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August 18, 2004

Samuelson on Marketing and Politics

Dear Vanessa --

My wee contribution to the election debate this year is to try to get a few people to stop thinking in terms of Republicans vs. Democrats and to think instead in terms of Them (ie., the political class) vs. Us (ie., everyday people). This comes partly out of dismay with the candidates: a choice between a budget-busting, borders-opening Republican and a Democrat willing to contradict himself on the hour, every hour -- wow, aren't we the lucky voters?

But it also comes out of a hunch that something odd has happened in the last couple of decades. My feeling is that the political class has decoupled itself from the population at large and now seeks only its own advantage. I don't want to be too naive about this -- has politics ever not been a dirty business? But the something that has happened in politics seems to me akin to what has happened in so many other fields: corporations have become sleek and rootless; movies are now made to support their marketing and franchising campaigns rather than vice versa; teachers' unions are hostile to educational improvement ... I suppose it could be said that we've all been set free to seek our own advantage. But doesn't it also sometimes seem that this "freedom" is really just license to treat each other horribly?

What happens when the political class becomes just one self-interested monad among many others? Republicans may shade a bit one way and Democrats a bit another way, but what both parties shade massively towards is the interests of the political class itself -- a meta-special-interest group the rest of us would do well to be ultra-wary of. And as far as investing our hopes in their promises? Puhleeze. It seems to me infinitely more sensible to confine our political hopes to preventing the political class from doing too much damage. So let's hear it for letting our displeasure be known.

Here's some confirmation of my hunch, a piece by the economics columnist Robert Samuelson. His theme is how marketing has overwhelmed the political process. Some excerpts:

In the 2000 election, Americans were showered with 245,743 TV spots for George W. Bush and Al Gore ...

Spending on TV spots this year will likely be double the 2000 level or higher ...

Politics has adopted all the tools of modern merchandising—advertising, polling, telemarketing and demographic targeting. Conventions, which once selected a party's candidate, are now part of the marketing plan. Deliberately drained of controversy, they aim to sharpen the campaign's message and to reward fund-raisers and the party faithful ...

By merging data files on voting behavior and TV-viewing habits, media buyers know how audiences differ. "[Dave] Letterman skews more Democratic, while [Jay] Leno is more Republican," says one consultant ...

There's a constant quest to find new ways to reach voters. "I can send out 700,000 e-mails an hour," says the DNC's McAuliffe. The DNC has a database of 175 million names and has disgorged 75 million pieces of direct mail this year—compared with 10 million for the entire 1990s ...

I'm not sure I'd have guessed that Letterman's fans skew more Dem while Leno's skew more Repub. Would you have known?



posted by Michael at August 18, 2004


There are so many things to be said on this topic, on both sides of this topic.
On the one hand I believe there is a deep contempt for "the people" which is quite apparent in the way the parties present themselves to us every four years.
I really don't want to hear swelling music and see waving flags when the candidate makes his pitch. I was first struck by this back in 1984: the Reagan team's Morning In America pitch. I voted for Reagan but felt insulted. Why couldn't he come out and say "I'm for this and my opponent is for that; if you think my way is better than his please vote for me?" To this day I don't see why that approach is not used by either party. I think millions would vote for a candidate on the basis of his showing respect for them, if for nothing else.
On the other hand: last night I was watching the hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on C-SPAN. The committee was questioning Donald Rumsfeld the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (can't think of his name) and John or George McGlauchlan, the acting head of the CIA. Both the quality of the questions the Senators were asking and of the responses to them by these three men were thoughtful and IMO impressive.
I think our government is full of first class people doing the best they can by their own lights. But at the same time in their relation to the rest of us there is a condescention, almost the condescention of an adult to a child.
What I'm trying to say is that I don't think our government is a conspiracy against us; just that most in it - in good faith - are doing for us not with us. They don't see us as peers.

Posted by: ricpic on August 18, 2004 12:46 PM

My feeling is that the political class has decoupled itself from the population at large and now seeks only its own advantage.

How can you call this just a feeling when so few Americans bother to vote? It seems to me the decoupling has been mutual for quite some time. That, or your democracy doesn't see it as its task to bring up new voters who understand what democracy entails. Which could of course be a political decision, come to think of it.

