Potter: There’s a reason they sell us electoral Big Macs

Any party that wants to govern should have the lowest common denominator onside

I arrived at work one day last week to find someone had placed a John McCain “Call to Action” figure on my desk. You can have one too—they are widely available online for only US$13.95—but perhaps you’d prefer the Sarah Palin model, a bit pricier at $27.95? Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s image is emblazoned on a short dress by designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, recently on display at Paris Fashion Week.

Here in Canada, it is hoped a sweater vest will change the PM’s image from aloof alien to folksy family man, while NDP ads have been fighting back against their leader’s “Taliban Jack” label by calling his position “The New Strong.”

Yes, whatever your partisan leanings this election season, there is a brand for you. Politics seems more and more a branch of marketing, with parties and leaders packaged and sold using the same techniques used to sell energy drinks, NBA players and everything in between.

A lot of people find this highly objectionable. At best (goes the complaint), the consequence of turning politics into marketing is the Big Macification of civil discourse. At worst, it turns us into “Manchurian voters,” the manipulation that goes on in political advertising leading to people being basically tricked or bamboozled into voting for a false image that masks a sinister agenda.

This view is widely held. It also happens to be completely wrong. The selling of politics does not undermine democracy, it enhances it, and the branding of political parties and leaders it not a tool for manipulating voters, it is a means of enabling democratic participation.

Consider how brands work. The central question that every consumer faces is, “How do I know I’m not getting ripped off?” How do you know that the bag of flour isn’t adulterated, or that these new shoes won’t fall apart the minute you get home? Unless you’ve managed to follow the entire production process from start to finish, you don’t. You trust the flour isn’t full of bugs because Robin Hood says so. You have faith the sneakers will withstand a running season or two because Nike has put its swoosh on them.

Political brands work the same way. In an election, the question every voter needs an answer to is, “How do I know what I’m buying into with my vote? How do I know I’m not getting snookered?”

This is where political brands, better known as parties, come in. The role of the party is more or less to take the dense convolutions of modern governance and reduce them to a relatively simple brand proposition. Are you generally in favour of a strong central government that will build national social programs? Then vote Liberal. Would you prefer a more decentralized federation and limited state interference in your life and in the economy? The Conservatives are the party for you.

The paradox of all branding is that the more complicated things get, the simpler the messaging has to be, which is why politics has become so intensely focused on the party leader’s character and image. It’s pretty remarkable: the next U.S. president will control a budget of somewhere north of $3 trillion, and voters are basically being asked to choose between two brands, Barack Obama’s “Change” and John McCain’s “Honour.”

What of the worry that politics ends up being marketed like Big Macs, pitched to the lowest common denominator? The proper reply is, so what? The emphasis there should be not on the word “lowest,” but on the word “common.” The government has the job of wielding a monopoly over the use of violence, among other things, and any party that wants to claim the right to do that had darn well better make sure it has the lowest common denominator onside, or it is in big trouble. In a democracy, every politician is in the business of selling electoral Big Macs, and anyone who thinks that’s not his job is either a born loser or a tyrant manqué.

Most people don’t have the time or, frankly, the ability to properly digest policy documents or drafts of new bills, and the distillation of the stupendous complexities of the modern state to a handful of simple but distinct brands is not just useful, but necessary. As in the consumer economy so in modern politics—both would grind to a halt without brands as a lubricant.

Let’s give voters a little credit. People are no more bamboozled by a John McCain action figure into voting for John McCain than they are tricked into buying a PC because Jerry Seinfeld is in the ad. That just isn’t the way branding or human behaviour works.

Indeed, whether it’s Nike’s swoosh or Harper’s sweater vest, no one ever admits to being a dupe of the marketing—the worry is always that other people are being manipulated: I can see the agenda hidden under Harper’s sweater, but other people aren’t nearly so perceptive.

But this is a slippery, dangerous slope. When the mere fact that someone supports the other side becomes evidence that they have been brainwashed, then you no longer believe in democracy.