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The 2008 US Election is Not About the Issues.

2009-04-30 19:14:00

political ritual staged spectacle

The title of this piece is not an original statement, it's actually a direct, and verifiably real, quotation from Rick Davis. Rick Davis, believe it or not, is a (currently still employed) campaign manager for John McCain. The response I've seen has mostly alternated between disbelief and cheering victory -- my Democratic friends took that quote as a tacit admission of failure on behalf of the McBush campaign. I'm here to say that it's not: Rick Davis was telling the truth.

Welcome to post-reality. I don't expect anyone to get used to this anytime soon. Even CBS News is reporting on how most of the military footage from the Republican National Convention was paid actors in a stadium somewhere -- this is the real 2008 Election:

The soldiers were actors and the funeral scene was from a one-day film shoot, produced in June. No real soldiers were used during production.

The footage, sold by stock-film house Getty Images was produced by a commercial filmmaker in Chicago. Both Getty and the production company, Mr. Big Films, confirmed that the footage was shot on spec and sold to the Republican National Committee.

One of the actors, Perry Denton of Chicago, IL also confirmed that he was hired on a day-rate as an actor for the shoot and told CBS News he was surprised to learn the footage was shown at the convention.

Remember the Last Post?

Bush Obama Convention Stages

Previously on Skilluminati, I did a simple post juxtaposing the podium for the 2004 Republican Nation Convention with the podium for the 2008 Democratic Nation Convention. I also posted this a number of times as a myspace bulletin. In both experiments, I got some highly entertaining and insightful responses. Specifically, I found out that people were responding to something that only existed in their own heads. I provided no commentary, yet people had created -- confabulated, really -- a whole explanation for why I would post the photographs, and they responded to that.

So why did I post the photographs?

Of course, as one commentator noted, the design is hardly original. Not only that, the design is actually done by the same company in both instances. They're the same company that pulled off the 2008 Olympics Games ceremonies, and this reflects a long-standing interest of mine in the business of staged ritual and mass spectacle. The power of mass spectacle is well known, and it's dangerous. No matter what the cause, it's a clear-cut form of deliberate manipulation.

DNC stage crew preparation

Bob's First Rule of Power

We live on a planet with 6 billion humans, and most of them are uninformed and ignorant. Here in the United States, despite high standards of living and abundant material wealth, the situation is no different. In 2006, during coverage of the manufactured debate over "Intelligent Design," Newsweek conducted a national poll about scientific literacy. All of the participants were adult residents of the United States. The results were astonishing:

Fewer than a third of those polled know that DNA is the molecule of heredity

Only 10 percent know what radiation is

20 percent think the Sun revolves around Earth.

But of course, that was from 2006, and Bush's educational reform program has probably improved things considerably since then. I truly hope so, since that same year an even more disturbing poll was conducted by the Washington Post:

While the country is preparing to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives and shocked the world, 95 percent of Americans questioned in the poll were able to remember the month and the day of the attacks, according to Wednesday's edition of the newspaper.

But when asked what year, 30 percent could not give a correct answer. Of that group, six percent gave an earlier year, eight percent gave a later year, and 16 percent admitted they had no idea whatsoever.

This memory black hole is essentially the problem of the older crowd: 48 percent of those who did not know were between the ages of 55 and 64, and 47 percent were older than 65, according to the poll.

The Post telephone survey was carried out July 21-24 among 1,002 randomly selected adults. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

DNC 2008 podium staging

I'm Not Pointing Fingers and Laughing

Don't mistake this for crowing about how dumb people are. This is a serious and intractable problem. The vast majority of voters in the United States are dangerously ignorant and easily manipulated.

Here's the moral quandary: is it ethical to use deception in order to control these people? If you don't do it, guess who will? Karl Rove. Rick "not about the issues" Davis. The same paid operatives who have been running the real power structure of the United States since John Rockefeller and Edward Bernays were alive.

Here's the logistical problem: how can you and I compete against multi-million dollar budgets? The business of spectacles, like any other, is a business that runs on money. Those who have money shape the spectacle, and the rest of us are consigned to...well, meaningless critiques on obscure websites.

Further Reading

George Lakoff wrote a really excellent article for Tikkun called "The Reality of the Political Mind" that I highly recommend. One of the most potent passages:

Our national political dialogue is fundamentally metaphorical, with family values at the center of our discourse. There is a reason why Obama and Biden spoke so much about the family, the nurturant family, with caring fathers and the family values that Obama put front and center in his Father's day speech: empathy, responsibility and aspiration. Obama's reference in the nomination speech to "The American Family" was hardly accidental, nor were the references to the Obama and Biden families as living and fulfilling the American Dream. Real nurturance requires strength and toughness, which Obama displayed in body language and voice in his responses to McCain. The strength of the Obama campaign has been the seamless marriage of reality and symbolic thought.

The Republican strength has been mostly symbolic. The McCain campaign is well aware of how Reagan and W won: running on character: values, communication, (apparent) authenticity, trust, and identity - not issues and policies. That is how campaigns work, and symbolism is central.

Obama Cowboy Texas

One of the best articles I read about the 2008 election -- being a human that's primarily interested in the mechanics of actual power, which seldom play out onstage in front of TV cameras -- is the Fast Company cover piece from April, "The Brand Called Obama." Of course, FC is a business magazine, so this is a look at the image shaping that went on early in his campaign, and for me, it's fascinating stuff.

The fact that Obama has taken what we thought we knew about politics and turned it into a different game for a different generation is no longer news. What has hardly been examined is the degree to which his success indicates a seismic shift on the business horizon as well. Politics, after all, is about marketing -- about projecting and selling an image, stoking aspirations, moving people to identify, evangelize, and consume. The promotion of the brand called Obama is a case study of where the American marketplace -- and, potentially, the global one -- is moving. His openness to the way consumers today communicate with one another, his recognition of their desire for authentic "products," and his understanding of the need for a new global image -- all are valuable signals for marketers everywhere.

"Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand," says Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide. "New, different, and attractive. That's as good as it gets." Obama has his greatest strength among the young, roughly 18 to 29 years old, that advertisers covet, the cohort known as millennials -- who will outnumber the baby boomers by 2010. They are black, white, yellow, and various shades of brown, but what they share -- new media, online social networks, a distaste for top-down sales pitches -- connects them more than traditional barriers, such as ethnicity, divide them.

Read another?