Every now and then I am fortunate enough to communicate with someone who has near complete insight into our political process, why things happen and where it seems likely to be headed. Recently I received this brilliant analysis from a high powered political consultant whose name is withheld for obvious reasons. He/she has to live and work in the political world and for either party. In any case, I found it breathtaking in its fundamental analysis and its clarity — clarity being no easy thing to accomplish is the swamp of media-consumerism-politics.
— JOE BAGEANT
Much has been written by political pundits in their attempt to explain the unexpected victory of Senator Barack Obama over Senator Hillary Clinton in this year’s Democratic Presidential Primary. When looking at the results of this race, none of the conventional political math that would help one handicap the outcome would make one conclude that Senator Obama would win this contest.
Inside a Democratic Party primary there is no demographic or political reason that a male first term African American senator from Illinois with an unorthodox name should come any where close to beating a white female senator, who happens to be the wife of the last Democratic President whose approval ratings are still above 70% with Democratic voters and who also happened to earn the endorsements of the substantial parts of the Democratic Party establishment.
The conventional analysis focused on the poor quality of the campaign run by Senator Clinton, her vote in support of the Iraq war and her advocacy of the cynical center-right triangulation policies of her husband, which soured her campaign to many primary voters and especially to Democratic Party activists. Senator Obama’s on the other hand was credited with running an innovative and inspiring campaign that excited primary voters and brought many new and especially younger voters into the electoral process.
There is some truth to this analysis, but as a whole it misses the underlying social change in society that had already laid the groundwork for a possible Obama victory. To get a clearer understanding of the results, we must better understand what this social change is and how its impact is far more significant than the dynamics of the two respective campaigns.
The underlying social change that led to the Obama victory is the unprecedented extent to which the narrative of popular consumer culture, and the media that drives it, has become the dominant influence on how Americans think, formulate their ideas and understand the world around them.
The most important result of this process has been the steady and consistent depoliticization of American society, to an extent that we can make the case that we are living at the dawn of the post political age.
The two primary features of the post political age are a politics completely drained of all its contents and ability or willingness to be used as an agent of change in social or economic policy, and its full integrations into the world of American popular, consumer and entertainment culture. To such an extent that there exists today a seamless web between our political, economic, media and consumer cultures wherein the modes and values of one are completely integrated and compatible with the others.
It should not come as a surprise that the dominant ideas and mores of popular culture have become the dominant ideas of our society. Popular culture is the breaker of customs, prejudice, tradition and relevant historical knowledge.
It is a result of this dynamic that the two consistent winners in American politics over the last 30 years have been the cultural left and the economic right. Despite the massive organizing drive of the religious right over the past three decades, they are further away from reversing the cultural liberalization of American society than when they started. On others side of the ledger, organized labor outside of a few urban pockets and industries is no longer a relevant force in American life. The ever greater electoral activism of both of these groups is generally misunderstood as a show of strength; in fact, it is the exact opposite. It is the desperate fight of the losing side of the American economic, cultural and political scene.
In essence the same forces that make it possible for the rapid acceptance of ideas such as gay marriage are the same force which can create a society that will accept massive social inequalities.
In the post political world and the candidates who can best thrive in it have tremendous appeal to the economic elites, a system that does not dwell on issues and will never ask the question, “who has power and why”, but simultaneously creates a social and media environment of stupefying distractions while destroying traditional social mores (under-credited as a source of much social solidarity). This can only benefit their continued rule of that society.
In such a setting our political choices like our consumer choices, regardless of the product, are primarily about what makes us more fulfilled and feel better about ourselves.
Senator Obama’s campaign understood much better the impact of these changes on our electoral system than any of his opponents’ campaigns. In the post political world, the campaign that is less political and less issue-based but is savvier in using new modes of communication technology will be the campaign to win the greatest market share of the electorate. The candidate in this case, Obama, was not a political entity but, in essence a product, an ornament that made his supporters feel better about themselves.
One of the most telling facts about the Obama’s constituency outside of African Americans (whose support needs no explanation) is that it is a coalition of people who need or demand the least amount of social benefit from our government. They are the under politicized younger voters and upper middle class whites. The two groups, coincidently, are the ones most influenced by trends in consumer popular culture and have the greatest of ease using the latest technologies.
In commercial advertising it is the poor commercial that lists the seventeen functions of the product being marketed. The best commercials are based on image associations entirely unrelated to the functions of the actual product. In the post political world, when the same principle is applied to the political realm, it makes complete sense how Barack Obama no longer is a black man with a strange name but the iPod to Hillary Clinton’s cell phone. In the world of toys it is the one that stands out the most is the most marketable.
The reality of the post political period is best highlighted in the failed themes and ideas of Barack Obama’s two primary opponents. The Clinton campaign was based on pushing two concurrent ideas: the inevitability factor of her candidacy and the other was her supposed experience. The only thing inevitable in the post political period is ceaseless change, which she could hardly offer while running against the candidate of “Change”. How valuable of an asset can experience be in a culture where knowledge, wisdom and history are frowned upon?
John Edwards campaign on the other hand was dead on arrival. His theme and emphasis was America’s ever widening class differences, a platform as truthful as it was irrelevant. The use of the word “class” will end any political career in America. That truth violates the primary narrative that our elite use to justify their legitimacy, which is the supposed meritocratic nature of America society. While the post political constituencies have absolutely no interest in class, whose very acknowledgment are the bases of all real politics and whose acknowledgement would only lead to an existential crisis in its ranks. In the post political period the only differences allowed can be in style and modes of consumption.
Given all this as the background, what are we to make of the campaign of the candidate of hope, audacity and change? The answer lies in understanding Senator Obama’s appeal to the brighter sections of the economic and political elite, and more importantly in the lack of any organized opposition against him, of the kind that within a matter of days destroyed Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004.
At the precise moment that the intellectual underpinnings of conservative free market ideas that have dominated politics for the past 30 years are crumbling across the globe. Obama calls for a post ideological and partisan world.
At the time when the American military industrial complex is despised around the world, he is a front man out of central casting which will buy it more goodwill and new room to maneuver in the first 15 minutes after being sworn in that John McCain could in the next 100 years.
His very presence, the color of his skin, the very strangeness of his name is the best guarantee of his betrayal of the expectations of the constituencies that will vote to elect him. Barack Obama is in short order a far more reassuring prospect for the continued dominance of the financial elite than another four years of neo-conservative rule which in an almost historically unique combination of greed, ill will, incompetence and stupidity have brought the country to the edge of disaster.
Audacity yes, change hardly.
JOE BAGEANT is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. (Random House Crown), about working class America. He is also a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and JOE BAGEANT’s website, joebageant.com.