The displacement of meaningful civic engagement by political consumerism and lurid media spectacle is suffocating U.S. democracy. In the record $6.5 billion 2016 election cycle, a total that excludes untraceable dark money, the consumerist conquest of civic life became nearly complete, with empty partisan noise reverberating 24/7 through global media echo chambers in inverse proportion to the shriveling substance of daily civic life.
Before the advent of spectacular politics, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford accepted public funding during the 1976 presidential campaign and spent $35.5 million and $33.4 million respectively, an inflation adjusted total of $158 million. Today, the multibillion-dollar campaign spectacle is permanent, punctuated only by a single day for elections.
A healthy democracy is predicated not on what philosopher Guy Debord described as “an immense accumulation of spectacles” but on the daily practice and attitude of engaged civil life by citizens working far outside the nexus of corporate-sponsored political parties.
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Countering the devolution of democracy into consumerism requires understanding its underlying rationale and organizational mechanics.
The Role of Political Parties and Media in Election Spectacles
The U.S. Democratic and Republican Parties of the 21st century are money-laundering operations in which cash investments are converted into political capital for a small donor class consisting of corporations, banks and the wealthy, who delivered 67.8 percent of all political donations in the 2016 election cycle.
The job of the parties is to stage-manage and relentlessly promote a permanent multibillion-dollar electoral competition among dozens of candidate-contestants vying to represent one of the two major brands in the final November round. In the 2020 election cycle, 24 Democratic presidential candidates declared their candidacies 80 to 100 weeks before the election, while President Trump filed for re-election January 20, 2017, the day of his inauguration.
Once the officially sponsored candidates are selected, the job of the parties shifts to promoting the coming election blockbuster in the most apocalyptic terms possible in order to rouse a weary electorate and divert attention from the imperial ethos underlying the entire enterprise.
The template was established in the 1964 presidential election by former President Lyndon Johnson’s infamous “Daisy ad” warning of nuclear holocaust if his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater were to be elected. In 1968, former President Richard Nixon continued the theme with a campaign tagline admonishing voters, “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.” Every election is touted as “the most important of our lifetime,” with nearly certain apocalypse if the wrong candidate is elected.
The parties subcontract lucrative marketing duties for this end-of-days spectacle to media outlets controlled by billionaire news entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos (The Washington Post), the Sulzberger family and Carlos Slim (The New York Times) or Rupert Murdoch and family (Fox News, Wall Street Journal) and a constellation of global corporations (Viacom, Time-Warner, GE, Disney, Clear Channel) that control the majority of other major news outlets — NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, et al. Social media duties are farmed out to Facebook and its subsidiaries (WhatsApp, Instagram, Oculus Virtual Reality), Alphabet (Google and YouTube) and Twitter.
In exchange for being given carte blanche to drive ratings and pad their bottom lines, the primary job of this cluster of traditional and new media conglomerates is to normalize the permanent marketization of spectacular politics in ways that ensure outcomes causing minimal disruption to the structure and operations of global capital and the permanent warfare state.
OpenSecrets estimates that from July 2015 through October 2016, Trump received free media worth more than $5.9 billion, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received nearly $2.8 billion. In exchange for this free news coverage, 3.3 million paid TV ads ran in 2016, generating a record $2.3 billion in revenue, while Facebook ad revenue jumped 57 percent over 2015 to an all-time high of $26 billion.
At the lower end of the media spectrum, tens of thousands of small donors (32.2 percent of total donations) give enthusiastically to candidates promising radical change while claiming not to accept special interest money.
These donors are like amateur political day-traders investing in alternative political brands and scrappy campaign startups that rarely succeed. The process of surviving the spectacle’s demeaning vetting process ensures that any candidate who emerges is captive to the financialized global system that spawned them.
Even campaigns built around themes of change and a politics of hope quickly morph into governance predicated on permanent warfare, capital consolidation and the inexorable growth of economic inequality.
This is not democracy. It is an elaborate form of empty political consumerism that has been drained as nearly as possible of meaningful political agency.
