Cue the Permanent Campaign

You probably won’t read this column until after the 2012 US presidential election, but I’m actually writing it the day before. I can do that because the content of the column will remain the same regardless of who wins that election, or the 400-odd other federal elections (for US House and Senate seats) held on the same day (for the record, I predicted an Obama win in the electoral college and a net pickup of one or two seats in the US Senate for the Democrats. How did I do?).

Anyway, barring the increasingly usual “hanging chad” dramas, the 2012 elections are over. Heave a sigh of relief, take stock of any likely minor changes, and get on with our lives, right?

Wrong. We live in the age of the “permanent campaign.” The 2014 congressional election cycle, and the 2016 presidential contest, started on Wednesday, November 7th.

The permanent campaign is a feature of modern American electoral politics for the same reasons that we see constant advertising by Coke/Pepsi, McDonald’s/Burger King, etc.

Electoral politics is a consumable/perishable product, and the available brands are remarkably similar. Candidates and parties don’t sell themselves by being qualitatively different from their competition. They sell themselves mainly through repetition and ubiquity, with occasional stabs at brand pizzazz. They know they will never corner their entire market niche. Rather, their goal is to increase their own market share at the expense of those look-alike alternatives.

In such a context, re-branding experiments are rare, because they are risky. Remember “New Coke?” How about the “Arch DeLuxe?”

The American political class is handicapped by the fact that it must occasionally change figureheads and spokespersons. The major parties avoid that as much as possible (by pouring big bucks into protecting incumbents in office), and where they can’t avoid the necessity (as with presidential candidates at least every eight years) they strive for two things:

– Brand/message continuity: The Republican and Democratic candidates in 2016 will sound a lot like their counterparts in 2012, who sound quite similar to the 2008 slates.

– Brand/message convergence: Your political burger will consist of bun, patty and cheese regardless of which party you buy it from. Any variations will be minor — plain versus sesame seed bun, plus or minus the pickles or onions, maybe a “special sauce” instead of ketchup and mustard.

These two things accomplished, political success or failure comes down to getting as much “face time” and “mind share” as possible between elections. And that’s the way both wings of the political class like it.

The party-based component of the political class — candidates, officeholders, campaign staff and party apparatchiki — get job security and lots of money flowing through their operations on a perpetual basis from brand continuity.

The real stakeholders — the politically connected business sector — know that they are take care of. Whichever brand comes out on top in any given election, the gravy train of subsidies, protections and government contracts will keep on rolling due to brand convergence.

As for the voters, well, stand by for four more years of constant advertising, and a diet of greasy burgers with wilted lettuce on top, accompanied by sugary drinks, at outrageous prices.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory