Life In the Post Political Age

Every now and then I am fortunate enough to communicate with someone who has near complete insight into our political process, why things happen and where it seems likely to be headed. Recently I received this brilliant analysis from a high powered political consultant whose name is withheld for obvious reasons. He/she has to live and work in the political world and for either party. In any case, I found it breathtaking in its fundamental analysis and its clarity — clarity being no easy thing to accomplish is the swamp of media-consumerism-politics.
– Joe Bageant

Much has been written by political pundits in their attempt to explain the unexpected victory of Senator Barack Obama over Senator Hillary Clinton in this year’s Democratic Presidential Primary.
When looking at the results of this race, none of the conventional political math that would help one handicap the outcome would make one conclude that Senator Obama would win this contest.

Inside a Democratic Party primary there is no demographic or political reason that a male first term African American senator from Illinois with an unorthodox name should come any where close to beating a white female senator, who happens to be the wife of the last Democratic President whose approval ratings are still above 70% with Democratic voters and who also happened to earn the endorsements of the substantial parts of the Democratic Party establishment.

The conventional analysis focused on the poor quality of the campaign run by Senator Clinton, her vote in support of the Iraq war and her advocacy of the cynical center-right triangulation policies of her husband, which soured her campaign to many primary voters and especially to Democratic Party activists. Senator Obama’s on the other hand was credited with running an innovative and inspiring campaign that excited primary voters and brought many new and especially younger voters into the electoral process.

There is some truth to this analysis, but as a whole it misses the underlying social change in society that had already laid the groundwork for a possible Obama victory. To get a clearer understanding of the results, we must better understand what this social change is and how its impact is far more significant than the dynamics of the two respective campaigns.

The underlying social change that led to the Obama victory is the unprecedented extent to which the narrative of popular consumer culture, and the media that drives it, has become the dominant influence on how Americans think, formulate their ideas and understand the world around them.

The most important result of this process has been the steady and consistent depoliticization of American society, to an extent that we can make the case that we are living at the dawn of the post political age.

The two primary features of the post political age are a politics completely drained of all its contents and ability or willingness to be used as an agent of change in social or economic policy, and its full integrations into the world of American popular, consumer and entertainment culture. To such an extent that there exists today a seamless web between our political, economic, media and consumer cultures wherein the modes and values of one are completely integrated and compatible with the others.

It should not come as a surprise that the dominant ideas and mores of popular culture have become the dominant ideas of our society. Popular culture is the breaker of customs, prejudice, tradition and relevant historical knowledge.

It is a result of this dynamic that the two consistent winners in American politics over the last 30 years have been the cultural left and the economic right. Despite the massive organizing drive of the religious right over the past three decades, they are further away from reversing the cultural liberalization of American society than when they started. On others side of the ledger, organized labor outside of a few urban pockets and industries is no longer a relevant force in American life. The ever greater electoral activism of both of these groups is generally misunderstood as a show of strength; in fact, it is the exact opposite. It is the desperate fight of the losing side of the American economic, cultural and political scene.

In essence the same forces that make it possible for the rapid acceptance of ideas such as gay marriage are the same force which can create a society that will accept massive social inequalities.

In the post political world and the candidates who can best thrive in it have tremendous appeal to the economic elites, a system that does not dwell on issues and will never ask the question, “who has power and why”, but simultaneously creates a social and media environment of stupefying distractions while destroying traditional social mores (under-credited as a source of much social solidarity). This can only benefit their continued rule of that society.

In such a setting our political choices like our consumer choices, regardless of the product, are primarily about what makes us more fulfilled and feel better about ourselves.

Senator Obama’s campaign understood much better the impact of these changes on our electoral system than any of his opponents’ campaigns. In the post political world, the campaign that is less political and less issue-based but is savvier in using new modes of communication technology will be the campaign to win the greatest market share of the electorate. The candidate in this case, Obama, was not a political entity but, in essence a product, an ornament that made his supporters feel better about themselves.

One of the most telling facts about the Obama’s constituency outside of African Americans (whose support needs no explanation) is that it is a coalition of people who need or demand the least amount of social benefit from our government. They are the under politicized younger voters and upper middle class whites. The two groups, coincidently, are the ones most influenced by trends in consumer popular culture and have the greatest of ease using the latest technologies.

