Manufacturing political reality

Published at 2 August 2009

Somewhere along the way, an election about nothing has become a prolonged seminar on ontology, as ‘Foolyah Julia’ and ‘Phoney Tony’ compete over who is the more real.

It’s the kind of debate that regularly dominates US politics. If the recent cry of ‘Let Julia be Julia’ seemed naggingly familiar, that’s because of a very similar call during the dog days of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, with the influential neoconservative William Kristol declaring: “[Sarah] Palin is potentially a huge asset to McCain. He took the gamble – wisely, we think – of putting her on the ticket. McCain’s choice of Palin was McCain being McCain. Now his campaign will have to let Palin be Palin.”

Significantly, the ‘Let Palin be Palin’ slogan wasn’t a demand for the Vice Presidential nominee to reveal herself more fully to the media. Indeed, Kristol’s words came specifically in response to a disastrous Palin interview with journalist Katie Couric, during which the candidate for the second highest office in the land couldn’t explain which newspaper she read (“most of them”, she answered, before adding “all of ‘em,” and “any of ‘em”, like a student hopefully ticking every box in a multiple choice quiz).

In other words, Palin being Palin was not so much a matter of throwing away the script as sticking to the right lines. The Republican campaign had, after all, introduced the little-known Alaskan governor as McCain’s running mate with a television montage featuring a voice-over intoning the words: ‘Mother … Moose-hunter … Maverick’. From the get-go, Sarah Palin had come into being as an assemblage of free floating signifiers, capable of rearrangement as required – and Kristol was merely advocating a certain recalibration.

Indeed, as her subsequent career has illustrated, it’s politicians like Palin – self-consciously creatures of artifice – who do reality best. With Palin, there’s no there, there. Her supporters can consistently spruik her authenticity precisely because she barely exists at all and thus her ‘real self’ floats serenely above her gaffes and blunders.

Ronald Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin, explained modern politics this: “People act on the basis of their perception of reality; there is, in fact, no political reality beyond what is perceived by the voters.”

But it’s worth teasing out exactly what that means.

In a much quoted passage, the US journalist Joe Klein describes a 1948 speech in which Harry Truman regalvanised his spluttering campaign by outlining his platform with a reference to Missouri’s annual celebration of ‘Turnip Day’. By so doing, says Klein,”Truman was able to remind voters who he was – an average guy, a man of the soil, who was plainspoken often to a fault.”

Klein thinks that ‘Turnip Day’ moments, in which politicians throw away the cue cards and show voters their authentic inner selves, win elections. If anything, he argues, the intensity of the modern media cycle has only made Turnip Days more important: amidst the careful choreography of twenty-first century campaigning, voters yearn for the more authentic candidate.

Yet Palin – and, for that matter, Gillard – illustrates why Joe Klein and his co-thinkers have their analysis entirely the wrong way around. As Andrew Potter argues in his recent book, The Authenticity Hoax: “It isn’t the desire for spin doctors who have drained the authenticity from politics; rather, it is the desire for authenticity that provides opportunities for men who can help you fake it.”

Quite obviously, Julia Gillard’s pledge to find herself does not represent a renunciation of politics-as-usual so much as an intensification of it, with her attack on her handlers almost certainly scripted by those handlers themselves, fully aware of the electoral impact of a properly-designed Turnip Day.

The new focus on political character in Australian politics (‘what is Julia really like?’, ‘just what kind of person is Tony?’) directly replicates the preoccupations of US campaigning, in which all candidates try for authenticity, all of the time. But why, exactly, have we moved to this presidential style of politics?

Many blame the media, denouncing a press corps that often seems openly bored by actual policy. As one blogger put it, in the wake of a Gillard press conference, “coverage of elections in Australian [has] reached a record level of stupid”.

Certainly, the campaign to date has not displayed political journalism in a tremendously flattering light, with the reporters comporting themselves like the cool kids from high school, bitchily judging who’s in and who’s out.

Yet it’s wrong to simply blame individual journalists. One of the more profound moments in this election came when the leaders’ debate was shifted so as not to clash with the MasterChef final, with politicians and pundits ruefully acknowledging that a cooking program would massively out-rate an election broadcast. But the implications of that have not been adequately examined. Why should a reality show be more popular than politics? Because, quite simply, politicians now compete in an entertainment market in which ‘reality’ is its own distinct niche, and an episode ofMasterChef has been expertly designed to fulfil the generic expectations of that niche.

The commodity called ‘politics’ can only compete by adopting the forms used by the TV producers who specialise in reality programming. Channel Nine’s decision to hire Mark Latham should be understood in those terms: it’s the equivalent of livening up a dull episode of Big Brother by introducing a minor celeb into the house. But Gillard’s pledge to henceforth be true to herself should also be familiar to television aficionados, for it’s a common stage on the ‘winner’s journey’ on every reality show. The huffing contestant on The Biggest Loser breaks down in tears and then, after a hug from Michelle, vows to dig deep and redouble his training: that’s what makes good entertainment product.

