September 15, 2008

Not to be insulting, but people who write about politics are all suckers. Suppose for years you’ve been drinking a certain whiskey. Its producers then launch an ad campaign that “brands” the whiskey in a way that you don’t like”€”that associates it, say, with youth and libido rather than maturity and discernment. Does the ad campaign make you change your view of the underlying whiskey? Of course not. You like the whiskey because of how it tastes. It is irrational”€”with one qualification to be discussed presently”€”to alter your opinion of a product based on how its producers choose to sell it.

So it is with candidates and political parties. If a politician changes his marketing strategy, you don’t change your view of his underlying policies. How he goes about selling his policies to the public is a matter of indifference. Of course, you might have opinions as to what marketing strategies would be most effective.  You might even have a worldly contempt for certain if not all political brands. But in no case do you do let mere advertising cloud your judgment. 

Now, do opinion-mongers actually follow this rule? Not at all, as the Sarah Palin phenomenon proves. By unexpectedly selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain instantly overhauled Republicans’ marketing strategy. Suddenly, the Republicans became the party of youth, reform and working class patriotism, and resourcefulness. Their underlying policies, however, remained unchanged. 

Now, it is perfectly rational to judge Republicans’ new marketing efforts qua marketing efforts.  And, of course, it is perfectly rational to assess whether Palin would actually do a good job as President. Yet many commentators offered new opinions not just of how the Palin pick affects Republican prospects, or how the nation will fare if McCain failed to finish his term as President, but also new opinions of Republicans’ policies:

“€¢ Andrew Sullivan: Republicans have embraced theonomy once and for all.

“€¢ Allan Wolfe: Republicans have subordinated their social conservatism to their libertarianism.

“€¢ Our own Helen Rittelmeyer: Republicans are favoring rural conservatism over cosmopolitan conservatism.

“€¢ For hilarity’s sake, self-help guru Deepak Chopra: Republicans have allied with the forces of evil (or what is technically known to psychologists like Deepak Chopra, M.D., as “the Shadow”).

“€¢ A perhaps too-obvious target named Cintra Wilson: Republicans plan to enslave the female sex.

Meanwhile, other commentators took umbrage at Republicans’ new marketing or positively identified with it. That is, they told us not just whether the marketing would be effective but also whether it conforms to their personal tastes:

“€¢ Pat Buchanan loves her for being “one of us.”

“€¢ Camille Paglia lauds her for “redefining the persona for female authority and leadership.” (To be sure, fitting celebrities into sexual archetypes is what Paglia actually does for a living.)

“€¢ Rush Limbaugh exclaims: “Babies, Guns, Jesus: Hot Damn!”

“€¢ But Clark Stooksbury makes no secret of his loathing for populist appeals..

One could go on. Even if they don’t express it, you can almost always tell how pundits feel about Palin”€”and they almost always feel quite strongly. (Should I confess that Sarah Palin thrilled me too”€”and still does, even after her disappointing Gibson interview“€”for she seemed to personally embody everything that is still right about this country?  Yes, for I am a sucker too.) Even the most sophisticated pundits take the parties’ marketing campaigns very personally. How they choose to sell their policies to the public goes to the heart of how political observers understand themselves and their loyalties.

Which brings me to my final point: Contrary to what I argued earlier, rational consumers do care about marketing campaigns. When we buy a product, we buy not just a thing but a statement about who we are. One man drinks scotch, another drinks bourbon. Each choice has something to do with the liquor but more to do with what the liquor says about the drinker. The scotch drinker may have aristocratic pretensions; the bourbon drinker may wish to establish his American toughness. Brands make it possible to express our personalities. 

So it is, once again, with candidates and political parties. Very few people”€”pundits included”€”follow politics because they actually care about the good of the country or the world. Rather,  they consume their political views like they do consumer products”€”that is to say, as expressions of who they are and the people with whom they identify. 

In a multicultural America, the two parties have only two possible marketing strategies. One is an appeal to the white majority, which the Republicans have perfected, and the other is an appeal to all those who feels alienated from the white majority, which the Democrats have adopted more or less by accident. Republican policies no more advance the interests of the white working class than Democratic policies actually help poor minorities or rich cosmopolitan whites. Everyone who hates these marketing strategies should relax. For better or worse, pending further demographic shifts, “€œregular Americans vs. effete elites”€ is the way every election will continue to be framed. 


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