In commercial advertising it is the poor commercial that lists the seventeen functions of the product being marketed. The best commercials are based on image associations entirely unrelated to the functions of the actual product. In the post political world, when the same principle is applied to the political realm, it makes complete sense how Barack Obama no longer is a black man with a strange name but the iPod to Hillary Clinton’s cell phone. In the world of toys it is the one that stands out the most is the most marketable.

The reality of the post political period is best highlighted in the failed themes and ideas of Barack Obama’s two primary opponents. The Clinton campaign was based on pushing two concurrent ideas: the inevitability factor of her candidacy and the other was her supposed experience. The only thing inevitable in the post political period is ceaseless change, which she could hardly offer while running against the candidate of “Change”. How valuable of an asset can experience be in a culture where knowledge, wisdom and history are frowned upon?

John Edwards campaign on the other hand was dead on arrival. His theme and emphasis was America’s ever widening class differences, a platform as truthful as it was irrelevant. The use of the word “class” will end any political career in America. That truth violates the primary narrative that our elite use to justify their legitimacy, which is the supposed meritocratic nature of America society. While the post political constituencies have absolutely no interest in class, whose very acknowledgment are the bases of all real politics and whose acknowledgement would only lead to an existential crisis in its ranks. In the post political period the only differences allowed can be in style and modes of consumption.

Given all this as the background, what are we to make of the campaign of the candidate of hope, audacity and change? The answer lies in understanding Senator Obama’s appeal to the brighter sections of the economic and political elite, and more importantly in the lack of any organized opposition against him, of the kind that within a matter of days destroyed Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004.

At the precise moment that the intellectual underpinnings of conservative free market ideas that have dominated politics for the past 30 years are crumbling across the globe. Obama calls for a post ideological and partisan world.

At the time when the American military industrial complex is despised around the world, he is a front man out of central casting which will buy it more goodwill and new room to maneuver in the first 15 minutes after being sworn in that John McCain could in the next 100 years.

His very presence, the color of his skin, the very strangeness of his name is the best guarantee of his betrayal of the expectations of the constituencies that will vote to elect him. Barack Obama is in short order a far more reassuring prospect for the continued dominance of the financial elite than another four years of neo-conservative rule which in an almost historically unique combination of greed, ill will, incompetence and stupidity have brought the country to the edge of disaster.

Audacity yes, change hardly.

Joe Bageant is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War (Random House Crown), about working class America. He is also a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland" edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, to be published this summer by AK Press. A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on his website. Feel free to contact him at: joebageant@joebageant.com. Read other articles by Joe, or visit Joe's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Lynn said on July 23rd, 2008 at 10:53am #

    Obama is very alluring for those desiring a real change. We want to believe so very badly that someone will deliver us from the insanity. The pundits reassure us that Obama’s policy shifts are just the normal “moving to the center” after the primary while bloggers tell us he’s just being cagey and will show us his real colors after winning the election. Unfortunately what we see is what we will get; more of the same.

  2. Rose said on July 23rd, 2008 at 11:48am #

    Don’t feel sorry for Mrs. Edwards. She is a classic codependent wife who has enabled her cheating husband, Senator John Edwards, to have multiple affairs, as everyone in South Carolina knows. It’s much more important to see John Edwards as he LIES to the world about his affair. Lucky for the Democrats that he didn’t get the nomination!!

  3. Lijandra said on July 23rd, 2008 at 12:08pm #

    Thanks for this interesting post. I am definitely amazed at how people seem to eat up everything Obama says even though he never explains what it is that he is going to do to change things.

  4. Marc said on July 23rd, 2008 at 1:15pm #

    This is an interesting article, and I couldn’t agree more that marketing is what is winning Senator Obama’s campaign right now but I think your source is a little of his mark when it comes to who is post-political.

    First I’d like to say that he who owns the newest form of media winning is not a new by any means. I’d cite Kennedy’s success over Nixon in the televised debates or Roosevelt’s use of the radio as a way to rally his base and out manuever the competition. The Rovian use of viral e-mails to slur Kerry was just a prototype to the Internet success Obama is having now.

