Wednesday, June 18, 2003

A Candidate is a Product.

This is a truism among those knowledgable about political campaigning, and is nothing new- it's older than television-focused campaigning, and older than most of those reading this. The most important aspect of any political campaign is selling the candidate to the voters, and in that they're not too dissimilar to other kinds of products... the only difference is that you're selling a person, and people are paying with votes, not with money. From this comes the burgeoning (and effective) field of professional political campaigning, and some of the better commentaries on the political process (one that comes to mind is The Candidate, but there are many others) focus on this idea.

Thing is, it's also a truism that in effective advertising, selling a product is not just about selling the product itself- it's about selling an idea, a dream, a scenario in which the product features prominently. Television commericials are often ministories about the travails of people whose lives are improved by the introduction of the product into their lives, and the best advertising is often that which is not too dissimilar to the programming that it's supplanting. The product is an image, or a story. The competing products are ideas and stories too, but they become tragedies.

Therefore, if a candidate is a product, and products are best sold as part of a story, then it follows that the most effective politics are those where the candidate becomes irrevocably tied with some sort of narrative or idea. I've thought about this, and I think the mastery of these two ideas (candidate as product, and product as idea/story) is part of the reason why the Bush administration does what it does, and why it's been relatively successful at selling its policies and ideas to the American people, even when the results of those policies and ideas (such as the problems in Afghanistan, the shifting and dubious rationales for the war in Iraq, the weak economy, etc.) has been of limited success. A lot of intelligent people have supported these various ideas at various stages, only to be hopelessly confused and disgusted when Bush and his advisors seem to completely bungle the job just when its at its most critical, ignoring sound advice and even traditional allies, justified by logic and arguments that seem hopelessly bizarre. When one looks at their behaviour through these ideas, though, it makes perfect sense, as does the various pronouncements of the president and his supporters. It's all about building the stories, and one of the weirder aspects of this presidency is that we don't really know Bush... despite the folksy tone, he's far too tightly controlled and handled for that. He's not only the least accessible president in history, but the least knowable, because it's readily obvious that more than anything he is, like Reagan, an actor.

Take Afghanistan, for instance. After the 9/11 attack, the Taliban was an opponent to America, but more importantly (from a campaigning point of view) they were antagonists towards Bush. The response was partially due to geopolitical thought, true, but it was also an opportunity to create an image of Bush-the-protector-of-America, an image that Republicans have long cultivated and jealously protect... look at their claims about Reagan. Bush (and the military, which is portrayed as an extension of his will, which is more-or-less an accurate portrayal of what an executive is) and his political handlers took the opportunity to craft a story about America wounded and America responding by smashing the bad guys that attacked it, with Bush as a kind of avenging angel, flaming sword cutting through the enemies of Providence. This being the real world, some of this is true (the U.S. did respond, and the Taliban was routed) but much is not... Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Taliban has become a reviving and growing threat. Since this threatens the story within which Bush has situated himself, however, and since even acknowledging it would threaten the idea that they're putting forward, Bush has been quietly burying the entire issue of Afghanistan outside of the story that was crafted for him. America, to which he becomes a father and protector within this story, largely goes along with it, because Americans are the heroes as well in this story, and there's enough truth in the idea that people can latch onto it.

(This story also allows for an associated story to be promulgated and accepted, saying that the economy's weakness was due to 9/11. This wasn't true, of course- the crash long predated it, and had more to do with the Microsoft ruling than 9/11- but one story bolsters the other, making it doubly difficult to dislodge them.)

As for the narrative about Iraq...well, that will be quickly obvious to anybody that's seen The Princess Bride.

Once this is acknowledged, however, it leads to a curious situation, where this process of politics is hurt by the "political process". One of the things that very few commercials do is a direct comparison, and they're often the weaker of the lot... they don't tell a story, they merely compare, and that brings things down from the lofty heights of stories and ideas to mundane products. Quick quotations from "Consumers Reports" may make for great ad copy, but nobody would think of actually turning that sort of comparison into an ad. In politics it would be even more undesirable considering the arcane nature of many political issues in the eyes of voters. The primary process, however, is precisely that kind of comparative enterprise, and the nitty-gritty of primary competition is anathema to candidate-as-idea. Even if a successful idea can be built around a candidate, the battle among the field of candidates works constantly to muddy the waters, and turn it back into product comparisons, or even competitions between the candidates as candidates, nothing more. Debates don't make for great advertising either, unless a story can be built around them.

(This actually happened in 2000, but ended up benefiting Bush more than Gore, because Bush's team was more successful at crafting both the positive and negative ideas of Bush into a story of Bush-as-Reagan redux, which the media was much more sympathetic towards than Gore's image of elite policy intellectualism, and the dishonesty that was projected upon him by the media and his opponents. One of the better Rove tricks was turning Bush's intellectual ineptitude into a positive for him.)

Thus we get to the Democrats, and a central problem that they may have in the upcoming election. Bush's supporters are, more than anything, storytellers, and they've spent years turning Bush into a series of narratives that have little to do with the reality of the man or his accomplishments, but are internally consistent and to many quite compelling. It may not be true, but that doesn't matter... modern movement conservativism has embraced the post-modernist lesson that it isn't "truth" that matters, but stories, and they've built one. This has been going on since before the 2000 election, as a matter of fact, and before the primaries. Bush's elevation by the party elite is one of the biggest reasons they've been so successful- Bush's entire national political career has been subject to this process of storytelling, and while McCain made a dent in his campaign, he never truly threatened Bush's image because he was too busy building his own. The threat of McCain was that his story was, frankly, more compelling. It was never a real threat, however, and it should be recognized that Bush has never really had to deal with a knock-down, drag out primary battle. Unfortunately, the Democrats do. Right now, there are four or five candidates that are chomping at the bit to go against Bush, but what's truly notable about them is their lack of stories... at the moment, they're merely people or, worse yet, politicians. Some have the possibility of becoming products, images, and stories (like Kerry), but they do not and can not enjoy the absolute control that Bush does. That is the single biggest problem that they face, because Gore showed that it's practically impossible to build your own story after the primaries are over, and if you haven't done it, your opponents and the media will do it for you. That will likely spell defeat (although Gore wasn't technically defeated); as Gramsci pointed out, those in control of the narrative will usually retain control, period.

Indeed, the only story about the Democrats right now is about their weakness and division. They will not win with that story, but seem unable or uninterested in building another one.

The solution for this situation? I'm not sure yet, but I wanted to explore the territory before I start talking about charting a map through it. The way to build a successful political story is, I suspect, a matter of the person, the people, and history... one must be aware of the personality of the candidate, the desires and nature of the American people, and the current (and future) domestic and international historical landscape in order to not only check the other guy's image and story, but build an effective one of your own. The Republicans have great tools for doing this, but they're operating with one disadvantage- their image is incongruous with reality, and their product ain't working. It's actually a pretty slim disadvantage at the moment, but it may be the only one the Democrats currently have.

What to do with it, unfortunately, is another question entirely.

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