How Mad Men control politics


Sam Smith

At the presidential level at least, politics as we were taught to understand and admire it is dead. A major cause, of course, has been the financial assault on democracy best characterized by the Citizens United decision. But there is another factor: the replacement of a candidate’s record, history and positions with a brand.

It is almost as if voting booths have been converted into supermarket aisles down which we are supposed walk and pick the person we want, based on a brand that has been manufactured on behalf that candidate.

If that seems exaggerated, consider this. The last Democratic presidential primary was basically a contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Theoretically, voters knew far more about Clinton, given her decade and a half presence on the national scene. It was a history scarred by scandals, issues, and moral questions, but none of these played any significant role in the race. Nor was the fact that Hillary Clinton’s only significant proposal was an extremely poor health care bill that fortunately didn’t succeed. To this date, Hillary Clinton has achieved little aside from increasing her power, yet that, these days, is considered an adequate manifestation of accomplishment. It makes her a successful brand, regardless of the contents. More importantly, she ran to be the first woman president and that, for many, was enough.

Still, to this date, there has been little evidence, other than the symbolism of words, to suggest that she has been an effective feminist. She served on the board of Walmart, hardly a corporation on the side of its women workers. She defended her husband against women making charges about his sexual behavior. She speaks of breaking “glass ceilings” but far less of weaker women who never get under that ceiling, but merely want to get through the front door.

And when Hillary Clinton tweeted last year that “20 years ago, women made 72 cents on the dollar to men. Today it’s still just 77 cents. More work to do,” a commentator noted, “Seeing as how Clinton paid her female staffers 72 cents to the dollar that she paid men, she must still be living in the 90s.”

Meanwhile, her opponent was running to be America’s first black president, which assumed that skin color and the ethnicity of one’s father outdistanced every cultural factor including who actually raised you. In fact, here is Wikipedia’s summary of Obama’s experience with his black father:

On August 4, 1961, at the age of 18, [Ann] Dunham gave birth to her first child, Barack Obama II. She took classes at the University of Washington from September 1961 to June 1962, and lived as a single mother in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle with her son while her husband continued his studies in Hawaii. When Obama Sr. graduated from the University of Hawaii in June 1962, he was offered a scholarship to study in New York City, but declined it, preferring to attend the more prestigious Harvard University. He left for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he would begin graduate study at Harvard in the fall of 1962. Dunham returned to Honolulu and resumed her undergraduate education at the University of Hawaii with the spring semester in January 1963. During this time, her parents helped her raise the young Obama. Dunham filed for divorce in January 1964, which Obama Sr. did not contest.

In other words, in less than three years, young Obama’s time with his black father was over. He was thereafter raised by a white mother and white grandparents. But because our definition of ethnicity – whether we be black, white, conservative, or liberal – favors simplistic and visible biological evidence over actual cultural history, Obama had no trouble running as a black as long as he kept his actual upbringing in the background. And the fact that categorizing people by the color of their skin is a deeply racist concept got no attention at all.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, reactionaries – with no little help from an historically ignorant and easily embedded media – were able once again to present themselves as representatives of the average American and trustees of American tradition when this was, in factual terms, an immense fraud. I have been working recently on a compilation of ways in which the GOP has recently been at odds with both the will and the interests of ordinary citizens and what I find striking and frustrating is how this simple truth has been so effectively ignored.

But Republican or Democrat, the primary fact is that their supporters back them on the basis of a strikingly false image of what they really stand for and intend to do.

What has happened is that thanks, in no small part, to television, politics has become just another product marketing operation in which one’s brand identity trumps facts, positions and history. The Mad Men run politics as well as so much else.

Behind the notion of a brand, and branding, is that reality is easily submerged or distorted, by actively creating a new mythology. For a sense of what those in power actually value these days, this 2011 article by Dorie Clark in the Harvard Business Review on “Reinventing Your Personal Brand” helps:

People reinvent themselves all the time—to take on a new challenge, shift into more-meaningful work, or rebut perceptions that have hindered their career progress… Taking control of your personal brand may mean the difference between an unfulfilling job and a rewarding career..

What’s your unique selling proposition? That’s what people will remember, and you can use it to your advantage. After losing popularity to newer, even more right-wing talking heads, the conservative pundit Ann Coulter had to reinvent herself. She didn’t entirely abandon her old brand; she reconfigured it to compete in a new marketplace. Leveraging her unique blend of blonde vixen and conservative firebrand, Coulter is now courting gay Republicans who enjoy diva-style smack talk….

Once you’ve embraced your rebrand, making new contacts is the easy part—they’ll take the new you at face value. The harder slog is reintroducing yourself to your existing network…

In some cases your reintroduction may also involve addressing negative perceptions—and being disciplined about sticking to new behavior that better reflects your aspirations….

Also think strategically about your “unveiling.” Are there projects you can get involved with that will showcase your new interests and abilities (or help you develop them)?…

Especially in the internet era, traces of your old brand will never completely disappear—and as long as you’re thoughtful about what you’ve learned along the way, that’s OK. The challenge is to be strategic about identifying how you wish to be perceived, developing a compelling story that explains your evolution, and then spreading that message.

It used to be the job of journalists to be cynical about such things, but in today’s society media folk have to brand themselves as well, and so you write about a candidate’s “optics,” how the public perceives them, rather about what they actually did and what it means. I haven’t heard that old journalistic standard – “who, what, when, where, how & why” – mentioned for some years. Far easier to spend a half hour on TV talking about what a politician’s message was about and how people perceived it.

I don’t have any solution, although it did occur to me that we might start a campaign to require the sort of warnings on political ads that we see endlessly see on TV for drugs. Such as:

“If any of the following side effects occur while listening to Ted Cruz, check with your doctor immediately. These may include bloody or black, tarry stools, bloody or cloudy urine, fainting, uncontrobable anger, fever with or without chills, pain in the lower back and/or side, skin rash, hives, loss of Medicare, reduction in Social Security, or another major invasion in the Middle East.”

Beyond that I don’t have any great suggestions other than to be aware that the Mad Men have taken over our politics as well as everything else. As a result, words just don’t mean what they used to mean.

And remember one other thing when someone speaks of branding or rebranding: In its original use, the cattle that were subject to branding did not change their character in the slightest. It just let people know who owned them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.