    Second, I think he’s way off the map when he says that under politicized youth seek the least social benefit from the system; How many youths do you know without piles of college loans? Youths are also the least likely to have health care coverage. Also, Obama does not necessarily have a majority amongst middle class whites (depending on the poll) and that group has traditionally gone for the Republicans anyways. If he means the most energized part of the Democratic electorate well then your source is only half-right as its only educated middle class whites who seem to be active for Obama.

    The characterizations of the Clinton and Edwards campaigns were poor as well. While “inevitable” was a poor Hillary strategy, the post super-tuesday underdog Hillary was very much the class warrior and it was then when her polls saw the boost. So, obviously class isn’t what killed Edwards, and in fact, looking at the Bluedogs recent success it isn’t a political killer, its that Edwards tried to package it up in such a one-sided “I come from a cotton picking history” story without the marketing materials to go along with.

    Finally, I think your source has a blindness between the people and the institutions which are perpetuating Obama’s presidential bid. The media, the advertisers, the campaign advisers and even the politicians themselves all have a financial interest in seeing Obama win and because of the profit motive have only an interest in covering that which is the most dramatic, not the actual issues. The perfect storm of Obama’s message, media structuralization, and newness did hit the internet hard, but only at first.

    The very uncontrollable nature of the internet is already having an unraveling effect on that storm. While it is easy to peddle propaganda the problem with the internet, as opposed to TV, Newspapers and Radio, is the ability for those without a profit motive to get their message out. While Obama and Hilary were trading “Bitter” and “Bosnia” gaffes for the mainstream media to absorb the netroots nation and the Hillraisers were having it out with each other online in very sophisticated ways.

    The trend towards more knowledgeable debate online has also backfired on Obama to an extent, as recent repudiations of his candidacy amongst netroots nations members have shown that their ability to garner information outside of the Obama message control. As the MSM sits around and eats up the Obama media machine the non-profit driven, or minimally so, bloggers and net activists find less and less reasons to accept the party line and dig around on their own.

    Pew’s most recent poll shows indications of as much as youth voters appear to be just as clear or more clear than older voters this election and a full 72% of likely voters say they are very aware of what is happening in the campaign. That’s better number than in the past 5 elections. So as the cultural left grows on the internet it stands as a counter to the more profit-driven right. Yes, netrooters are more prone to mass hysterics in their democratized form of media than the more monolothic mainstream, but that same variety prevents the hysterics from going on long. The profit driven mainstream media, while having political opinions on both the left and right’s bottom line is still, well the bottom line; therefore its more in their interest to peddle hip culture in the long term, long before the netroots have woken up.

    Look to any blog, left or right, and you’ll find a dissatisfaction with the news, media and message being peddled. Look to the mainstream media, whose first victims are the newspapers, and you’ll find sagging interest and subscriptions.

    Obama has hit the end of his leash as far as the newer internet form of media goes… It’s the mainstream which continues to peddle new and hip. So while marketing absolutely is important to the campaign, I disagree with the manner of trend. New and hip is driving us more into our politics, not less so.

  5. MrSynec3 said on July 23rd, 2008 at 6:09pm #

    In my humble opinion the rise of Obama is due to being the new “slick Willy aka Bill Clinton”. He is charasmatic and a gifted orator.
    He is accepted by the people not because we are in “post political age” ,
    whatever that nonsense means, but because people are tired of the
    currennt situation and are looking for change and he is promising it.
    Of course, this is just an empty slogan and nothing will change.
    He is supported and financed by the establishment and its media because his blackness will facilitate masking and implimenting the tough measures ahead as the economy detoriorates and the wars drag
    on.

  6. HogWash said on July 24th, 2008 at 2:12pm #

    Did you see Obama giving his speech in Israel? The bootlicking and groveling was too much to stand. It will be more of the same(more Arab enemies, more war) until we get out from under the thumb of Israel.

