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Issue Drift

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The process or phenomenon of an apolitical show, comic, acting career, blog, etc. being slowly derailed by a controversial politician or political issue.

Existing characters are shoe-horned into taking weird, vaguely or not-so-vaguely political stances; fantasy plotlines slowly or not-so-slowly mutate into analogues to or outright allegories about contemporary events. Since when was this about Vietnam or Iraq? you ask yourself. Since the pivotal first concession to Issue Drift, that's when.

The trope name is designed for versatility. Drift can be used for just about anything that's magnetically pulling pop culture off-topic. Key streams of Issue Drift in the recent past include but are not limited to: Commie Drift in the 1950s, Dick Drift in the Nixon/Watergate era, up to the Bush Drift of the early 2000s and Trump Drift of the late 2010's. Think of it as a political Flanderization. See also Cerebus Syndrome and What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic? See Filibuster Freefall for when it happens to a writer's overall body of work instead of just a single series. See Network Decay and Magazine Decay, for when this happens to TV channels, radio stations, and print media.

If we're lucky, the distraction is brief, or even refreshes the work if the topic resonates with the audience. In a worst-case scenario, our beloved entertainment has been sent spinning off into the dark recesses of punditry towards an Audience-Alienating Era, never to return.

The inverted version of this trope (an explicitly political work becoming less so) is much rarer in comparison, but does happen from time to time.


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  • Civil War (2006) was centered on government invasions of privacy and extreme rendition policies, had Mr. Fantastic construct Super Gitmo, and turned Iron Man into a Strawman Political (one who hired Nazi scientists to assassinate and clone his former teammates). This culminated with an Anvilicious bullet through Captain America's skull. However, this is a special case of almost issue tug-of-war as it had about a dozen writers on board who were all trying to express different, conflicting views and making different characters evil/incompetent accordingly.
  • The Boondocks went from focusing on character and situational humor between its broad cast of supporting or recurring characters, being only partly political, to more politically centered commentary with much more focus on Huey's conversations with his friend Caesar, as well as reactions to recent news. McGruder freely admits that his raging anger against the Bush Administration hijacked the comic, though it ultimately ended because of the TV series, where most of the character and plot-driven humor that was supposed to be on the comic ended up, with most of McGruder's attention in general.
  • Infamously, Li'l Abner in the late 1960s stooped to Take Thats against student protesters, with the introduction of the SDS-like organization SWINE (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything) and "Joanie Phoanie" (who was like Joan Baez, only ugly-looking).
  • Inverted by Superman. Seigel and Shuster's original character fought everything two poor Jewish guys considered "injustice", which in his first story included a government lobbyist for a munitions company. Somewhere around World War II he became an All-American hero who felt it would be inappropriate to have any strong political views beyond Nazism = Bad, and by the Silver Age any relationship between his world and reality had disappeared.
  • Pogo went from being purely character-based stories, to general social satire, to outright incorporating caricatures of political figures on the regular and getting bumped to the editorial pages in some papers. The shift happened early enough in its run that the later version is the main thing people remember about it, and what the brief 1980s revival fixated on recreating. Funnily enough, comments from the creator in early book collections suggest that this wasn't so much motivated by a desire to soapbox (outside of really nasty targets like Senator McCarthy and the John Birch Society) as a realization that politicians do a lot of dumb stuff that's easy fodder for comedy.

  • The Sword of Truth starts off as a fairly typical epic fantasy series with a plot mainly concerning the Magic Knight Richard defeating various standard fantasy villains. Around book five, however, the author Terry Goodkind apparently embraced Objectivism in a big way, so the conflict suddenly shifts into an epic struggle between libertarian principles and the evils of collectivism. Richard changes positions he'd held in previous books so that they fall closer in line with Objectivist ideals and becomes prone to John Galt-style Author Filibusters espousing Objectivist ideology.

