Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nuance? HELL YEAH!

File as part 4 of a larger series entitled: "Yes, We are Doomed. But look! I baked cookies!"

The lines between our political and commercial life have become blurred. Selling and buying is the game, whether the product is disposable razors or positions on abortion rights. The techniques taught at business schools are consciously and rigorously applied by politicians and their handlers on a daily basis.

And that's not good for the quality of our governing.

Why? Because the secret of effective governance is mastery of the nuance and complexity of all relevant issues. The key to selling lots of stuff, on the other hand, is to create a mass market with unvarying tastes, and get them all to buy one unvarying product by promoting it with a short, simple message that requires no effort on the consumer's part to understand.

In other words, you can make good public policy or hit your quarterly sales forecast. But you can't do both.

Nuance and complexity are the stuff of reality. They are also completely unmarketable. An effective car commercial will be focused and simple. Is it a sexy vehicle? Is it sensible? Safe? At the most, an ad might suggest that the car is both sexy AND sensible. "Dear God!" exclaim viewers, their minds reeling, "that car is TWO THINGS AT ONCE! I need Xanax NOW!"

Can the health care debate be boiled down to two monolithic ideas? ("Private health care. The highest quality care that you can't afford.")

Another thing that product marketers try to do in their ads is induce an emotional rather than intellectual response. It's well understood that it's much easier to reach someone's heart and/or gut in 15-30 seconds than their head. It's also a much more effective and reliable way to generate a buying response.

The result of this in the political realm is that complicated matters of public policy that require the utmost intellectual engagement are stripped of all meaningful substance and wrapped in some tangential or irrelevant emotionally-charged packaging before they are "put on the market." Remember the ads (on both sides of the issue) when the quixotic push for privatizing social security was on? Whether the ad was pro or con, there was sure to be a sad old lady who didn't know what she was going to do.

But for the most part, nobody bothers to try to sell issues as complex as health care or social security reform. Sure, you can dress them up in a lacy thong and put lipstick on them, but the public won't be fooled. They know these issues are BORING. And boring is the worst thing there is.

Which brings us to another big problem with policies as consumer goods: not only are the issues repackaged beyond recognition, certain issues never get put on the shelves at all for reasons totally unrelated to how important those issues might be to our well-being or ability to thrive. Instead we get only hot-button issues like abortion or gay marriage. These issues that evoke a visceral response are the only ways for politicians to get noticed and stay noticed. And being noticed is the air that politicians need to survive.

Were things always this way? Clearly, election campaigns and lowest-common-denominator salesmanship have always gone hand-in-hand. But the drive for politicians to sell, sell, sell every minute of every day is largely a phenomenon of the last 30 or 40 years. For one thing, the intensely competitive television news cycle delivers information instantaneously to people that don't read, which in itself leads to increased pandering. Also, today's constant polling is like a perpetual stream of sales figures that compel politicians to adjust their marketing plans on an ongoing basis.

And let's not forget that this idea of selling public policy is more than an analogy. Newspapers and TV networks are literally selling advertising against the dramatic quality of political rhetoric.

It's difficult to see how this story can have a happy ending without profound changes in the way politicians conduct their dialogue with the public. That will require tough legislation that constrains the media and the way money flows into and can be spent by campaigns, and a re-evaluation of our national unqualified worship of the Market As Good For All Things. Wake me up when that happens.

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