Posted by: ijsbrand on August 18, 2004 2:26 PM

I think there is some truth to what you say but I also think it is too simple. Politicians far to often do what they think people want not what is best for the country. Sure Bush seems comfortable with big government but I think he does that out of a combination of misplaced compassion and a belief that the public wants and "needs" these services, etc. Sure Kerry seems to lack any basic foundational principles and likes to take all sides of a debate, but I think he does that because he wants to get elected. If there is a class politicians seek to protect it is incumbents. They need to be elected to do their work and soon their work becomes getting elected. The public rarely effectivly communicates its ideals - rather than its own self-serving wants - to elected officials and therefore those officials rarely reflect those ideals.

I guess what I am saying is that things are a lot more banal and egotistical than conspiratorial and diabolical.

Posted by: Kevin Holtsberry on August 19, 2004 8:10 AM


I agree with you--the one thing the Democratic Party stands for is keeping Democrats in power and the one thing the Republican Party stands for is keeping Republicans in power. Ideology has very little to do with the actual choices most politicians seem to make. This is why Republicans attacked President Clinton for sending troops to Kosovo and Democrats attack Prsident Bush for sending troops to Iraq.

But I'm not sure that there's any attractive alternative to having this kind of "political class". After all, the people who are going to end up governing are the people who are willing to deal with the nuts and bolts of government, not the people who find day-to-day political power playing distasteful--a group which includes me, you, and, I'd guess, just about everyone else who reads this site. The "damage" the political class does is just part of the price the rest of us pay for wanting them to keep things running so we won't have to.


Posted by: J.W. Hastings on August 19, 2004 10:03 AM

Good points all, tks.

The thing is that it has less to do with individuals than with something systemic. I don't doubt that there are as many decent, talented and well-meaning people in the political class as there have ever been. But it seems as though their ability to serve the public has been drastically curtailed -- that their job descriptions have changed, if you will.

To reach for a comparison in a field I know well, the arty media biz ... Plenty of talented people, as many as ever. But does the arty-media business itself permit them to contribute their talents to the public? Actually, just barely: a lot has changed. These days, talent and energy are required to contribute to the organization's own well-being. You can see the consequences in the resulting products, which are more about creating and selling what I think of as "media values" (urgency, packaging, graphics, rattle-rattle-rattle) than they are about using the system to deliver real and useful content to an interested public.

Same in the moviebiz, which is an industry seething with talent, despite what's commonly thought. The process of moviemaking is now spreadsheet-driven, and has become abstracted from any real sense of give-and-take with an audience. Robert Altman once said that the new Hollywood made him yearn for the older one. As he put it, more or less: "At least back then there was someone there who hated me and hated my movies. These days you go into the office where the decisions are made, and the only thing there is a computer."

A lot of this does seem to have to do with changes in technology, and not just the way the tech is used to make the products but in the way it's used to analyze the audience and to decide what needs to be done. The old seat-of-the-pants and instinct has been replaced by the slicing and dicing of databases. Things get abstracted, you can't argue with the numbers, and so the old human connections get cut off. And the field turns into something that sits there churning away, looking out only for itself. As Samuelson notes in his piece, one result is that audiences (or "the public," if we're talking about politics) switch off. They may continue voting in some numbers or attending mall movies -- what's the option? But emotionally they disengage (and why wouldn't they?). A big mystery to me is what becomes of those feelings?

Anyway, thanks for pointing out that it ain't a conspiracy -- so true. Also, it's inevitable that we'll have a political class (as it's inevitable that we'll have a media class) -- we gotta work with that. But it seems to me that what we want is a responsive (and at least semi-ressponsible) political class. And to get them to behave better and deliver more, maybe the first thing we need to do is complain loudly about how unresponsive they've become.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 19, 2004 10:40 AM

Doesn't it seem as if the kinds of experiments that economists are performing--a la the Newsweek piece on behavorial economics by Jerry Adler you link to in your "Elsewhere" posting--should be applied to governance? Isn't it time we got a better idea of what emotionally and cognitively is involved in human hierarchies and social decision-making?