    Live-Action TV 
  • When it began, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! was a show devoted to debunking supernatural claims with a few libertarian messages thrown in. In later seasons the libertarian aspect has become the main focus of the show with the paranormal only coming up every few episodes.
  • M*A*S*H became increasingly openly political as Alan Alda became more and more directly involved in writing and producing. By the end of it the show was hailed as an "anti-war drama", which greatly irked fans of the original novel and film, which the earlier seasons hewed more closely to. The original was written by Richard Hooker, a real Army doctor who based the story on his own experiences in Korea, and who leaned politically right and overall was positive about American foreign intervention. His original concept was simply one of people in hellish circumstances making the best of things, whereas the later seasons of M*A*S*H focused less and less on the "making the best of things" and more and more on the "hellish circumstances", with increasingly pointed barbs directed at the politicians the show blamed for creating those circumstances. It really didn't help matters any, when it came to Hooker's opinion of the show, that Hooker had originally based Hawkeye on himself, and Hawkeye was originally a very masculine, athletic football player type. Alan Alda was very much not this type, and over time Hawkeye's character came to resemble Alda in Real Life more and more, especially as Alda — and, by extension, Hawkeye — became the iconic '70s Sensitive New Man. Hawkeye's deep, visceral anger at the idea of being ordered to carry a weapon or directly involve himself in combat in a later M*A*S*H episode, for instance — the implication, in fact, being that Hawkeye was assigned to the M*A*S*H unit because he was a conscientious objector — runs 100% counter to the original portrayal of Hawkeye and his opinions (such as they were) in the original M*A*S*H.
  • Played with in an episode of Scrubs where a wounded soldier serving in Iraq is brought into the hospital. Almost everybody gets involved in the political debate about the War on Terror (except for JD, who spends the entire episode reading "The Iraq War for Dummies", and Ted, who was already established as spineless, who takes a neutral stance). It ends with Dr. Kelso cutting off the employee discount at the hospital coffee shop to stop everybody's constant arguing about politics and get angry at him instead, mainly because they're getting so distracted by their debate and the tensions it's creating between people on different sides that they're beginning to let it affect their work. The episode is very deliberate to not take any side and to treat the subject with some humour.
  • The 1970s TV show Quincy, M.E. started off as a straightforward forensic-pathology whodunit. By the end of its run, every single episode was a left-wing soapbox rant about some political or social issue.
  • One show which was helped by this trope was The Daily Show. Under Craig Kilborn, the show mostly made fun of apolitical topics like celebrities and small-town weirdos, but under Jon Stewart, the show became more about serious news satire while also taking a more overtly liberal point of view. As a result, it became a seriously respected talk show that real politicians, pundits, and newsmakers would show up on, with Stewart viewed as the 'voice of a generation' (much to his chagrin, as he always felt that people shouldn't take a comedy show seriously as a news outlet).
  • Before Prime Minister Yitskhak Rabin was assassinated, avoiding political issues was a common stand people in Israel took. After the murder, politics became an issue once again; this was very, very apparent in The Chamber Quintet, one of Israel's best and most popular skit shows ever, which avoided politics explicitly before the murder (criticising Israel's militarist attitude at most) and started very openly criticising contemporary politics afterwards.
  • The German series Tatort used to be a pretty straightforward crime drama / police procedural / whodunnit, but some teams seem to get involved in an "issue of the week" case more often than not, where the victim (or the prime suspect) "just so happens" to give reason to debate a certain — often controversial — topic. As it leads into the Sunday evening talk show, this is often taken as a hook for the debate afterwards.

