar to the process of trying to talk politics in 2020:

“Everyone often starts out unhappy,” they said. “Everyone thinks they are not only right but right in such a way that if they don’t get what they want, everything will fall apart. Everyone is coming from a place of deeply felt emotion.”

To Dylan, meeting people where they’re at is crucial to changing minds — and changing minds is crucial to the future. “Scorn notwithstanding, if we want to effect change in future elections, we will have to change the minds of some voters.” Dylan especially stressed that the onus is on white voters to speak to white relatives and friends, to do the work on behalf of marginalized people with more at stake in the conversation.

Chase agreed — up to a point. “After this election, a lot of conversation needs to take place,” she said. “If the people we have had to remove from our lives are willing to listen, that changes things.”

Chase told me that there are plenty of things she’s willing to agree to disagree about, like gun control, tax plans, the economy, even social issues like health care, immigration, and police brutality. But the bottom line for her — and for many of us — is human rights:

“When you say a woman does not have a choice in what happens to her body, when you lock children up or kill them based on their skin color, when you discriminate against people based on who they choose to love, it’s a deal-breaker.”

In short, compromising is complicated. And even as the presidential election result reveals that Joe Biden won, the tension over these issues continues to stay high. It looks like Bob and Sally won’t be getting together for a pleasant afternoon of tea and community bonding anytime soon.