American primary season is always a circus. Though the spectacle of the race for party nomination is often eclipsed by the greater spectacle that is the general election, the 2015–16 season will be one for the books. For both republicans and democrats, different as they seem, the common narrative internal to the parties is one between the “establishment” and “outsiders.” For those who side with the former, the outsiders are rightly relegated to the margins, and their supporters simply fail to understand how party politics, and how politics generally, operate. For those who side with the latter, the party establishment is a cynical machine protecting its own interests and careerism, ignoring the democratic process in a shameless display of manipulative techniques.
Whatever side one takes, the question remains as to why this incredibly dramatic, indeed spectacular split happened now. There are plenty of reasonable theses: a failure of bipartisan politics creating frustration on either side of the aisle, a series of poorly planned strategic steps on the part of parties to refuse their margins a seat at the table, an exacerbated and growing gap of wealth inequality, the boiling over of social resentment and the revelation that the stitches holding together American wounds were botched in the first place, etc. A phenomenon like the present race is of course not explainable by one single narrative or conceptual device. But in the interest of adding one more angle to an already complex situation, I want to suggest the current spectacle that is American politics involves a crisis of branding.
In her international bestseller No Logo, Naomi Klein launched a revealing, accessible, and devastating journalistic investigation into the manipulative means of global capitalism in an increasingly ad-saturated society. She opens her book writing “The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multi-national corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products.” Anyone who’s seen a season of Mad Men, or bought a pair of Nike shoes, knows what Klein means.
In 2009, for the 10 year anniversary of No Logo, Klein produced a new introduction extending her insights about the mechanics of the adworld in an even more explicitly political direction, arguing that the United States government itself had become a brand. Commenting on George W. Bush’s presidency, Klein writes “the administration’s most lasting legacy may well be the way it systematically did to the U.S. government what branding-mad CEOs did to their companies a decade earlier: it hollowed it out, handing over to the private sector many of the most essential functions of government, from protecting borders to responding to disasters to collecting intelligence.” As Klein relates, the Bush administration, following the sensibilities of its budget director Mitch Daniels and CEO-turned-defense-secretary Donald Rumsfeld, everything from sorting American mail and sending Social Security checks to actual combat in Iraq and the desire to build “virtual fences” bordering Mexico and Canada was farmed out to private industries, answerable to shareholders before citizens. Under the Bush administration, the government would no longer provide services, would no longer have or be a product of its own; it was a brand, a hollowed-out state, wherein, as Klein puts it, “governing, it seemed, was not its core competency.”
But while the Bush administration was treating the federal government like Nike, globally Bush was a branding disaster. Part of being a planetary cultural hub like America is that your dirty laundry gets aired out all over the place (as anyone who reads foreign papers today knows with respect to whatever Donald Trump said on the campaign trail the night before). Whether it was one of his beloved “Bushisms” or his increasingly unpopular activities in the Middle East, Bush quickly became the facepalm heard around the world. The Bush administration simultaneously turned the American government into a marketable brand and tanked that brand immediately.
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, America enjoyed what Klein suggests “was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time,” a politician who understood the power and currency of celebrity, relatability, and frankly good marketing. In fact, Klein reports that “a few weeks before he won the presidential elections, Obama beat out Nike, Apple, Coors and Zappos to win the Association of National Advertisers’ top annual award, Marketer of the Year.” But while Obama effectively transformed the brand Bush had completely tarnished among global onlookers, and while his efforts as president to restore some of the services, the actual substance of government, that Bush outsourced were welcome, Obama remained for his two terms primarily a political adman. Under his administration, Guantanamo Bay remained open after voters voiced their concern over torture, the 2008 financial crisis solidified neoliberalism’s program to privatize gains and socialize losses via bailouts, and allegedly “universal” healthcare managed to guarantee profits for private insurance under the guise of what republicans wrongly attacked as “socialized medicine” — and this all happened in 2009 alone (as Klein notes). Since then, the Obama administration has continued to punish whistleblowers, carry out an incredibly ineffective drone war, and refuse to hold Wall Street accountable for its abuses, all the while continuing to uphold the Obama brand by populist opportunities like appearing on comedian Marc Maron’s podcast WTF. (Or, to take a more troubling example of Obama’s brand-savvy, one might consider the machismo and exceptionalism postured by the Obama administration following the death of Osama bin Laden.) The state hollowed out by Bush was repackaged by Obama, not only left empty, but even continuing the paranoid practices of the Bush administration all under a new, more globally acceptable brand.
Without significantly changing the role or substance of government itself and remaining content to keep its brand-status intact, Obama has only put off what was perhaps inevitable. Now that there is no incumbent running for office, the branding of the U.S. government is up for grabs. And a branding war is precisely what has been going on among both republicans and democrats for the last several months. Donald Trump, whose claims are routinely discovered to be completely unfounded and false, dominates in polls and elections because his brand totally overshadows his desperate competitors whose brands read like weak self-parodies (Jeb!), embarrassingly old fashions (Kasich), or off-brand Trumps (Cruz). Hilary Clinton’s campaign has been a steady series of rebranding techniques reading the moods and reactions of market demographics, perhaps best summarized in an infamous September 2015 campaign announcement stating she would begin to exhibit more spontaneity, humor, and heart. Over the course of her campaign, the Clinton campaign even had the marketing-knowledge to pivot further to the left on a variety of issues, recognizing that the momentum of her opponent’s positions threatened her own brand. While it might be argued that Bernie Sanders wants to return the government to its role as a provider of actual services, his campaign has consistently tried to stay “on message” (read: “on brand”) concerning a desire to reign in Wall Street banks so heavily that in debates with Clinton Sanders regularly shoots from the hip in matters like foreign policy. To #FeeltheBern is to repeat the slogan. Sanders’ own brand of authenticity, saying he is not beholden to special interests as a counterpoint to his competitor (a popular branding tool shared by Donald Trump), has gotten so strong it sometimes causes him to make gaffes that are at least hard to substantiate if not drastic overstatements altogether.