  • Martina McBride had a big hit in 1994 with "Independence Day" (a song about domestic abuse), then scored a big hit three years later with "A Broken Wing", another song about domestic abuse. After that, she changed her style to the point that nearly half of her songs were anthemic "issue songs" like "Love's the Only House" (a catchall for various domestic troubles), "It's My Time", "Concrete Angel" (yet another song about abuse!), "God's Will", and so forth, while the other half was idealistic songs about love and/or family.
  • Collin Raye had a similar drift starting with his 1994 album Extremes, most notably in the song "Little Rock" (about a brokenhearted recovering alcoholic). Later songs had him tackling the "Not So Different" Remark trope ("Not That Different"), general societal wrongs ("I Think About You", "What If Jesus Comes Back Like That"), etc. He kinda moved away from it after his 1997 Greatest Hits Album (except for the anti-child abuse anthem "The Eleventh Commandment", although unlike the other songs, it was never a single), but swung back toward it in the mid-2000s after he converted to Roman Catholicism, with songs such as the politically-charged "Never Gonna Stand for This".
  • Darryl Worley's first album was dominated by polished ballads. But after having a monster hit in 2003 with the post-9/11 anthem "Have You Forgotten?", he began inserting patriotic and/or military themes into songs on his next albums. This includes "Awful, Beautiful Life", which despite being an otherwise Slice of Life song, shoehorns in a reference to "Cousin Michael in Iraq", and the self-explanatory "I Just Came Back from a War" in late 2006-early 2007.
  • More emphatically than that is Toby Keith, who, after the aggressively jingoistic "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" in 2002, began inserting political themes into his later material. His next album was even unsubtly titled Shock'n Y'all as a pun on the term "shock and awe"; it contained the hit single "American Soldier" (markedly Lighter and Softer than his other patriotic songs) and the self-explanatory "Taliban Song". And while he backed off for a while, he returned to the patriotism well in 2009 with "American Ride", and again in 2011 with "Made in America".
  • Not counting Old Shame album With Sympathy, Ministry usually had a song or two with general political themes on each album - other frequent song topics would include drugs, organized religion, and pure word salad. 1992 single "N.W.O" was sort of their first Protest Song about specific current events, criticizing (and sampling) President George H.W. Bush's rhetoric about the Gulf War. After the election of George W. Bush, they released three albums in four years (Houses Of The Mole', Rio Grande Blood, and The Last Sucker) that were almost entirely Protest Songs about Bush, 9/11, and the war on terror. Even after Bush left the White House, most of their songs continued to center around Al Jourgensen's political beliefs.
  • The band Skrewdriver started out as a punk band with no identifiable political ideology, but after Ian Stuart reformed the band with a different lineup, he turned it into a white supremacist band.
  • While Eminem was always satirical and rapped about his social position in ways that intersected with politics, he shied away from wanting to be seen as 'a political rapper' and claimed he didn't have a political affiliation. However, 9/11 freaked him out enough that The Eminem Show contains numerous political songs urging his fans not to support the War on Terror, and a single for Encore was a Diss Track to George W. Bush urging his fans to vote him out of office. Eminem shrunk back from politics following his Creator Breakdown, only returning to them starting from 2016 due to his disgust with Donald Trump, although the music and commentary was not as insightful as his older songs had been and resulted in much mockery. He's stayed political since, though relaxed on the overt lectures.
  • During their time together in The Beatles, Paul McCartney was viewed as largely apolitical in contrast with John Lennon, who was much more outspoken about political and social issues, especially later on. But in 1972, McCartney, now with Wings, wrote the Protest Song "Give Ireland Back To The Irish" in response to the Bloody Sunday massacre, which stirred up scandal, especially in the UK, where it was banned by the BBC. As he would recall years later, McCartney said "I wasn't really into protest songs John had done that but this time I felt that I had to write something, to use my art to protest.". Later in that decade, Paul would adopt vegetarianism and become outspoken about animal rights.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • Comedian and singer Tim Wilson put his right-wing politics in the forefront starting with I Should've Married My Father-in-Law which contains obviously political songs such as "Brady Bill, Gunfighter Without a Gun" and "Hollywood" (which posits that everyone in Hollywood has to be liberal or they won't make it), along with a joke about shooting Rosie O'Donnell because of her views on gun control versus his own.
  • Lenny Bruce's later performances included humorless tirades against fascist cops denying his freedom of speech. He wasn't just paranoid; the police often planted undercover officers in his audience so they could arrest him for obscenity, and eventually most nightclub owners had blacklisted him for fear of being prosecuted themselves.

