The Politics of You

Media, marketing and the darkness of election season


Illustration by Cierra Pedro

We’ve heard plenty about how our online search data allows the once-blind adman Mr. Magoogle to see us sharply, profile us quickly and set us up as easy marks. And soon enough, no doubt, we’ll be sharing even more—our vital signs, our neurotransmitter activity, spikes in our blood pressure as we type in the words “” Anonymity always was a chimera, right? If you can read them, they’ll be reading you.

So maybe you find yourself longing for the obscurity of old media, the blissful loneliness of sitting in front of your TV at half-past 1 a.m., cat curled up alongside you on the couch as you watch Frasier, secure in the knowledge that Frasier is not watching you. But even the cozy wee-hours Frasier rerun comes at a steep price. To wit: Have you been injured in an accident? Have you developed allergies to your cotton undergarments? Do you feel betrayed by your state assemblywoman? Are your shoes too tight?

The dizzying mix of politics and personal injury served up on late-night and midday TV tells us about more than the sorry state of the old-media world and its geriatric audience. It sheds light on how we arrived at our much broader sorry state of political gridlock and social dislocation.

Long before Google knew what was on our minds, we surrendered our mental sovereignty by embracing the economy of grievance and victimhood. If you watch the insomniac Frasier matinee long enough, or for that matter the noontime reruns of Father Knows Best, you’ll see that the personal-injury come-on and the political attack ad have identical emotional cores: Something has been taken from us; we are consumed by that taking; it plunges us into cycles of pain, dismay and righteous retribution. And somebody must be made to pay.

In the mild autumn air of even-numbered years, we’ve grown accustomed to learning from our friendly neighborhood political advertiser just what we’ve lost or are in the process of losing: our guns, our values, our jobs, our standing in the world, our profits, our voting rights, our children’s education, our secure retirement, our right to owe little to our government while still expecting a great deal from it. Nostalgia plays a big role in these appeals: Some ads, in essence, tell us that what has been taken away is the 1950s; others lament that Ronald Reagan brought the long 1960s to a close. Many of the grievances have a grain of truth, but all of them reposition social change as theft. These advertisers know us well; they understand the art of the emotional appeal; they know just what “moves the needle.”

Our political and judicial systems have from the start been built around the generally healthy notion that wrongs should be righted, justice must be done and the bums must be thrown out of office. Political outrage and personal-injury law both have their rightful, sometimes even righteous, place in the great American story. The problem arises when politics and justice become salable commodities—i.e., when personal and political discontent is manufactured and marketed for the profit of a glib class of venture capitalists specializing in the alchemy of grievance.

Politicians, lawyers and pseudo-journalists forever invite us to mourn our lost, stolen and denied paradises. Every misfortune, real or perceived, becomes an opportunity not simply to be “made whole” but to be transformed by indignation into a knight of the lost world, a fighter against the eternal “them.” Demagogic argumentation replaces subtle storytelling; selective evidence replaces incident; certainty condemns nuance to the dungeon of our consciousness. In time of battle, gray zones are occupied only by the weak. The man who has been robbed gives no quarter to thieves.

And, dear Frasier fans and flame warriors, we have all been robbed; it doesn’t take Big Data to understand that we’ve got wounds to lick. For decades, the merchants of loss—the politicians, their consultants and their party machines—have mined our sneaking suspicion of having been shortchanged and sold it back to us as certainty. We’ve been repurchasing and ingesting our own highly refined darkness.

The stuff is powerful. It creates the conditions for chronic distrust, petty greed, cold civil war. We’ve become obsessed with getting our due; now we’re getting what’s coming to us. Happy election season!

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