January 31, 2005
The Politics of Branding
Tucker Foehl points out this interview with Naomi Klein. Her thoughts on the anti-war movement, the state of Iraq, the failure of the left, and basically everything else are worth reading in full, but this caught my eye:
So what the Republican Party has done is that it has co-branded with other powerful brands — like country music, and NASCAR, and church going, and this larger proud-to-be-a-redneck identity. Policy is pretty low on the agenda, in terms of why people identify as Republicans. They identify with these packets of attributes.
This means a couple of things. One, it means people are not swayed by policy debates. But more importantly, when George Bush's policies are attacked, rather than being dissuaded from being Republicans, Republicans feel attacked personally — because it's your politics. Republicanism has merged with their identity. That has happened because of the successful application of the principles of identity branding.
Klein, of course, is an expert on branding, having written No Logo, the seminal book on the subject. And her thoughts here prove her expertise, she's absolutely right. Over the past 30 years, Republicans have successfully merged identity with politics, the importance of which is almost impossible to overstate. When your party affiliation becomes enmeshed with your sense of self, attacks on your candidate become attacks on your person, and thus ends any hope of being convinced out of your position. No longer are you dealing with policy or evaluating arguments, now your personal defenses are up, your worth is being called into question, and the rightness of your original position is transcendentally important.
Democrats, for our part, have failed to notice this phase shift happening. While we sat around the campfire agog at the Christian culture warriors sucker-punching their self-interest and focusing on trivialities, we missed that they were focusing on what moves them. It's a point Michelle Cottle makes in her excellent critique of Jim Wallis. While liberal evangelicals make a compelling logical case for Christians to focus on poverty rather than penetration, they miss that sex is simply a more interesting and visceral topic, it grabs people better. That's why television is packed with shows focusing on bedrooms while only one focuses on the Roosevelt Room, and even it throws in sexual subplots and features conversations conducted during breakneck sprints through the halls. Same goes for the public sphere, where the titillating easily triumphs over the technocratic and, by involving people on a deeper, more moral level, increases their self-identification with whoever they judge their allies.
Democrats are right to want to focus on health care and the kitchen table. But virtue only counts once elections are won. While Democrats have retained their focus on traditional social targets, Republicans have moved towards focusing on the dramatic aspects of the public sphere, either those associated with culture or those associated with safety. They, not us, embraced Hollywood's values, focusing on fighting and fucking while Democrats continued exciting audiences with stirring invocations of Medicare. And as Democrats became more theoretically correct (all the polls show our domestic platform's popularity), our audiences became more detached. Sure they agreed, but damn were they bored. Republicans, at the same time, kept hammering at primal desires and fears and getting their base more invested, making them feel each election and loss was more climactic and high-stakes. It took the overwhelming hatred of a Republican incumbent to return the fire to the Democratic base, but by then we'd lost too many voters in the preceding years to win a turnout fight.
That's why branding matters. Kerry won the moderates, the independents, the unaffiliated. Those with a mind to make up went for the Democrat. But that group had dwindled over the years, as more and more voters had incorporated the Republican party into their identities. In 1992 and 1996, forign policy was silenced and the Republican candidates were technocrats unable to grab onto the hooks the party had placed in voters, but in every other recent election, decades of Republican branding triumphed. And it triumphed because Republicans understood the brand trumped the quality of the product. That they weren't focusing on the important issues, either for the country or themselves, was never important. Just as few iPods are used without their subpar but instantly identifiable white earbuds, few voters noticed that the issues they wanted weren't the ones that'd do them the most good. But the Republican Party certainly recognized that if you give the people what they want, you get to do what you want. The Democrats didn't. What a shame, then, that Al Gore spent 2000 listening to Naomi Wolf and not Naomi Klein. Maybe if he'd picked the latter we'd be living in a different country.
Things You Should Be Reading
• The world has an oil problem, but the best solution may be the doomsday scenario of a sharp and irrevocable rise in oil prices. At least, so long as it happens before India and China accelerate into huge dependency on cheap oil.
• The president has a problem with his speeches, mainly, that they contradict his actions. While I've already pointed to a few articles offering a general overview of our despotic allies, Steve's rundown of the Uzbeki leader's tyranny is much more viscerally illustrative.
• And so long as we're wonking out, head over to Slate for this critique of Hernando de Soto. I've always found his theories appealing, but it seems the evidence isn't stacking up that way.
• The Nation has a fawning profile of Dick Durbin, which I link to because Durbin might indeed deserve some fawning.
• The NY Review of Books has a longish, wide-ranging profile of Abu Mazen and the likely crosscurrents of his Administration. Well worth the read.
The moral of the first two links, by the way, is that anyone not reading The Washington Note should really start. Probably the widest-ranging and most informative site on my daily trawl.
And Don't Do It Again
In an otherwise impressive synthesis/review of the current glut of books promising a European Revolution, Tony Judt hobbles his piece with a near-fatal opening:
Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.