I suspect there are a lot of potential alternatives to our current American system of governance, and probably a large number that would be obviously superior. I've been reading a very detailed (1000-page) history of the Dutch "Golden Age" of the 16th and 17th centuries, and I've been struck how the governance system of that time, which did not depend on elections yet was "consultative" and rule-based, did pretty darn well for itself under conditions of extreme stress. (The Dutch built a wealthy early-Modern society while conducting an 80-year war of independence with the Spanish empire.)

In short, the first thing we need to do is stop assuming that our current governance structure is like the weather, i.e., something that we can't do anything about.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 19, 2004 11:21 AM

Y'all might enjoy this piece here, about how Kerry ought to be able to take Bush down but can't.

So that's what the parties are offering us: the Republican who's not a Republican, vs. the Democrat who's a nothing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 19, 2004 3:52 PM

Why do you insist on saying that Kerry is a "nothing?"
By your own claims you appear to insist that you don't follow politics because it is just too dirty or human or whatever it is ...(I am really not clear what you are complaining about in these posts on the so-called "political class.")
So what informs such a sweeping judgment that Kerry is a "nothing?"
From my own experience, the venality and banality of politicians reflects nothing so much as their own constituents: We get the government we ask for.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 20, 2004 9:53 AM

So you're saying that the venality and banality of our politicians means that we're venal and banal? I disagree there, David. I think we're fine, more or less, and are being strikingly mis-served by an ever-more-detached-and-self-interested political class. So why not complain about it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 20, 2004 10:57 AM

"So you're saying that the venality and banality of our politicians means that we're venal and banal?"

Of course that's what I am saying. We elected those venal and banal politicians, didn't we? (Or are you thinking that the ballots were all brought in by black helicopters?)

Our governments reflect us. People get the sort of government they ask for.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 21, 2004 8:07 AM

Wow, that's one dark view of human nature you have!

If all the system is offering up for breakfast is Corn Flakes and Special K -- that's all that's on the menu -- and we make do somehow, and maybe Corn Flakes wins 51% of the purchases one year and maybe Special K wins 51% of the purchases the next year, and most people decide to skip breakfast anyway, how to interpret this? I guess we do so differently. In your view, people are getting what they want, and the sales figures are proof of that. In mine, some people are settling for a choice between what's being offered up, though we don't know how enthusiastically; some of them are dropping out, probably because they find neither of the choices appealing; and no one really knows how anyone would feel about a bacon and egg breakfast instead.

Strikes me as analogous to New Urbanism. If a few people outside Buffalo choose one suburban development over another, and if many people choose not to live in Buffalo altogether, would you say everyone's getting what they want and deserve and have willed into existence? It seems to me much more accurate, and generous, to say they're settling (often in ignorance of what a broader array of choices might look like) for the least-bad of a tiny number of options. After all, how would we know how'd they respond to something like an attractive New Urbanist development if it isn't even on the menu?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 21, 2004 10:39 AM

I know this is going to sound way too simplistic.

The polarization in this year's political campaign often seems like a marketing strategy developed by large global media companies. They've done a fine job of differentiating their products. The bonanza is that polarization lifts all the boats. If none of the companies had a bias in their news reporting, people would become bored and start watching more Sitcom reruns and less news.

You'd expect the political parties to notice and exploit this.

Posted by: Lynn Rutherford on August 21, 2004 10:35 PM

No Michael I do not have a dark view at all. My approach in fact is extremely optimistic, even naively so, some say; I believe that we have an awful lot of free will and (writ large) the society we have is the one that we have created. I do not think that blaming others is useful.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 22, 2004 2:06 PM

Mr. Sucher:

Your model of individual responsibility seems to go beyond what makes sense, to me at least. Such "responsibility-mongering" leads to statements like "We are all responsible for the Holocaust." While perhaps in some metaphysical way this could be said to be true, this type of thinking mostly tends to eliminate any meaningful notion of responsibility and lead to nothing but paralysis and guilt. Clearly, it would be more helpful if one is interested in preventing future genocides to have a little more precise idea of how the previous ones occurred and who exactly the key decision makers were, etc.

In this instance, ignoring the existence of a "political class" strikes me as, er, plain silly. Members of this class are people who make their living, receive their social status and exercise power as a result of being in politics. They are financially supported by a shadow army of business interests who are strongly impacted by governmental action (e.g., note the overwhelming role in local and state political contests of contributions from industries such as real estate developers and road/sewer/infrastructure contractors, as well as public sector employee unions. Of course, a similar but larger group of "interested groups" could be assembled for national political contests.)

