One of the conundrums of our crassly contrived, focus group tested, and thoroughly monetized daily lives is that we desperately crave that which is true and honest from a modern class of political leadership that has learned to succeed by selling us the fake, the false, and the fatuous.
Marketing of every variety now intrudes on our every waking moment by either loudly and insistently demanding our attention or quietly and insidiously gathering our personal data so that we can be more efficiently suckered into buying what we don’t need with money we likely don’t have. Computer algorithms guide us to entertainment, news, and product information in order to “help” us find that which will make us happy, fill us with angst, or distract us—depending on what will best enable someone to better manipulate our emotions in order to turn a profit. We have been effectively transformed into nerve endings to be stimulated, and our minds are for sale to the highest bidder.
I don’t take any of this too seriously when clever and ruthless people are trying to sell me deodorants, beer, and automobiles; I actually sometimes entertain myself by Googling random websites just to mess with my data profile. However, I find the hard sell much less palatable when state and national elections roll around every two or four years. Given what is at stake for our own lives and our country as a whole, the cynical and duplicitous machinations used to influence our votes by—surprise!—making us happy, filling us with angst, or distracting us become a bit much to stomach.
Part of the problem is that very smart operatives who are devoid of a basic moral compass know exactly how to fool us into believing that national politicians understand our hopes, dreams, and desires. Trust me when I tell you that most politicians know very little of the daily lives and challenges of their constituents beyond what a consultant whispers in their ears, but have, like reality show stars, learned how to plausibly project the emotions that they read off a cue card.
However, all the insincere statements and promises made in the course of any political campaign have immense value as marketing tools, and if they can be used to reinforce the idea that a candidate is somehow more authentic or trustworthy than the other meat bags on the debate stage, it’s a huge advantage. It makes no real difference whether what is promised is reasonable, affordable, or fair—the only factor considered is whether it will bring in donations and votes.
Politics has, of course, always been a rather cold-blooded and callous undertaking, but now that it is coupled with modern marketing techniques derived from a business world that has honed data analytics to a high art, it has also become openly manipulative to a degree that is frankly astonishing. Now completely divorced from any pesky notions of reality or restraint, what was once merely pandering to voters has become a grand giveaway that now more resembles a game show than governance. Door Number One? Free college! Door Number Two? A Big, Beautiful Wall! Door Number Three? Empty our prisons! You want it? You got it!
The problem we now face is that the key governmental concepts of communal responsibility and shared sacrifice have been abandoned in favor of a hard sell to pure self-interest. Sound bites and snarky put downs are now disguised as thoughtful policy. This has largely disabled our ability to discuss ideas on their merits because brand loyalty is far easier to sell. As a result, we cannot easily debate free college, humongous border barriers, or criminal justice reforms on their merits; our bedazzled brains simply cannot handle thoughtful, non-partisan, and evidence-based evaluations.
Free college is, for example, a beguiling idea, but it is difficult to reconcile its high costs and weak outcomes. Towering border walls may sometimes be a necessary adjunct to effective border enforcement, but they are unlikely to work without comprehensive reforms of our patchy and sometimes contradictory immigration policies. Our prisons are filled with people who legitimately must be removed from society for the sake of public safety, but we might also be incarcerating many without good cause.
However, because marketing has replaced reason as a tool of political persuasion, there can be no debate. The differences between the techniques used to sell cosmetics or toilet paper and those now used to sell candidates for high public office are surpassingly small. The comical and sad videos where people on the street are asked to explain the beliefs of their preferred candidate or explain why they support a particular policy—which typically turn into an exercise in incoherent babble—amply explain why the smartest and most thoughtful candidate rarely wins an election today. Winning an election is now simply a matter of, if I may repeat, making voters happy, filling them with angst, or distracting them. Ta-Dah!
The marketing techniques of business work especially well now because government itself is—by a huge margin—the largest business in America. Amazon, the gigantic retailer of products and services for every human need, generated revenue of roughly $280 billion last year. Spending by the federal government alone (not even counting state and local spending), our tax dollars and borrowed cash supplying the necessary revenue in this case, was $4.45 trillion dollars in 2019, and total government spending was estimated to amount to 41% of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) last year. Given the enormous financial stakes, it is unsurprising that voters are now wooed with exactly the same data-driven marketing techniques pioneered by Fortune 500 companies that want to sell us house paints and motor oil. Manipulating us with effective marketing is a sales technique that works—and works well.
For all the supposed stupidity of President Trump (a comforting fantasy of his political opponents that has, thus far, served them very poorly), one of the keys to his victory in 2016 was an incredibly sophisticated data gathering and management system that allowed him to precisely target his message and predict the electoral outcome with far more accuracy than the “expert” pollsters. He was able to transfer the marketing techniques that he and his team mastered in the business world to a national election with an alacrity and impact that stunned Democrats, who were convinced right up to Election Night that a landslide in their favor was in the bag. We can expect that President Trump’s opponents in 2020 will do all in their power to emulate his data operation in their own campaigns, which might provide them with an advantage they foolishly neglected in 2016.
However, the harsh political reality in which we now live raises a troubling—and perhaps disconcerting—question for all Americans: Is it possible to run a candidacy based on ideas today? Can a candidate who eschews consultants and image makers—and has authentic and entirely honest discussions with voters—defeat a candidate who buys all the dark magic of marketing wizardry and manipulates voters into pulling a lever in their favor?
The short answer is that I am not certain—but I am hopeful.
One of the reasons that the influence of political parties has diminished so dramatically is it is easier for an individual to develop a “brand” that can be sold to voters. A large and obviously heterogeneous collection of individuals doesn’t readily lend itself to a marketing campaign—their message is a muddled mess. This allows the very best salespeople/politicians such as Donald Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders to circumvent political parties except for those instances where their own needs might be served.
However, establishing a cult of personality around which your followers can rally is not necessarily the same as presenting a coherent set of governing principles. Charisma does not always equate to common sense, and history is filled with sad cases of powerful personalities crushed by the self-defeating contradictions of appealing slogans masquerading as practicable ideas.
Given the almost physical revulsion many now feel toward our political leadership today, I wonder whether it might be possible for a plain speaking individual (or perhaps a group of individuals) to be able to break through all the screeching and snarling that today dominates our political discourse. This is an effort that would likely need to begin on social media and work to develop ideas and solutions that would not necessarily appeal to the partisan mass media outlets that now insist on treating honest disagreement as a duel to the death in order to attract viewers, listeners, and readers with the promise of confrontation and controversy.
Is it possible to dislodge entrenched interests, high priced political consultants, and narcissistic attention seekers pretending to be political leaders with mere ideas? If this were ever to be possible, I suspect now is the time. Americans are frustrated, anxious for a change, and increasingly wise to the many ways they are turned into pawns for someone else’s benefit.
Policies that focus on rewarding honesty, responsibility, and hard work rather than continually gaming the system to benefit the few at the expense of the many may find fertile soil in which to flourish today. Policies that empower individuals, diminish the heavy hand of bureaucracy, and reduce the onerous weight of taxes would appeal to many. Policies that stop herding us and start respecting us cannot help but be attractive to Americans who are tired of being robbed of their freedoms by those who prefer us squashed under a governmental thumb.
What might result would not be snazzy—but it would be authentic. Perhaps this is a better path forward than relying on bright, shiny, and brain dead celebrities and politicians to do that which we should now be doing for ourselves.