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Stadium Politics and the Rebirth of the Salesman

Populist campaigns are selling authenticity like the perfectly packaged product.
Bernie rally

A big trend this election cycle is the mega rally. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and Republican front-runner Donald Trump are drawing thousands. The results differ. Trump crushed the field in New York while Sanders floundered. But both tap into a deep desire for authenticity.

So we’re told, but it’s actually just another form of marketing.

NPR’s Tamara Keith reported Monday that supporters prefer rallies to business roundtables and town hall meetings. Those forums are stuffy and staged, she said. Rallies, however, don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are—big shows. Plus, as a Sanders supporter said: “They do seem more authentic, and I think it goes back to a lot of people in one place at one time with a similar mindset.”

Americans are unique in their desire for authenticity. We crave “real” experiences and expect our politicians to be “real.” And politicians are all too eager to meet that demand. Since the 1950s, they have presented themselves to voters using techniques from advertising and marketing.

In The Selling of the President 1968, journalist Joe McGinniss documented how former Vice President Richard Nixon exploited the difference between the real Nixon—a man who, as future Fox News chief and Nixon aide Roger Ailes said at the time, got a briefcase for Christmas “and loved it”—and the Nixon who played a seasoned statesman on television.

Given that advertising and politics are con games, McGinniss said:

It is not surprising that politicians and advertising men should have discovered one another. And, once they recognized that the citizen did not so much vote for the candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, not surprising they began to work together.

Without authenticity, however, without the supporter’s sincere belief that the candidate is who he says he is, that the candidate believes what he says he believes, this “psychological purchase” fails to take hold.

If it becomes clear that the candidate is just selling himself, no matter how charismatic, no matter how charming, he’s no longer a leader in the eyes of supporters, wrote David Foster Wallace while covering John McCain’s anti-candidate candidacy for Rolling Stone. Instead, he’s a salesman.

If you’re subjected to great salesman and sales pitches and marketing concepts for long enough—like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, say—it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you.

Wallace was onto something. According to Sandra L. Calvert, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, long-term exposure to TV advertising can lead to negative outcomes, including, among other things, cynicism. In a 2008 study, she wrote:

Children can also become cynical as they begin to understand the underlying persuasive messages of advertisements. For example, sixth and eighth graders who understand more about commercial practices, such as using celebrity endorsements, are more cynical about the products. Even so, children who are repeatedly exposed to attractive messages about “fun” products still want them, even if they are aware of advertiser selling techniques.

The implication is that even though children—and adults too, for that matter—may know that something is not what it seems, that does not stop them from wanting it.

Because politicians have been selling themselves for decades, and because young voters are so deeply familiar with the marketing strategies of advertisers, it shouldn’t be surprising to find some Americans calling for a boycott of election day as if they were boycotting Walmart.

That’s what Salon’s Danielle Corcione meant when she wrote: “When I vote for a president I don’t support, I support a flawed political system. I refuse that system.”

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with expecting the moon and stars from politicians. But there is something naive about demanding authenticity from them. The American system separates power so thoroughly that elected officials must betray constituents, as it were, to get anything done.

That’s why voting isn’t a market exchange or a “psychological purchase.” Properly understood, voting is a strategy for increasing the likelihood of putting in power someone who best serves your interests.

Mega rallies, moreover, aren’t more authentic than town hall meetings. They are in effect another kind of marketing, the very thing voters say they don’t want, but can’t prevent themselves from consuming.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.