Consider the following lazy writer trick: Rather than reporting to find the perfect example that sums up your piece, or simply eschewing a gift-wrapped synecdoche, you spend a paragraph inventing an analogy that'll do the trick. Desperate to fit it into the contours of your point, your stretch, shape and delete till the comparison no longer has meaning. So you ignore the glut of machines capable of creating Italian espressos. You ignore that coffee refills are generally not free. You assume that there's an appreciable caffeine difference between a cup of coffee and a shot of espresso, which is demonstrably untrue. You assume you can't get double, triple or even quadruple shots of espresso, also untrue. You put too much into an analogy that's too cute (and too useless), and you do it at the start of your piece. And in doing, you irritate your reader enough that it takes 1,000 or so more words of effective, informed and illuminating prose to wash the taste of the coffee metaphor from his mouth. And, to be fair, you write those 1,000 words, and a couple 1,000 more, and you do it well enough that your reader recommends your piece to his readers. But your opening analogy is still so egregious that he needs to spend a few hundred words mocking it and explaining how he can still recommend the piece. Now ask yourself -- wouldn't it have been easier to just start with a quote?
Bayh really nailed the framing on Social Security privatization on This Week (the Stephanopoulos show).
[L]ook, the president is probably going to talk a lot about ownership and individual choice. I think those are great concepts, and I can support those -- but in addition to the current Social Security system, not as a replacement for it.
Look, you may own your home; a lot of Americans do. I bet you have insurance. Ownership and insurance have to go hand in hand.
Social Security is the insurance. Senior citizens in our country can always rely on it to make sure they're not desperately poor in their old age.
Should we have ownership and choice in addition to that? Yes, we should. But we should never do anything to undermine that insurance. That is one of the bedrock principles of our country.
Word. Don't fight ownership and insurance, just force George to make it a topping. If he wants to lay the groundwork for expanding the safety net after we shrink his deficit, I'm all for it. But base Social Security is untouchable. And if Bayh knows it, Republicans might as well pack up their toys and go home.
I had no idea that one man fixing his faucet could so perfectly parallel the evolution/creationism debate!
January 30, 2005
No, I Mean Really Hit Me
Congratulations to the LA Times' on their new and ballsy op-ed feature, "Outside the Tent", wherein an unaffilated writer trains his guns on the LA Times and blasts them for their deficiencies. While the feature sounds like the ombudsman/public editor dispatches that other papers carry, Kinsley's page isn't pretending at dissent by allowing a neutered "reader's advocate" (who receives checks signed by the paper and has a desk adjacent to those he's criticizing) to write a column. Instead, the LA Times is inviting flamethrowing writers from opposed publications to scorch their printed earth. This week, Marc Cooper, of The Nation and The LA Weekly, steps up to the plate and swings at "objectivity", particularly in the paper's Iraq reporting. Why, Cooper asks, should the few correspondents brave enough to be on the ground be forced to contaminate their reporting with government press releases while the editorial page, safely ensconced in Los Angeles, can write what they want?
Cooper's right, and it reminds me of something Matt Yglesias said awhile back, that a smart paper would arm their Iraq reporters with blogs. After all, if our medium is good for anything it's providing a kaleidoscopic view of an incoherent life, which is really what the reporters in Iraq should be doing. If newspapers need to hew to "objectivity" in their once-a-day distillations, they could at least offer their correspondents free reign in the guise of personal websites, and in so doing, offer their readers a much more immediate and unvarnished window into the realities of life on the ground. We might not be able to end the perversions of ritualized "objectivity", but maybe we could mount an end run around it.
They All Have Kids and They All Get Checks
We're not gonna get those goddamn polygamy queens off welfare until we get a good, God-fearin' Christian heading the HHS. Too bad Bush's nominee ain't the guy.
How We Got Here
Democrats really need to assign someone to troll the archives of Cato, The Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute, as it's becoming all-too-clear that the future, and for that matter, the present, trajectory and tactics of the conservative movement are all laid out in the Nostradamic papers published within the walls of think tanks. But if Democrats have ignored the Rosetta Stone, the LA Times hasn't, and their staff archaeologists have emerged with an article tracing the genesis of Social Security Privatization. Moving from a CATO journal tract on "Achieving a Leninist Strategy" for Social Security privatization all the way to Bush's crucial meeting with Chile's top privatizer, the piece tracks the guerrilla effort that spent the last three decades convincing the conservative movement that Social Security needed privatization and has now turned it's sights on the whole country. It's today's must-read.
I'm with Matt on the Iraqi elections, a day that will go down in history but be forgotten the morning after. Like the June 30th handover, this is a largely symbolic event whose success -- given the constraints of Sunni non-participation -- will be forgotten by nightfall. At the moment, the streets seems blissfully clear of shrapnel and gore, and I think they'll probably remain so. The insurgents realize that, with or without attacks, tomorrow's elections will produce a government. So why expose themselves to the elevated risk promised by the day's enhanced security? They can lay low for a day, or even a few, waiting for the heads of government to shift (or, if Allawi wins, emerge codified) and the new leaders will find themselves no more protected than the old. After all, an Iraqi-led government has been "ruling" for months now, what do the insurgents care which Shi'ite is at its helm?
