The Selling of the President

In 1968 Joe McGinniss published The Selling of the President, a book on how Richard Nixon had revolutionized politics by using the tactics of Madison avenue and marketing to win the White House. This included things one could not get away with today, thanks to Youtube and the internet: contradictory policy statements in different parts of the country. But the point was that Nixon was sold like a product, and that was a shocking accusation at the time. Would Americans choose their President like they would a bar of soap? McGinniss also talked about the ‘new kind’ of politician who was hazy on the issues, but likable and presentable (a Congressman George H.W. Bush, father of the current President, was an example).

Today McGinniss’s charge seems quaint. In the 40 years since Richard Nixon’s campaign discovered the power of marketing politics, current candidates have perfected the practice. Barack Obama, labeled by Jonah Goldberg as “the post-modern candidate,” is an example of how far this process has gone. Don’t get me wrong, I like Obama and think he is well qualified to be President, and in my opinion would be a better choice than John McCain. Yet his campaign is a marketer’s masterpiece.

This ‘selling of the President’ has been progressing since JFK’s youthful appeal helped win the 1960 election. After Nixon, the Jimmy Carter brand was a post-Watergate outsider “I will not lie to you” politician who came out of nowhere. Ronald Reagan used people like Michael Deaver to take communication and selling of the candidate to the next level. A former actor, Reagan learned his lines and delivered them well, told stories that connected people emotionally, and looked great on TV. In 1984 Walter Mondale dismissed his top challenger, Gary Hart, with a one liner from a Wendy’s commercial: “where’s the beef?” James Carville ran Bill Clinton’s campaign on all cylinders, treating it like war — but not so much ideological war, but more like a Pepsi vs. Coca Cola conflict. Responses right away to the media against any attack, a message of the day, sticking to the message (“it’s the economy stupid”) and taking focus groups and polling seriously. Karl Rove took it even a step further, and George W. Bush came to power stressing unity, compassionate conservatism, and running a very tight, disciplined campaign, which kept on message.

Every campaign learned from past campaigns. Ones that couldn’t market well — Al Gore unable to figure out which “image” fit him, Bob Dole running a political campaign rather than a advertising one, or John Kerry who let others define him — lost. No longer was it about the message or even the man, but the one liners, the slogans, and the image of the man. The candidate just has to be disciplined, look good, project the right image, and say his lines well. After all, even Paris Hilton sounds Presidential when she delivers her lines on the energy policy — substance is no longer required.

Barack Obama emerged from nowhere and has engineered a revolution in American politics. He is extremely intelligent, disciplined, and presents himself well. He doesn’t have Reagan or Clinton’s charm and humor, which is a negative, but he can probably learn to present those traits during the campaign. He has extensive policy statements; his speeches are full of detail, and his website takes stances on every issue one might have a question about. That’s important. These may all be forgotten after the election — most Presidents don’t govern like they campaigned — but well crafted persuasive policy positions during the campaign are necessary. He has a message that resonates: Change We Can Believe In (brilliant — true political junkies might charge it is empty, but marketers know this kind of slogan is magic), and in every speech he talks about people acting to empower themselves. Empowerment is a big concept in marketing circles these days. Moreover, he is a superb lawyer, he can engage in policy debates and he understands the issues. The Democrats have a good product to sell.

Moreover, the team around Obama understands the new media. Building on work by Howard Dean in 2004, they engaged in a massive grass roots internet effort to build a movement and gain access to levels of campaign contributions never before imaginable. Rather than big donors and every political minded individuals actually giving money to a candidate, the theme of empowerment helped him persuade people across the country to give often small amounts — but small amounts that added up quickly. They’ve generated support from the more hard core so-called “net roots,” but are now shifting to balance the old constituency with the new; pivoting to the center.

One might think from all of this that I’m down on Obama. Not at all. Politics is played in a way that works best; Obama and his methods are a natural product of how American politics operates today. It will be emulated. I personally think Obama is a quality candidate based on his background and the positions he’s taken. Most importantly, he is surrounded by very good and knowledgable advisors. He’s smart enough to choose the best minds to help him on issues as well as on campaigning. I suspect he’d bring a strong competent team to the White House, not a bunch of cronies. Most Presidents bring long term loyal advisers with them to the White House; Obama looks set to bring real experts.

Still, this notion of politics as marketing, and Obama as a “post-modern candidate” is troubling in a broader sense. This change in American politics is the reason that the politicians don’t talk about the tough and troubling issues, as I noted yesterday. It’s the reason more gets made of race, gaffes, or who said what one liner than real policy debate. Most voters will not vote on ideology, policy, or analysis of the positions, advisers, and background of the candidates. Rather, it will be an emotional choice, strongly affected by how well each campaign sells their own candidate or tears down the other.

In my post Consumerism and Fascism I noted the similarities between the marketing behind hyper consumerism and fascism, and in Triumph of Will I cite similar arguments from Horkheimer and Adorno right after WWII. Even though this time the marketers may be putting forth a candidate that I like, the fact they can do this means that we need to worry a bit about the future. What will happen if, say, a terror attack causes more anger, if an economic collapse creates havoc, or someone truly devious can come to power by projecting the proper image? In short, our politics risks giving way to emotion-driven salesmanship. Hence the rise of talk radio, swiftboating, blogs that specialize in ridicule of the “other” side, with personal animosity for those whose views are different. All thrive on emotion, use enlightenment tools only to rationalize their position, and turn politics into holy war. This creates a real danger of future fascism or authoritarianism.

To be sure, it may be that the consumers are knowledgable after all, and I’m underestimating them. Perhaps Obama only gained this support because he earned it, just as McCain rose from the political dead to surprisingly capture the GOP nomination. Perhaps the voters are more sophisticated than I give them credit. I’d like to think so, especially since I think we have the best pair of candidates than in any recent election. Maybe blogs and new media are actually helping break through the traditional old media grip. However, judging from the tactics, arguments and media coverage of this election, it seems to me that for most people it’s emotion and marketing that will shape their vote, not real reflection on the issues and the candidates.

All of this gives me a sense of foreboding. We place so much emphasis on our political institutions that we ignore the importance of our social structures. We focus so much on wealth and economic performance, that we ignore real cultural problems. Carnival consumerism isn’t a problem because money is being made! This could hint to a political/cultural storm which, if combined with the economic storm that may be on the horizon, could point to difficult days ahead.

  1. #1 by createmo on November 2, 2008 - 14:21

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