Such is the dilemma facing political journalists. A reporter might be deeply fascinated by policy and its implications, but if he or she brings back footage of two middle-aged people arguing behind lecterns when everyone else screens the human drama of Kevin confronting Julia, the ratings will tank.

The problem, then, is not about the media so much as about the market into which media is sold.

One of the most socially significant developments in Australian political and cultural life over the last few decades has been the evolution of neoliberalism from a fringe doctrine to a philosophy now largely ubiquitous. The neoliberal turn was always about more than pure economics, involving an insistence that notions of individual autonomy, consumerism, efficient markets and transactional thinking should be extended into all social relations, even – or, perhaps, especially – those that had previously been dominated by quite different rules.

Not surprisingly, the results have been profound – and you see them very clearly during an election.

For most of the twentieth century, Australians engaged with politics in a variety of different settings. Your thoughts on an election – the way you participated in the democratic process – were shaped by your different social roles. The election experience, for instance, of a rank-and-file Labor Party member, who discussed the content in his or her branch meeting, differed from the experience of the devout church-goer who listened keenly to the priest’s thoughts on the issues of the day.

Neoliberalism, however, recognises only one kind of social engagement: the market transaction. The neoliberal marketisation of society explicitly and consciously reshapes the country to suithomo economicus, who is defined exclusively as a rational profit-maximiser, for whom any collective identity constitutes a market failure.

Not surprisingly, the last decades have seen a remarkable collapse in the array of identities through which we once filtered politics. Most obviously, membership of political parties continues to fall precipitously. The decline of rank-and-file participation is most often discussed in reference to the ALP, where membership fees now contribute barely five per cent of party revenue. But a similar fate has befallen the Liberals. In his book The Education of a Young Liberal, John Hyde Page remarks that the Liberal Party once boasted “large numbers of middle-class professional people who wanted only to make a contribution to a cause the believed in”. By contrast, today, he suggests, “the membership consists of three types: the mad, the lonely and the ambitious”.

Outside politics, you can see the same trend. In 1986, 46% of Australian employees were trade union members; these days, it’s less than half that. The number of worshippers attending Anglican services in Melbourne has fallen from about 50,000 in 1981 to about 20,000 in 2006. Even in terms of sport – supposedly a core Australian trait – the participation figures are similar.The Age recently noted: “Australians have been abandoning mainstream sport in droves over the past 20 years, with long-term participation rates plummeting to record lows. The decline of organised sports – especially swimming, tennis, golf, cricket, squash and netball – has left clubs scrambling for initiatives to attract and retain players.”

Obviously, there are all sorts of reasons contributing to these trends. But part of the explanation lies with a market fundamentalism which explicitly conceives of society as nothing more than an aggregation of individual consumers who are encouraged – expected, even – to relate to each other only from either side of a cash register.

What does this mean for elections?

If once the parties addressed us as activists, religious believers, community members and so on, now we’re increasingly assigned a single part: that of an individual consumer. For most of us, there’s no essential difference between how we relate to MasterChef and how we relate to a federal election. In both cases, they are events that happen out there, in TV-land somewhere, and we simply absorb them as entertainment products.

That’s why the authenticity or otherwise of politicians has become such a preoccupation.

The reality of a commodity lies entirely in its exchange, nothing more and nothing less – and we have an entire advertising industry based around that fact. If we were assessing the worth of Coca Cola (or any other globally successful brand), differentiating between spin and substance amounts to something like a category error. The slogan is the substance: the share price of a soft drink company reflects all the work that’s gone into brand positioning much more than its flavour.

Yet the very weightlessness of the global market creates a yearning for something more, a desire that is then sold back to us in the form of authenticity. The US writer Thomas Frank notes how in the seventies the American advertising industry came to identify “new products [...] to facilitate our rebellion against the soul-deadening world of products, to put us in touch with our authentic selves, to distinguish us from the mass-produced herd, to express our outrage at the stifling world of economic necessity.”

Something very similar is taking place in politics. Turnip Day’ moments are both a recognition of the public disquiet about commodified politics and a commodification of that recognition. The phenomenon reflects a political equivalent of the evolution of, say, the branding of a sports drink, from ‘buy this, it will make you run faster’ to ‘buy this, it will make you cool’ and, eventually, ‘buy this if you hate advertising.’

If you’re not enjoying this election, the bad news is that matters will probably get worse. The bipartisan consensus on neoliberalism is now sufficiently deeply entrenched that there’s almost no public discussion as to how it has transformed our society. As for the commodification of politics, that, too, has been largely normalised. Annabel Crabb recently wrote up events on the campaign trail as commentary on a wrestling bout. Her piece was satire but, actually, pro-wrestling makes a pretty good analogy for where we’re at: an election is a product designed for TV, in which the wacky antics of assorted larger than life characters disguise how little’s actually at stake.

Welcome to the desert of the Real, as someone once said.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. The rabbit hole goes down a long way, but it’s not infinite. We’ve lived differently in the past; we can live differently in the future.

But, certainly, the last thing we need is more ‘Turnip Day moments’. Instead, there’s a desperate requirement for a deeper collective conversation about the market, about what we value and the kind of society we want.

 

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