How the Political Consumer Spectacle Works
There is a symbiotic relationship between the methods used in consumer marketing and the strategies and tactics employed in political campaigns.
The management of consumer discontent in the form of incessant brand switching has become a dominant issue of U.S. business culture. Marketing analysts describe a “switching economy” in which regular brand changing has increased nearly 30 percent since 2010.
The new lingo of the marketing class is therefore laden with political jargon about strategies that promote “meaningful engagement” and “empowerment” by giving consumers “authentic experiences” to earn loyalty and trust.
These tactics and strategies are now used to manage political discontent.
Gallup reports that in June 2019, between 41 and 46 percent of Americans self-identify as Independent, among the highest percentages since Gallup’s polling of party affiliation began in 2004. Conditioned to think and act like consumers, and feeling they have no meaningful outlet for their most deeply felt political impulses, a considerable cohort among the electorate has grudgingly shifted their desire for change into political brand switching in a new electoral market centered on the endless distractions of permanent spectacle.
Rolling Stone political correspondent Matt Taibbi observes that Trump’s fundamental insight in 2015-16 was that U.S. presidential elections are “basically just a big reality show … with bad characters” in which show producers have the impossible task of turning “human sedatives” such as former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham into political stars who might appeal to voters.
Taibbi notes that Trump realized the show needed new production values with a “reality actor in the middle … to take advantage of the stagecraft” that comes with a multibillion-dollar production budget.
There is ample evidence that many voters reject both party brands and want to send the entire system up in smoke. For example, a post-election analysis by The Washington Post found an electorally significant percentage of Obama voters switched to Trump in 2016. They shared comments such as, “We need to change everything,” and “I’m excited to see him blow the place up.” The New York Times reports that, “The voters who switched from President Obama to Mr. Trump in 2016 were decisive.” Further, 7.8 million voters cast ballots for third-party candidates in 2016, leading analyst Stuart Rothenberg to conclude: “Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.”
Given the current weakness of party identification, electorally significant numbers of voters can be convinced to switch political brands as easily as consumer brands based solely on over-the-top marketing blandishments offering the cheap thrill of taboo-breaking. In 2016, Trump’s carnivalesque campaign, with its unbridled fascistic exaltation of nation and race above community and civil life, gave them a vehicle for doing so.
With the U.S. confronting nuclear threats and environmental crises across the globe, the multibillion-dollar politics of performance, spectacle and racist carnival are not only inadequate to today’s political challenges, they are a clear threat to democracy and peace.
Reimagining Democratic Political Civilization
French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, “Democracy depends on many things besides voting.” Rather, he believed the most important and distinguishing characteristic of U.S. democracy was the universality of “free voluntary civil association.”
Civil association, in which neither government nor private markets are sovereign, is democracy’s training ground. It creates emotionally mature citizens, not partisan voters easily manipulated by divisive party politics. That is its vital function.
The U.S. no longer bothers to train citizens in democracy; that is, teaching people to become effective citizens and members of their community rather than partisan voters. Voting, with its devolution into political consumerism, opens the door to fascistic demagoguery and is clearly insufficient to sustain democracy. This is not a small thing. It is at the center of current U.S. political dysfunction.
Finding ways to bring accountability to today’s permanent political spectacle is necessary and vital work. Yet, it cannot become a substitute for the long-term labor of reimagining and rebuilding a modern democratic civil society.
Sharp political disagreements are inevitable, but the core of a healthy civil society is civility and ultimately civilization itself. It is only through civil association that citizens learn how to deal with their differences to advance a common cause.
Parties cannot do the work of building civil society. Only citizens can. Their work has traditionally taken place in the non-monetary social economy, a space outside the consumerist pull of the market where they can come together voluntarily to solve community problems, such as the role of Black churches during the civil rights movement.
Over the past decade, new forms of open-source social mapping have begun to chart the variety of civil associations and to facilitate connections among them based on the belief that collective action depends on the social networks that civil associations embody.
Absent the associative practices and buffering effects of civil association, social problems become national in scope, while political life, defying the maxim that all politics are local, devolves into consumer spectacle.