Friday, October 12, 2012

Consumer Politics

Americans are nothing if not consumers. Not only do we love to buy gadgetry, cars, and houses but we have come to think like consumers. Choices are weighed as if everything is a commodity. We buy into an image, a project, an idea and we cultivate a persona to sell ourselves.

There must be more to life than having everything. (M. Sendak)

We even approach elections, the market-place of ideas, with a similar mind-set. The candidates become salespersons offering themselves for consumption. We, in turn, gobble up the messenger as much as the message. We sniff out their sales pitch for deceit or empty rhetoric. I think we over-estimate our sniffer and get  less than we bargained for.

Three characteristics come to mind which seem to me more pronounced now than ever before, passivity, instant gratification and external thinking. If only I had this then I could do that. It has been suggested that it robs us of our creativity which comes from within. A consumer-based society is self-serving and insatiable.

We have become spectators to these debates the same way we watch a football game from the couch. Points are scored, gaffes noted, aggression is admired just short of hostility. Sportsmanship marked by civility and grace wins points as long as it isn’t perceived as weakness. We demand satisfaction. In short, it is theater. Performance trumps programs.

In last night’s vice-presidential encounter both candidates articulated their party’s position. They clashed as their principles clash. The faithful walked away satisfied that no ground was ceded. Who knows what the fickle few were shopping for? Were they looking for an imagined drinking buddy? Would they buy a car from this guy or that one? 

Does a debate offer us a glimpse of how decisions are made? I don’t buy it. Today’s version of the Repugnant party is characterized by fear and loathing. George W Bush got reelected by creating a climate of an imminent terrorist threat. His muscular foreign policy sent troops abroad with losses exceeding 9/11. Yet he presented himself as a benign fool. If the Bush years were a used car lot we bought a lemon.

Ultimately democracy relies on informed participation. To the extent that these debates promote a consumerist passivity they do a disservice. Perhaps they arouse the respective bases but how are the numbers moved in polling? I fear low-info voters, if they watch at all, are swayed by superficial images of frowns and smiles, posture and delivery rather than substance and veracity. Under the chrome and polish there’s an engine. One party is inclusive and will deliver us broad-based security, healthcare and common sense; the other will move us counter-clockwise and drive off-shore to the Cayman Islands.

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