Consuming the Barack Obama Brand

by on Sep.06, 2009, under Politics

(Be warned: this post rambles and offers no hopeful conclusions or prescriptions.)

It is no special insight to claim that Barack Obama’s candidacy was largely about his brand. Maybe not as much in the general election, when many voters chose Obama simply because they were disgusted with Republicans after the Bush years. But in the primary, people chose him not just because of his personal charisma but because his campaign managed to associate vague, desirable qualities with him. (Hope. Change.)

Of course brands are always a lie, which is why, I think, so many Democrats are disillusioned with Obama now, even though he is more or less exactly the president he promised to be. He has broken some specific promises, sure. But overall, throughout his campaign he promised to govern as a cautious, technocratic centrist, and so far he has. Yet his brand promised inspiration, and cautious technocratic centrism turns out to be totally uninspiring.

Drinking a ton of Captain Morgan does not, in fact, get you laid. It just gets you a really unpleasant hangover.

Even in their disappointment, though, many Democrats are still reacting fundamentally as consumers of politics. That’s it, they say, I’m not donating any more to the Democratic Party. I’m not buying any more of that.

This is no surprise. It’s how we of a certain class and political bent are encouraged to conduct all of our political activism these days. We buy recycled paper towels and wind-powered electricity. We buy Fair Trade-certified coffee. I buy all these things myself. When we get mad at the owner of Whole Foods, we hold personal boycotts.

So who can blame us for trying to buy a president and then getting buyer’s remorse?

I think that in the end, it will never work for us to approach politics this way. That’s because the consumer mindset depends on the highly attractive idea that my individual choices matter. They do when I am consuming consumer goods. In politics, though, collective action is all that counts.

Unfortunately, because this is how we are most comfortable interacting with the world—as consumers who believe, each of us, that our individual choices are of paramount importance—I also think it will be very difficult if not impossible for us to adopt a different paradigm for political action. Small groups may find new ways to exert political pressure, but I’m guessing that the vast majority of Americans will remain political consumers.

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