Senate Democrats have spent this week scrambling to fight the ultimately successful nomination of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and coming up with a strategy for vetting Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
But this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) invited this Vox reporter to his office on Capitol Hill to talk about something else entirely — the Super Bowl.
No, not the game. Schumer wanted to talk about the Super Bowl ads.
"After watching three or four of them, it hit me like a thunderbolt that they were celebrating diversity," Schumer said of the ads, which he watched over lamb chops and corn chips at his brother’s home. He added, “And this is corporate America doing this, which tends to be more conservative and cautious.”
Skeptics may point out that the corporate sloganeering on television does not necessarily predict long-term political trends. “More than anything, the Super Bowl ads reflect the diversity of the American consumer culture. It’s hard to know what they say about our politics,” says Timothy Havens, a communications professor at the University of Iowa.
But Schumer argued that the Super Bowl ads should be seen as a “thermometer” of what's to come. “I'm looking at this as a phenomenon to show where America is,” he said. “And it's heartening to me.”
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. We spoke in the Senate minority leader's office in the US Capitol on Tuesday afternoon.
Schumer on the Super Bowl
I normally root for blue states over red states, but the Patriots are so pro-Trump I was rooting for the Falcons.
But the most heartening thing in the Super Bowl were the ads. After watching three or four of them, it hit me like a thunderbolt that they were celebrating diversity. This is not some traditional liberal group celebrating diversity; this is corporate America. And they spend not only millions of dollars to put on the ads, but millions of dollars to test the ads.
It seemed that company after company believed diversity and equality and immigration were where America was at. Even Budweiser — they made the ad in May. If they had thought the ads wouldn't work after Donald Trump was elected, they could have pulled them.
I regarded the ads as a subtle but direct slap at Donald Trump and hard-right Republicans who campaigned against diversity and campaigned on "America First."
Was there an ad that stuck out to you in particular, and why?
The Lumber 84 ad was amazing — I thought the Budweiser ad was amazing. The one about the girl in the Audi who was in the race car.
They were direct — these were not subtle ads. They were saying: "We love America because we're diverse." They were icons — Coca-Cola, Budweiser — devoting their ads to showing people that we're all Americans, and showing so many people of different background and colors and races. It was amazing. I think if you just watch the Super Bowl ads, it says the Republican Party's days are not where America is going.
And this is corporate America doing this, which tends to be more conservative and cautious. The fact that they're taking this leap — I've seen the ads before, and it was a dramatic change from last year in terms of the number. And that was right at you.
I think that's an optimism some people might share. But if you look at the ads going back to the 1970s, a lot of them do use images of black families, of black integration, and I think some people on the left would argue that this superficial diversity at the highest levels of American society does little for the rest of Americans.
And that in turn I thinks speak to the bigger question of whether the Democratic Party wants to ally itself with a representational diversity that—
We always have and always will. We're on the floor of the Senate tonight for 30 hours opposing a colleague, Jeff Sessions, because he's anti-civil rights and anti-immigration.
What struck me here is that it was corporate America doing this.
I guess my question is if that's who Democrats want to ally themselves with.
No. It's just a thermometer for where the country is headed. And it gave me a lot of optimism. I think some of these ads were indirect but real slaps at the Republican campaign of Donald Trump.
So, look, diversity has to be at all levels. But the last place you expect it is from corporate leaders. They like to skirt controversy. In the past, showing black people in the ads is a lot different than saying, "No matter who you are or where you come from we accept you." Showing women in the ads is different than saying, "Women should finally get an equal chance."
Showing immigrants in the ads — I've never seen that before. You had two ads on immigration.
I'm looking at this as a phenomenon to show where America is, and it's heartening to me. That doesn't mean these companies will get our support when they do bad things — our agenda, our Democratic agenda, will be sharp-edged and a populist economic message that a lot of people who pay for these ads won't like.
A skeptical reaction could be that these corporations are trying to make money from young people, and we already know that young people don't like Donald Trump.
The people who made these ads are risk-averse. They really believe that America feels this strongly — not 55-45.
The quote that struck me in this article [from the Atlantic] said that "stereotypes of blacks and ethnic minorities have not been eliminated but have changed in character" in American advertising.
I don't know if the percentage of African Americans in these ads is different than it was 10 years ago. But the message of the ads was different.
They showed a nice middle-class [black] family in their background 10 years ago drinking Coca-Cola. That's very different than an ad that says, "We are a united people,” and shows many different kinds of people.