These finacially-interested groups will devote far more time and resources to politics than Joe Average because they have far more to gain (or possibly lose.)

Joe Average, knowing this, does a rational calculation and realizes that since it doesn't pay for him to go to the trouble of trying to block these highly motivated groups and their raids on the public treasury, he might as well take whatever handouts are tossed in his direction. While it might be highly idealistic of him to rise up in wrath to throw all these parasites out (or support a smaller government that is less able to award "winner" and "loser" status in the private sector), you gotta see that the immediate incentives are working all in the opposite direction. Hence, Average Joe ends up saying "a plague on all their houses" and watching a sitcom.
And the political classes and their shadow armies know this.

Incentives matter. If you want to see broader involvement in politics, you need a different set of incentives. The political classes know what incentives they want to see in maybe you ought to pay a little closer attention to the ones that you might want to see in place.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 23, 2004 11:10 AM


The only problem with your model is that the Average Joe is in fact by membership and affinity and belief very well represented by all these special interest groups. In fact these interest groups receive their power (both financial and moral) because the vast majority of them in fact do represent real people.

I do not accept the claim implied in the notion of a "political class" that American politics is run by groups divorced from the American populace at large. Could you provide an example of a special interest group which does not in fact represnt a significant number of people?

I think this whole business of a "political class" strikes me as an excuse for sitting on one's rump.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 23, 2004 4:14 PM

Could you provide an example of a special interest group which does not in fact represnt a significant number of people?

David, please--road paving contractors fork over an extraordinary amount of local political contests and do not represent, by my estimate, "a significant number of people." Real estate developers, ditto. Neither of these is exactly a major demographic group; they fund "their boys" (and girls, but mostly boys) out of the accurate perception that their business rises and falls on the favoritism of politicians. Perhaps you should consider the role of Texas-based Brown & Root contractors in the political career of Lyndon Johnson. The question is not can I provide an example, but how long you could stand to go on reading the list. How can you be involved in real estate and not have witnessed the, er, cash-raising possibilities inherent in political control of zoning and the vulnerablility of developers?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 23, 2004 6:35 PM

And I'd say that these so-called "special interests" of road pavers and home builders indeed represent a significant number of people.

But anyway that's not what people mean when they talk of the "political class." Bribing zoning commissioners is plain old corruption.

When people speak of the political class they mean something hazily conspiratorial with no fixed roots in any particular business. That's what I found so vexing about this post: I really couldn't figure out what Michael was complaining about.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 23, 2004 9:27 PM

David -- You write "When people speak of the political class they mean something hazily conspiratorial with no fixed roots in any particular business." I think that's your meaning, not anyone else's. I'm no great history buff, but it's not uncommon to read about Rome's "political class," or Egypt's. There's an entire school of economics (Public Choice) devoted to analyzing the incentives of the political class. Politicians and their staffs; lobbyists; the media who cover the scene; people employed by (or whose living depends on) government. That's a start.

If you think the political class doesn't (among other things) look out for its own interests, that's one thing. If you think pointing this out is bad, that's one thing. But arguing that there's no such thing as a political class? That seems silly.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 24, 2004 2:16 AM

Mr. Sucher:

Road pavers represent a significant group? You mean, like farm or factory workers? You're kidding me, right? This is a (relatively speaking) tiny sector of the economy which happens to be employed solely by the public sector, and as a consequence is very, very VERY politically active. Which is my point: not everybody has the same incentives to be active (i.e., make financial contributions) in politics.

The political class we're discussing isn't a card-carrying group. It is one end of a continuum of people who have direct (and usually economic) incentives to participate in the political process, either personally or via financial contribution. One pole are professional politicians and their staffs; the political consultants; lobbyists, regulators, etc., etc., etc. Moving away from this pole we have executives in highly regulated industries, or those whose financial prospects exist in many respects because of government activity--i.e., the professions, the lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc. Way over nearer the other pole are the people who just care about good government, and who pay the tax subsidies and economic rents to the group nearer the opposite pole as a result of the government action. This should perhaps be labelled the "sucker" pole.

Specific enough for you? Do you want names and addresses?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 24, 2004 1:07 PM

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