The pollster and immensely influential tactical adviser at Hillary Clinton’s elbow is Mark Penn. Penn’s polling played a crucial role in Bill Clinton’s recovery from the nadir of 1994, when he joined Team Clinton as part of the rescue party summoned by Hillary Clinton and headed by Dick Morris. Penn has been linked at the hip politically to Mrs Clinton ever since, as a prime adviser of her successful senate bid and in her drives to capture the White House
To find out what Penn (and hence Mrs Clinton) deems worthy of note about the state of the nation we can now turn to Penn’s book, Microtrends.*
Penn’s America is a bright-eyed, mostly upbeat world. As he bowls along, Penn tosses market-researched stats and polling data like confetti and soon the reader is spattered with golly-gee micro-measurements: growing number of home knitters (“knitting is very hip”), decline of baseball fans, burgeoning vegan children, rise of women archers, longer best-selling books, more college-educated nannies, a surge in employees in the non-profit sector, more kids who are cross-dressers and who, Penn says brightly, “are triggering a large, new tolerance movement in schools and communities.”
There are no Columbines in Mr Penn’s index, no Goths intolerantly spraying the schoolyard with machine-gun fire. Why look on the dark side when Penn’s researchers excavate the news that there are more left-handers, hence – Penn boldly claims–the probability of more da Vincis. Now that’s a microtrend worth savoring! The factoid lies on the page, awaiting an entrepreneur and a business plan. Will some niche ‘trep (teen entrepreneur–a microtrend) change the zipper seam on guys’ pants, so lefties can unzip with their left hands. Will guys wear pants? Will there be any guys? Yes, says Penn, the long-term trend is towards more guys, hence more gays.
“Part of the reason I love this work,” burbles Penn about his polling, “is that every day I find out some new aspiration, hope or concern people have, and I get to help my clients shape their products and messages based on these findings.” What Penn never finds are the collective aspirations of groups of people who find the American corporate system intolerably unjust. Union people don’t figure in his focus groups–at least as real workers as opposed to pasteboard constructs as such Soccer Moms or Nascar Dads. The people who find it easiest to contact Penn to communicate their aspirations, hopes and concerns are the people who can afford to meet his hefty bills, meaning the rich and the powerful, starting with Bill Gates and heading on through Silvio Berlusconi, the nuclear industry, Monsanto and other clients in need of image refreshment.
Penn was also the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, (part of the British-based WPP Group), a pr firm that in the course of its career has been retained to winch some sensationally grimy clients out of the mud, such Union Carbide after Bhopal, the Argentine military junta and Royal Dutch Shell after some very poor publicity in Nigeria.
“We live in a world with a deluge of choices” Penn exults, in a typical paean to modern times. “In some sense it’s the triumph of the Starbucks economy over the Ford economy.. Starbucks is governed by the idea that people make choices–in their coffee, their milk, their sweetener” It’s the way Bill Clinton used to burble on, using research briefs and polls concocted by Penn and Morris to persuade Americans that with Bill at the helm the nation would be on the cutting edge of innovative thinking and performance.
Actually, in terms of their respective products Fordism offered a lot more choices than Starbucks. In the mid-1950s, the options available to the purchaser of a Chevy Bel-Air 4-door sedan were infinite, from a rainbow of paint and fabric combinations including a paisley-pattern roof. The shapes and styles of the cars were prodigious in baroque variety. And the cars were often cheap. As for Starbucks, the company’s basic signature is over-roasted beans and its core achievement is to have people fork over $3.50 for a cup of coffee. Starbucks is a predatory franchiser and its arrival in any town usually heralds the extinction of existing small cafes and diners. Its signage, across America and around the world through 13000 outlets, advertises not Penn’s “customized, personalized products” but unending repetition.
The trick of Microtrends is to offer an America shaped to match the sort of “non-divisive” political rhetoric favored by the Democratic Leadership Council, an outfit paid for by corporations and designed to purge the Democratic Party of any partiality to the cause of labor or the interests of the poor. The Clintons have always been the DLC’s marquee attraction, and its outlook is Penn’s.
In the tapestry of Microtrends the spotlight is not on an awful health system with over 40 million uninsured, but on DIYDs, Do-It-Yourself Doctors. Penn tells us “it’s the biggest trend in American health care”, spearheaded by women and the young and promoted by Penn and Burson-Marsteller, working diligently for the pharmaceutical companies whose products, freed from the trifling restraints of a doctor’s prescription, will be at the disposal of the DIYDs in the chain stores. Thus do microtrends find their due place in the great scheme of things.
* Microtrends, The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes. By Mark J. Penn with E.Kinney Zalesne. Twelve Books. 426 pp.
This column originally appeared in the November 2007 edition of CounterPunch.