Monday, September 03, 2012


I just watched Clint Eastwood's so-called "Chair Speech" at the Republican National Convention on YouTube via a facebook friend. I mean, I've spent the past week totally missing out on the RNC due to my hurricane-imposed communications blackout, so I might as well check out what appears to be the high novelty moment of the event, right? Okay, to be fair, I probably would have ignored the RNC, anyway, hurricane or not, excluding a few pundit-chosen highlights here and there, which is what I do with all national political party conventions these days. But the Man with No Name's moment in the spotlight simply makes plain why I couldn't care less about what happens at these things.

I suppose it was a good speech as far as speeches go. It held my attention. I was entertained. It was funny. The chair was a clever device. And there was some content with which even I, a liberal, could agree. On the other hand, it was almost entirely devoid of substance. Sure, there were a few guaranteed applause lines aimed directly at his conservative anti-Obama audience, but there was absolutely no argument offered. "Obama is running the country into the ground; vote Romney" is not an argument: it's an assertion. An assertion delivered by a good looking grandfatherly figure who America loves and trusts, despite political persuasion. An assertion delivered with conviction and certainty. An assertion designed to be as inoffensive as possible, so as to draw in as many viewers as possible. Eastwood's speech barely rose above the level of commercial advertisement, which places him right smack dab in the mainstream of Republican politics.

Now, this observation, in itself, is not to be understood as an indictment of just the Republicans. Far from it, Democrats have recently embraced fully this approach, too. Remember "hope and change"? Just another ad campaign inviting you to drink the Democrats' brand of soda instead of the Republicans' more tried and true flavor. Seriously, the overwhelming thrust of Obama's 2008 presidential run was a direct appeal to emotions, offering very little in the way of policy specifics or point-to-point clash with conservative ideas. Yes, you could find detailed policy papers on his campaign's website, if you wanted, but that's a zone which, in reality, is for political junkies only--most people just don't spend time scouring the internet for political information, and everybody who runs campaigns, both Republican and Democrat, understand this, and calculate their strategies accordingly.

So bigtime electoral politics have nothing to do with ideas and everything to do with how people feel. That is, bigtime electoral politics are simply advertising campaigns selling us a candidate-as-product.

Think of everything you know about advertising. All of it comes into play for presidential elections. All the psychology. All the effort to influence and manipulate consumer/voters without their being terribly aware of what's actually going on. The end goal of making the consumer/voter think he came up with his idea all by himself. All the irrational fears swept away by mouthwash or deodorant or a bigger cooler car or a he-man President who'll kill the terrorists or put the minority-haters in their place. We know that advertising works, even while we ignorantly dismiss its effects on our own individual selves: we know that advertising works because we know that it is a multi-billion dollar industry that's been around for a very long time. And the full force of the industry comes to bear every four years pitching the most important product of all, the President of the United States.

That brings us back to Dirty Harry's "Chair Speech." Nothing new, and fairly typical. Style without substance. Feelings without logic. Par for the course for both parties. But I hope you see why this is a problem. Our form of government rests on an assumption that is so foundational, so embedded in our notion of what democracy means, that we rarely, if ever, even mention it: American democracy assumes that the position supported by the best arguments, the best evidence, the best logic and reasoning, is the best position, and that it will necessarily rise to prominence through the democratic system. But bringing the full force of advertising into the equation totally destroys that assumption--in reality, the most emotional appeal, the appeal that sets our fears to rest and makes us feel good about ourselves, brings a given position to prominence. That is to say, we're not doing democracy the way we think we're doing democracy. We blunder blindly, like the passionate Romeo, who loves Rosaline one day and Juliet the next, letting our hearts, which have no brains, and are easily manipulated, guide us in the most important decision we make as citizens.

And yeah, America now looks like some atrocity designed by touchy-feely post-hippie 70s weirdos as a result. That, or an action blockbuster rah-rah machine gun movie. Either way, it's not an America that any real American wants, but, sadly, it is the one we have.