In the wake of Bush and Obama, the battle for rebranding American politics is in full force. Branding is by nature ephemeral, fashionable, and the present race among nomination hopefuls is something like a commercial break. Whether we will return to our regularly scheduled programming (as Clinton wants to do, claiming Obama’s legacy for her own campaign) or change the channel to some rhetorically ratcheted show remains to be seen. Like all commercials, however, the effects of these ones will remain lodged in our cultural unconscious, sometimes getting stuck like annoying jingles or compelling us to collective actions at a deeply affective level.
That advertisements are not simply mirrors of or appeals to consumer desire but actually stick with us and move us to further action later on is perhaps the most important lesson of the 2015–16 nomination race. Klein rightly traces the rise of branding in politics to the success of managerial advice in the 1980s. In fact, however, the ad revolution had already begun much earlier, in the 1950s, when pioneers like George Lois decided, as he puts it in an interview with NPR, “a line, a slogan should be famous.” Yet Lois reveals something even more intriguing about the ad revolution, started almost 70 years ago. Advertising is even more than simple sloganizing — advertising creates desires. Working for Aunt Jemima, then a pancake mix company, Lois prepared a survey for market research. “It asked consumers which syrup they’d purchased recently, and he included an option to circle ‘Aunt Jemima Syrup,’ a then-nonexistent product,” says NPR. “‘Something like 90 percent of the people or so circled that they had bought Aunt Jemima syrup,’ says Lois. ‘I took that research to the head guys, and I said, “I want to talk to you about syrup.” … Of course, they created the syrup, and they became the leading syrup brand in the world.’” No matter who emerges from the present political branding wars, and again in the general election, the advertising campaigns will not have been in vain, and though they may or may not all operate with the intentionality of Lois, they open up possibilities for American politics even more than they try to answer to trends in American voter opinions. True, the success of these political brands naturally arises from material conditions, like poor whites supporting the rise of Trump. But these brands may also give rise to alternative movements, for both good and ill. The psychopolitical effects of the Trump campaign, for example, might indeed continue to fund and mold what Chris Hedges refers to as an “American fascism,” and by the same token the Sanders campaign might make something like socialism a more viable option in America following the brutal maligning of it in the McCarthy era and the Cold War.
While reducing politics to branding and citizens to consumers sounds like a cynical situation, and it certainly is, to a significant degree, branding in itself is not necessarily the problem. We should avoid the assumption that there might arise an even more authentic candidate who eschews branding altogether in favor of the true kernel of a political message. Not only does such a candidate not exist, but such a candidate would be doomed to failure. For her part, Klein asks “Why shouldn’t a president who wants to change the country benefit from marketing as good as Starbucks and Nike? Every transformative movement in history has used strong graphic design, catchy slogans and, yes, fashion to build its base…. anyone wanting to move the culture these days pretty much has to do that.” But it’s true that this naturally makes us consider what exactly all this branding is for, what substance lies beneath the symbols. The suspicion of being taken in by illusive and manipulative signs and symbols over actual material conditions in the world is not just as old as Karl Marx, it’s as old as Diogenes of Sinope, at least, that is, as old as Western civilization itself.
In her 2009 introduction, one year into Obama’s first term, Klein prophetically observed that Obama’s presidency would either result in “waves of bitter cynicism, particularly among the young people for whom the Obama campaign was their first taste of politics,” or “a ‘teachable moment’” revealing “if [Obama] cannot change the system in order to keep his election promises, it’s because the system itself is utterly broken.” Both of these paths seem to have borne themselves out in the last several months. Klein ends her introduction, however, noting that we are not doomed to be beholden to whatever gets cooked up in political strategist meetings based on the latest marketing reports. On the contrary, aware of the advertising mechanisms of politics and the current branding war, we might create transformative movements that “build the numbers and the organizational power to make muscular demands of their elites.” Such movements rightly make use of “branding” capacities, but by refusing to settle for the decisions of private parties (and the Republican and Democratic Parties are both private, not public, entities) they might find a way to both marry symbol and substance and produce better options for a public desperately in need of them.
Most importantly, these movements will not come from the republicans or democrats, as some critics of neoliberalism presume. Rather, Chris Hedges is right to call responsible citizens to “build, as fast as possible, movements or parties that declare war on corporate power, engage in sustained acts of civil disobedience and seek to reintegrate the disenfranchised — the ‘losers’ — back into the economy and political life of the country.” A difficult task, to be sure, but in the throes of a branding war like this one, perhaps the space is finally clear enough to start.