Americans, for our part, will spend the morning watching CNN say the same thing a thousand ways. We'll exult in the mystical power of voting, but next week, it'll be back to the news ticker's impersonal body counts. So elections? Count me in, I think they're great. But with the rebellious, terrified minority that's driving the insurgency boycotting the polls, let's not pretend that the Ballot Fairy will sprinkle constitution dust on this razed country and out of the ashes will emerge a stable, pluralistic democracy. Iraq's task is monumental, and its solutions anything but telegenic. In fact, odds are neither our military nor cable bureaus will be playing a big role in them...
Update: Well scratch my predictive powers, there was plenty of violence.
January 29, 2005
Digby's got a predictably terrific post on the need for more telegenic, effective, and conscientious media representation among the Dems. Like me, Digby has latched onto the heuristics of elections as the crucial component. Terrorism, the economy, social values -- these things matter substantively, but they generally manifest in predictably symbolic, superficial, ways. As Matt Yglesias rarely tires of noting, the Democratic policy elite -- both foreign and domestic -- are excessively capable, but the leaders they advise are rarely judged as favorably. That's because the game is appearance. If Kerry radiated military the way Clark did, terrorism would have been no problem; if he oozed empathy as Clinton could, he would have won on kitchen table issues; if he could project the longing for propriety that Buchanan perfected, social values wouldn't have been a problem.
Of course, the last thing I want the Dems doing is studying the Buchanan's playbook ("Screen left! Pick the Jew!"), but we consistently underrate the importance of appealing to "instant intelligence". Snap judgments, as Malcolm Gladwell will gladly tell you (and then try and sell you a book on), often predetermine the decisions we think emerge rationally. While I didn't support Kerry in the primary, I too easily relinquished my better instincts and assumed gravitas and competency would compensate for odd looks and marionette-like movements. And, in the final assessment, I still believe the conventional criticisms of the Kerry campaign -- no message clarity, too little focus on national security, poor consultants -- are intellectual band-aids wrapped around a decidedly unintellectual issue -- he didn't look the part. Or, if he did, Americans (at least 51% of them) didn't like the look.
Which brings me back to Digby's post and the need to better utilize Hollywood in our politics. Republicans laugh at partisan actors and Democrats chuckle at Schwarzenegger, but both sides are too busy guffawing to recognize the profound political power and sociological expertise these folks bring to bear. We condescend to popular media, but we do so because we view the products as simplistic crud rather than sophisticated creations fine-tuned to achieve entrance into the culture. More recognized, but less understood, are Reagan and Clinton, whose abilities have been given needless genetic, quasi-mystical explanations. Whenever Ronald or Bill enter in discussion, the standard trope is that these guys were once-in-a-century pols, demigods who manifested in the mortal plane in order to lead one or the other party to victory. But as anyone who's ever watched an episode of the West Wing, or pressed play on The American President, knows, that's bullshit. Sheen can make them look like backbenchers, and don't even start on the dome-shaking address Bridges used to climax The Contender; Moses on Mt. Sinai couldn't deliver his words with such thunder (actually, Moses had a severe speech impediment and used his brother Aaron to communicate, but that's beside the allegory).
What sets Bridges, Moore, Sheen, Reagan, and Clinton apart is, simply, Hollywood. And by that I mean the ethos and skills of Hollywood. Some, like Clinton, self-trained because of childhood circumstance, the others found their skills through guided effort. But crucially, these are skills. They are learned sets of behavior that allow ordinary people to connect on a superlative level, or imbue universal emotion with overwhelming depth. Too often, Democrats hope resume and life experience will allow our leaders to play the part. A background of poverty will make John Edwards appear empathic, or blood on his hands will let Kerry look the war hero. But true experience is a poor substitute for professional training, and so our politicians repeatedly fail to actualize the mysterious "connection" that marks the successful. Reagan, for his part, never failed to sell the pitch because he had spent a lifetime learning how to succeed at it. Clinton never lost his ability to impress, he learned it as a survival skill at about the time motor skills lost their mystery. Schwarzenegger, despite his penchant for ignoring deficits and delaying debts down for future generations, never stops projecting the action, determination, and grit that made him believable as an armed, robotic messiah.
In politics, the best actor -- or actress -- wins. Dull Davis could beat Stilted Simon, and Cowboy George could beat Upper Crust Kerry. But adjectives are assumed, and it's time we began recognizing that the primary skill in general elections is the ability to easily shrug in and out of predesigned parts, and the magical connection that excites us so is simply the mark of a natural, or at least well-trained, actor. So Democrats, you've got a culture-creating machine bursting with fans, one so packed with your partisans that it's become a standard Republican target. And if they're going to flail away (in between bouts of recruiting from Hollywood's ranks), we might as well let the talent get out and defend itself. Those scores of out-of-work actors begging for the part of a lifetime? Maybe they're our political demigods, just waiting to manifest.