  • Sinfest went fully political during in the run-up to the 2008 United States presidential election, which a good number of fans saw as being to its detriment. It would then largely return back to its usual gag-a-day Black Comedy operations for the next three years, before making a hard pivot into storylines about gender politics, societal misogyny and radical feminism, with the current comic effectively being a completely different entity (much to the distaste of long-time fans). Then in 2019 it lost another chunk of its fanbase when it depicted overtly transphobic views, and in 2020 shifted even further right with anti-vax and "anti-woke" themes.
  • While Quantum Vibe, a product of a libertarian author, has hints of political satire from the start, the Luna arc in particular is dripping with criticism of Corrupt Cops, Obstructive Bureaucrats, and lots of other forms of corrupt society.
  • Questionable Content has slowly swapped out music references and wacky plotlines for tackling more overtly political topics like the concept of privilege. This is generally connected back to an incident in 2011 where the artist stabbed his hand over internet criticism (and alcohol).
  • Averted in Hetalia: Axis Powers, which portrays politics simply as background to the Nations themselves. Though the closest moments reaching this trope happens to be a strip that laments Japan's loss of his more traditional culture as well as scenes set around the 2008 financial crisis.
  • Shortpacked! got sidetracked by this during the 2008 election, and after that occasionally drifted into an oddly political area.
  • The webcomic Twisted Kaiju Theater started out as a simple, goofy webcomic strip about lots of silly toliet humor. As the series progressed it not only got up a consistent cast and arcing plotlines, it also shifted into having more serious storylines and also providing social and political commentary. The comic began with jokes about poop and developed into a series that deals with mature themes like death, sacrifice, political ethics, family loss, and morality (although it's still pretty comedic).
  • Sometime around when Bruno became king and fully after he was disposed, Bruno the Bandit shifted from being a fantasy parody to being a fantasy counterpart to the modern day to touch on whatever issue was on the author's mind, sometimes dipping into Author Filibuster territory. There was a degree of self-awareness to this, as one storyline ending with Bruno saying they're going to do another Gay Aesop after just covering one as they "never shy away from the most controversial topics" when it was just an excuse for him to watch girls making out.

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad! is an inversion. The show was explicitly designed and pitched as a reaction to post 9/11 America, and at first nearly every episode was some sort of criticism of the George W. Bush administration — particularly its anti-terrorism policies — with Stan serving as a Strawman Political. However, after the first season or so, political episodes have become rarer to the point that they're only a handful of episodes a season. Meanwhile Stan more often was shown in a sympathetic light (achieving, dare we say it, some degree of Character Development), with his faults falling more under general Comedic Sociopathy. All of this is generally considered for the better.
  • The Boondocks: Inverted. While the first season had most of its episodes dedicated to social issues, either implicitly (like the episode where a bank robbery is an allegory for the Iraq War) or overtly (the episode where Martin Luther King Jr. comes out of a coma and gives the African-American population a "The Reason You Suck" Speech), the second season had more general stories, like Riley joining the basketball team or Robert going on a date with a crazy lady he met online. That isn't to say they ceased going after social issues, but they didn't do it as frequently or as overtly. Perhaps, if the Bush Administration can be said to have hijacked the original comic strip, the end of same un-hijacked the animated series.
  • King of the Hill became far less even handed toward the end of its run; what started as a nuanced comedy of manners about an unassuming small Texas town with multiple character arcs slowly wound down into repetitive Author Tracts on household mold problems, shoddy McMansion construction, Frivolous Lawsuits and Trans-Fascism. Flanderization set in, Character Development slowed considerably, and Hank, who had been more of a dogged Honor Before Reason type, gradually turned into the Only Sane Man bordering on a conservative small town version of the Soapbox Sadie.
  • South Park was initially little more than an adult animated sitcom with lots of Vulgar Humor and a dash of Surreal Humor. Nowadays, it is one of the leading voices of political satire. The writers' stance on climate change is a noteworthy example. For the first 10 seasons environmentalism was mocked outright, with some episodes even going as far as calling climate change a hoax that the Democrats use so they can roleplay as the good guysnote . The topic wasn't acknowledged again for the next decade, until season 22 outright admitted that climate change actually is a serious issue and that everyone is partially responsible (though the show still managed to get some biting humour in regardless).