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Happy Spokesmodel Selection Day to one and all. I am certainly not the first to comment on the commodification of American politics in general and this race specifically, but a little more can be said before we’re on the next distraction tomorrow. This election has been primarily a contest between the values of experience and progress. The neo-cons after preaching an End of History/Everything is Different Now doctrine since 9/11 to justify their security policies, were forced to run on a platform of Experience when the Democrats offered a candidate with a truly novel image. This was, of course, an unwinnable position for the neo-cons. You cannot claim that all bets are off, our prior understanding is invalid and the world of the 21st Century requires a radical new understanding, and then claim that the old white man with experience fighting Communists is the only safe bet.

The Democrats were able to snatch the mantle of newness from the neo-cons by running a candidate that the Republicans simply couldn’t. Nothing could be more unique, more new, and therefore more suited to the End of History word view than a black man with a very global-sounding name.

You can get this as a life size cardboard cutout

You can get this as a life size cardboard cutout

It was a brilliant coup for the Democrats. Obama ran under the banner of “Change” the very essence of a Marxian or post-modern understanding of reality. He was an empty, charismatic vessel that could be filled with everyone’s hopes and dreams. Sure, his actual policy positions were not novel (drilling for oil in the US, war on Terror in Afghanistan, staunch support for Israel), his voting record wasn’t radical (support for the bailout bill), and he got tons of funding from Wall Street, but he looked different and kept saying, “Change” and so it was possible to believe he was simply saying what was needed to get elected, and once in office he’ll reveal his Superman tights and make everything alright. He ran, in effect, as the perfect product, the magic solution to all your problems. And the public, high on hope ( a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen, a person or thing that may help or save) did much of the advertising for the campaign, filling in all the blanks with exciting, impossible dreams.

Thanks to You Tube and hip celebrity initiative, Obama was not just a presidential candidate, we was part of Will.i.am’s posse, he was sang about by hot chicks on the internet, and we was the subject of a super cool/patriotic (but not the old fuddy duddy patriotic, the new fashionable patriotic) Shepard Fairey poster. Obey. Vote Obama. Never before has a politician’s mug been emblazoned on more baby tees, baby bibs, and urban-chic stickers. You could be radical, fight the system, and be part of the greatest wave of youthful idealism to break on the shores of the US since the hippies. Without having to really do that much. Ah, and this is the challenge for people who want change beyond just a new member of the two-party establishment every 8 years.

He's even on skateboards

He's even on skateboards

Real change requires people to alter how they live, not just what buttons they wear, and what levers they pull twice a decade. How to make people swoon over local produce, bike to work, and become tax resistors is an entirely more difficult proposition. But one that’s infinitely more important than which candidate to Obey Giant.

The Brand Called Obama


Life in the Post Political Age

Moving to the Center of Elite Consensus

Obey Giant Vote for Change
(embeddable videos of celebrity endorsements)

Comments 2 comments

  1. December 22, 2008 at 5:19 pm duncombe

    I tend to agree with you James, particularly about the vacuous nature of Obama’s “change” so empty that it could be filled up with all of our particular wishes for change — and all sorts of merchandise. And…maybe there is a place for merchandise of the revolution: it gives us objects to live with, think through, remember by. Is our beef against the merchandise or is it with merchandise as a replacement for organization and politics? It’s useful to think of the Catholic Church here: they had icons, but they ALSO had priests and churches and rites and rituals and crusades. OK, that last one wasn’t so great, but the point was they didn’t use icons as a replacement for organization and action they used then in the service of these things.
    Capitalism and the fetishism of the commodity and all that may have changed the ball game, but perhaps not…

    • January 15, 2009 at 11:53 am James

      Yes, I have become more interested in the value of symbols lately, and I recognize that merchandise can serve as a modern flag or icon, uniting “imaginary communities.” My problem is not with the merchandising, but with the focus of the merchandising. The slogan “Yes we can” is definitely an inclusive one encouraging group action, and many of Obama’s speeches mentioned the importance of grassroots action. But the focus, I felt, always returned to Him, the One. I felt like the merchandise led to a deification and a hope that the great leader would make everything alright. My sister has a colleague who told her, “Every night my daughter and I pray to Obama.” Not pray for, pray to. She made this clear.

      I understand why people were so desperate for a competent leader, but that desperation led to a loss (assuming some was there to begin with) of criticality. In my conversations with Obama supporters I regularly encountered a level of cognitive dissonance that baffled me until I read an interesting article comparing political extremism with religious fundamentalism. So yes, merchandise as symbol of action is fine, merchandise as symbol of demagogue is not fine.

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