Under the Cover: July/August 2016

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We’re back. Welcome to the latest installment of Under the Cover.

Since last time, there are winners in the Republican and Democratic primaries for President, Senate Democrats wrapped up a 15-hour long filibuster on gun control, and the election is somehow crazier. For our new July/August cover story, Jonathan Rauch examines how American politics got to this point in the first place and how/if we can fix it.

Politics are inherently complicated and it’s tough to visualize the political system without resorting to symbols. Unfortunately for me, this is our second politics cover in less than a year, so I couldn’t use the trusty Elephant and Donkey symbols again.

I decided this time to use another symbol of America and democracy: Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam has shown up several times in The Atlantic’s cover history. The cover below on the left, illustrated by the legend Seymour Chwast, is for a 1995 piece about economic barometers. And in the 1997 cover on the right, also by Chwast, we see Uncle Sam in some sort of historical Conga line:

This next cover is from 2001. Uncle Sam is pulling double duty as a symbol of the might of “The Greatest Generation” as well as commemorating the Doonesbury comic strip at 40:

Artwork by Garry Trudeau

For our new July/August cover, the idea for the image started with the cover-line: “How American Politics Went Insane.” Then I started thinking about Jodeci … that’s right, Jodeci. They had a song called “Feenin’” in 1993, and the images of the band members in a padded cell are seared into my memory:

I watched a lot of MTV Jams. I loved this video for “Feenin.” Hype Williams is a genius.

So, how about Uncle Sam in a padded room wearing a straight-jacket?!

Idea approved, I reached out to the brilliant photographer Phil Toledano to do the shoot. We did a quick casting for our Uncle Sam and the prop stylists went to work on building a partial padded cell, which would be expanded later in post-production. The make-up artist gave our model James Stephens (who is British) a goatee and bushy eyebrows. Once the outfit was on, he was transformed into Uncle Sam:

From there it was simply a matter of getting the right position (fetal) and expression (defeated and angry):

The “padded room” was actually just a corner

Once we finished the cover, we worked on the interior photo, which was inspired by the crying Native American from the famous “Keep America Beautiful” ad from the 1970s:

I came up with this idea on the spot, so we had to improvise. Luckily the make-up artist had some Visine. We filled our model’s eyes up with the wet stuff and got our shot. Now if someone asks you what you think about the 2016 election and the state of politics in general, you can send them this picture:

You’re welcome, America, you’re welcome.

(Under the Cover archive here)