With our political system now completely financialized, the plebs were mined for cash in a Hollywood “sweepstakes” lottery whereby thestar-struck winner dined with the stars and political elite. NPR called this recent gimmick the “latest innovation in political fundraising.” If you don’t play you can’t win, even if that means missing out on a chance to rub shoulders with a vacuous Hollywood star and a corrupt, self-serving sock-puppet politician portraying the part of a populist leader.
Here are some more staggering numbers from Thursday’s dinner:
- The $15 million Obama raised is a new fundraising record. The previous record was $11 million, set back in 2008.
- Dinner cost $40,000 a plate. As Mark Knoller of CBS News points out, that’s well over the average U.S. per capita income, which is $27,334.
- Of the $15 million raised that night, $6 million came from the roughly 150 guests in attendance. Guests included Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire, Salma Hayek, Jack Black, and Barbara Streisand.
- The remaining $9 million came thanks to a sweepstake through which supporters could win a chance to dine with Obama and Clooney. Participants could donate as little as $3.
- This dinner marks the 133rd fundraiser Obama has attended since announcing his reelection campaign 13 months ago, the most by any presidential candidate in history.
Controlling public opinion has become so much easier after decades of consumer culture indoctrination and the subjugation of the masses into atomized and passive debt slaves. Obama’s 2012 election campaign is doing it quite successfully… once again. With his opponent being a poster child for vulture capitalism, Obama can spread more populist rhetoric and co-opt the message of OWS despite the fact that the actions of his administration have proven to be very Wall Street friendly. Edward Bernays would be proud.
Matt Taibbi has an excellent post on the 2012 presidential election, focusing on how boring and apathy-producing it is, particularly compared to the 2008 election, and how this threatens to undermine one of the prime purposes of American elections — distracting citizens’ attention from what is actually being done:
Meanwhile, Obama has turned out to represent continuity with the Bush administration on a range of key issues, from torture to rendition to economic deregulation. Obama is doing things with extralegal drone strikes that would have liberals marching in the streets if they’d been done by Bush. . . .
In other words, Obama versus McCain actually felt like a clash of ideological opposites. But Obama and Romney feels like a contest between two calculating centrists, fighting for the right to serve as figurehead atop a bloated state apparatus that will operate according to the same demented imperial logic irrespective of who wins the White House.
Then there’s one more thing – Obama versus Romney is the worst reality show on TV since the Tila Tequila days. The characters are terrible, there’s no suspense, and the biggest thing is, it lacks both spontaneity and a gross-out factor. In Reality TV, if you don’t have really sexy half-naked young people scheming against each other over campfires in the Cook Islands, you need to have grown men eating millipedes or chicks in bikinis drinking donkey semen. And if you don’t have that, you really need Sarah Palin.
This race has none of that. . . . The presidential race is always a great illusion, designed to distract people from the more hardcore politics in this country, the minutiae of trade and tax and monetary policy that’s too boring to cover. When the presidential race is a bad show, people might not have any choice but to pay attention to those other things. And this year’s version is the worst show in memory. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
Digby dissents from that last point on the ground that political strategists and media mavens are adept at keeping interest levels high by manufacturing the appearance of meaningful conflicts: “It’s like one of those Housewife reality shows where everyone is obscenely wealthy and they create phony feuds and stage screaming fights and then magically become bffs the next season. It’s kind of a trainwreck that you can’t keep your eyes off of at first, but then you just end up falling asleep in front of the TV.”
I think I side more with Digby on this specific question. No matter how trivial are most of the differences between the two candidates and no matter how much each of them is a banal, status-quo-perpetuating imperial manager, the power of political manipulation is potent indeed. Recall that the Obama campaign was namedAdvertising Age‘s Marketer of the Year for 2008 for its excellence in brand management (the brand being Obama), and the campaign also “claimed two top awards at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Awards.”
To see how vulnerable people are to this advertising manipulation, one need look only a few posts down from the one by Digby which I just quoted, to one on her blog written by Democratic Party door-to-door canvasser David Atkins. He posted a super-trite one-minute video from the Obama campaign that begins by blaming Bush for America’s woes while sad villain music plays in the background. Then, when 2009 arrives, the ad suddenly shifts to happy, majestic, uplifting muzak — the kind played on an ABC after-school special when a boy and his lost dog are finally re-united – as we see images of the Democratic Commander-in-Chief boldly exiting his presidential helicopter as he stiffly salutes Marines, followed by a grainy-green video feed of U.S. military helicopters dispatched on a dangerous mission under his strong command. We are told that, under Obama, “our greatest enemy [cue bin Laden's face] was brought to justice by our greatest heroes [U.S. soldiers using night-cam helmets and automatic rifles]” and that “He believed in us, fought for us,” and that the American middle class is returning to its greatness, and that “you don’t quit, and neither does he.”
After viewing this mundane, vapid jingoistic tripe, Atkins gushed:
It’s beautiful. Brilliant. . . . It’s hopeful. Inspiring. . . . As a political observer, watching the ad gives me a rush of endorphins, not least because I know that the team that puts out ads like this is probably going to defeat Mitt Romney’s more hapless crew.
Watching that ad literally causes a chemical change to his brain: it triggers “a rush of endorphins.” It makes him feel pleasure, and powerful, and purposeful. And remember, this is someone who writes on (and thus presumably reads) the blog of a very astute political commentator, one who on a virtually daily basis documents the cynicism, deceit and deficiencies at the heart of the Obama presidency (and was also one of the earliest and most vocal skeptics of the notion that Obama the Candidate was some sort of grand, transformational figure), so just imagine how ads like this affect someone less exposed to those facts than he. Indeed, Atkins himself expressly acknowledges that the imagery injected into his brain bears little resemblance to reality, but that rational awareness is no match for the emotional and psychological manipulation. He stands helpless before it, and is grateful for that (just as those who feel thrills “running up their legs” or “starbursts” in their groins when watching their favorite political leader are grateful for those chemical sensations).
That’s what effective political oratory accomplishes: it overrides rational thought and imposes a false reality from the outside. Recall what Ezra Klein wrote in 2008 after listening to Obama, inan article appropriately entitled “Obama’s Gift”:
Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. His speeches are so big as to expose the smallness of the pretty prejudices and mundane considerations that might interrupt the march of his words, so big that they inspire his listeners to rise to meet their challenge. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our best selves, to the place where America exists as a ideal, and wherewe, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.
That’s virtually biblical in its praise. And while Klein himself, after watching Obama up close for several years, has become more measured and grounded, Obama is still a highly effective politician capable of this level of exploitation: exploiting people’s hopes and desires. When you combine that with the desire to believe — to feel once again that he will uplift people’s lives and that the hope one placed in him was justified and not misguided: nobody wants to feel like they were successfully defrauded — it’s an easy trick to repeat. There will probably be lowered levels of enthusiasm this time around. There will be some 2008 supporters who refuse to vote for him at all. But political operatives on each side will spend the next six months using every available form of brand management and advertising manipulation to continuously impart the message that Everything is At Stake — that it’s a grand Manichean battle between Our Great Leader and Their Evil Villain — and there will be plenty of endorphins pumping through people’s brains. There will be enough to drown a large country.