Cleveland Uber Alles

Untimely Dispatches from the Neighborhood of the Unrepresented & Inarticulate; Anecdotes that Pedal and Coast Through the Boot-Print of 20th Century American Urbanism

Thursday, January 19, 2006

But Will It Sell in Beachwood? Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly links to an article by Garance Franke-Ruta in the American Prospect, which details the recent efforts of a company called Environics to use demographic/consumer research to find a better way to sell progressive politics to America. One important finding of the research that the company conducted in 2005 seems to confirm a lot of the conventional wisdom as to why John Kerry lost the 2004 election: talk about values and "character" connect more with voters than does talk about what Democrats like to call "Kitchen Table Issues." As Franke-Ruta reports:

"The new data have convinced even the most skeptical that an approach that worked in the industrial age is not as suited to the new, globalized information-era economy, where isolated voters look first at character as they assess candidates. Last August, for example, the Democracy Corps political polling firm released a memo that sharply diverged from the firm’s usual reports on such generic Democratic concerns as jobs, prescription drug benefits, and heath insurance. In focus groups held among rural voters in Wisconsin and Arkansas, as well as disaffected Bush voters in Kentucky and Colorado, pollsters Karl Agne and Stanley Greenberg found that concerns about a stagnant economy, job security, health-care costs, and the war in Iraq were consistently trumped by questions of values. "[A]s powerful as the concern over [economic] issues is, the introduction of cultural themes -- specifically gay marriage, abortion, the importance of the traditional family unit, and the role of religion in public life -- quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the national level," Agne and Greenberg wrote. "Particularly among non-college educated voters, cultural issues not only superseded other concerns, they served as a proxy for many voters on those other issues."
Note, of course, that focus here is not on what politicians do, but on what they talk about and how. The lesson here is one on display at shopping malls, and in things like the woeful U.S. personal savings rate, which is currently in negative territory: people don't actually understand economics in terms of dollars and cents, but rather in terms of consuming habits. Or in concrete terms: it's enough to say you own a BMW to convince a typical American you are a successful, and even (gasp) a moral person. The petty (well, not so petty) details of your owning the car (e.g. whether you had to borrow money for it, at what terms, whether the payments affect other quality of life issues for you, such as your ability to save for child's college education, etc.) just doesn't matter and real dollars and cents thinking just doesn't get done (or hardly gets done with any savvy) at the average Americans' kitchen table, and Democrats, who do this kind of thinking and talk about it in their speeches, simply don't connect with their audiences, who prefer talk about economics in clear terms, like BMWs in the driveway. The advice the researchers give is for Dems to stop cedeing the field to Republicans when it comes to talking about "values"--as in, well, Americans may not understand why the repeal of the estate tax causes budgetary troubles and ultimately will cost them in their own pocketbooks, but they will understand "Sid and Steve want a marriage license." While forcing the Demorcrats to "talk values" and cultivate "character" may be winning politics, it does have an awful underbelly: many of us want to vote Democratic precisely because the party is (well, more) grounded in reality, and because of our sense that politicians in the Democratic party don't buy bullshit, like "you are what you buy," or at least put bullshit thinking like this on the backburner, prefering think instead about things like Housing and Urban Development. Moreover, on almost all the "values issues" we are on the opposite side of Johnny of what Jenny and Johny McMansion believe, as sit they in traffic, locked in their SUV (to play up an unfortunate suburban stereotype). My own hope--which is a misbegotten one, given that the suburbs won't stop expanding and wielding greater political influence (as the Greater Cleveland areas history over the last 20 years itself attests)--is that the Democrats would be able to launch a culture war of their own: to get people to reject the me-first, fear-based value system that is becoming more and more prevalent throughout the nation, as this quote (also in the Franke-Ruta article) from Environics founder Michael Adams points out:
"While American politics becomes increasingly committed to a brand of conservatism that favors traditionalism, religiosity, and authority," Adams writes, "the culture at large [is] becoming ever more attached to hedonism, thrill-seeking, and a ruthless, Darwinist understanding of human competition."
I would argue, as Thomas Frank does in The Conquest of Cool and elsewhere, that this is the binge and purge of modern American Capitalism and one side feeds the other: get wild at the strip mall dance club and pray at the mall-like Mega-Church later, I suppose. And it seems to me, too, that there has to be a way to work against this culture, and one that's not so monolithic and intellectually foolish as efforts launched by the likes of Bill Bennet. Meanwhile, let the marketer's direct the Democrats: asking, "But will it sell in Beachwood?" about things like privacy and fairness and beware of the results you get.


At 1:09 AM, Blogger derek said...

We saw this when Reagan beat Carter in '80. That set a dangerous precedent.

Americans need to focus more on the issues, no matter what age of the economy we are in. Sure, you can't have a scoundrel in there but how he/she will deal with the issues is paramount.


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