  7. D. L. said on July 24th, 2008 at 4:42pm #

    If this consultant is correct, then I would say most Americans are in for a very rude awakening when they find out that Obama won’t change a thing. While Americans do vote based on “brand” and emotions–that fact is well established–I suspect that a year or two from now this consultant’s analysis will sound way “five minutes ago.” For him/her to say class doesn’t matter…well, when HAS class mattered in this country? (Okay, okay, the early 1900s, but since then…). When HAVE issues mattered? Slogans, yes, issues, no. (HW Bush’s “read my lips: no new taxes”; Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid!”, and W’s “humble foreign policy” come to mind…a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing). When did unions stop mattering? When they became as corrupt as they have, from Tony “Kill Yoblanski” Boyle to the sweetheart SEIU doing nothing for the lowest paid workers in this country except charging them union dues. As for Obama’s wedding to the popular culture angle of politics, I’d have to agree with Marc here: while Obama does make it with the (what should by now be termed “old school”) front man hipsters in the “popular culture” MSM, methinks these MSM folks have no clue that they are going the way of the dinosaur. Yes, the elites do like the half-black with a funny middle name…I suspect a year after Obama wins the election at their behest, however, these folks who fashion what they want us to think for their benefit only will be singing a different tune.

    Oh, and, BTW, according to this new Zogby poll (at http://briefingroom.thehill.com/2008/07/23/poll-nearly-half-of-americans-think-political-system-is-broken-and-cannot-be

    -fixed/)
    nearly 50% of Americans say the political system is broken, and nearly 20% would vote to SECEED their states from the union! And only about eleven years ago out here where I live, a faction of the “Republic of Texas” tried to do just that. Oklahoma legislature is on the verge, and so is Hawaii (reestablishing the monarchy of Hawai’i), Vermont has a strong secession movement, so does New Hampshire, and no doubt, so does Texas.

    Joe, as usual, great article. Thanks! Your blog is on my blogroll.

  8. Samson said on July 25th, 2008 at 12:18am #

    Edwards was ‘dead on arrival’ because he even in a slight and hesitant way challenged corporate power. Especially his attempts to rally labor to his cause.

    This meant he got blasts of very negative corporate media coverage. Just for instance, how often did you hear about his hair? And much of the rest of his message got blocked from reaching many people.

    In many ways this article is correct, but he fails to account for the way the corporate media helps shape a race like this. Obama was very friendly with corporate America, and well supported by them financially. And the corporate media gave Obama wonderful coverage during the campaign.

    All of this helps to create the pop culture affect described in this piece. Lets just posit that Kucinich actually had charisma. My point would be that his campaign would still go nowhere because the corporate media wouldn’t help to promote him and would turn on him and ridicule him if he became a threat.

    For the culture described in this article, which is rather shallow politically and very susceptible to fads in popular culture, it is easy for campaigns and the corporate media to manipulate that pop culture to make sure that candidates that are acceptable to corporate America are also the ones that get that cool buzz from pop culture.

    What we need to do is to build an attitude of mistrust towards the corporate media, and in that way teach people that whoever they are pushing is automatically not cool. While the cool edgy candidate that also happens to support people over corporations is the one you won’t see on tv.

  9. Samson said on July 25th, 2008 at 12:26am #

    PS … one of the interesting things to watch is how the corporate media attitude towards the Democrat nominee changes.

    In 2004, there was a vast difference between the coverage Kerry got during the primaries to what he got during the general election. He went from the golden boy during the primaries to whipping boy during the general election. And that campaign always seemed unable to deal with that and adjust.

    Obama was the golden boy this time around in the primaries. The difference is that he seems to be corporate America’s choice this time around, so it might be interesting to see just how pro-Republican the media is this time. Probably still some, as the corporations still seem to prefer a Republican president.

    But when you see that Obama has raised more than $350 million, and that its the Republican having trouble raising money and is instead taking public financing, that points to a real shift in who the corporations are backing this time around. They’ve carefully groomed the Democrats to be corporate America’s B-team to take over in just such times as these when the Republican brand is sinking.

  10. David Lowenthal said on July 25th, 2008 at 1:24pm #

    This is the stuff of genius, this is by far the best political writing i have seen for many, many years.

    Please get more such essays from the “mystery” consultant if you can.

  11. Al said on July 25th, 2008 at 5:01pm #

    But when you see that Obama has raised more than $350 million, and that its the Republican having trouble raising money and is instead taking public financing, that points to a real shift in WHO THE CORPORATIONS ARE BACKING this time around. They’ve carefully groomed the Democrats to be corporate America’s B-team to take over in just such times as these when the Republican brand is sinking.

    Samson, you hit the nail right on the noggin.

    When will the American sheeple realize, that this country belongs to zionazis & big business. Democracy, my ass!