If branding is a tool for winning elections, it's probably the bane of governing.
I think it’s due to the difference between image and reality. People vote because of what they think, but they’re governed by actions, mostly. Sure, their thoughts interpret and sometimes override them, but promises and declarations can’t take the place of behaviors.
So votes are getting cast today all over America in pursuit of an ideal of one sort or another. A promise. Internalized perceptions of truth that are as subjectively true as they are objectively various. Or conflicting. Or downright false.
It really doesn’t matter. Ultimately, elections are about a single act, or behavior: casting a vote. Choosing a brand name, whether by individual or party.
Once a new President is sworn-in, however, the election needs to end, for the sake of the electorate. We need to find ways to get politics, and our own awareness, directed back at reality (or at least somewhat).
If opinion polling is the measure of brand success, the metrics of successful governing are more tangible; it matter less that one person thinks more or less of our leaders, and far more that said leaders accomplish something. Anything.
It shouldn't matter that Democrats accused Republicans of being Bush clones, or that Republicans tried to characterize Democrats as un-American. One candidate's plucky independence and another's chronic misstatements are now irrelevant. What we individually and collectively hoped or worried that one leader might do vs. another is not on the table anymore.
After today, it's doing time, right?
Political operatives have gotten pretty good at the branding business. No party has a corner on it, though the Republicans have done it better (on a national level) by superimposing Presidential elections over some imagined "culture war." Values have been elevated to fantastic and ill-defined proportions, purposefully sorting voters into black and white camps (or, better put, red versus blue) over so-called wedge issues that are at once made vitally important to elections...while being utterly irrelevant to the business of governing.
There are fundamental differences on how to govern, for sure, and they deserve to be debated, even argued. But the branding nonsense that gives us elections is ill-suited to (and sometimes woefully constrains) the conversations that need to follow.
So, while people will vote today for any number of real or imagined differences between the candidates, John McCain isn't a robber baron, and Barak Obama isn't a socialist. One of them will be President come January, so doesn't there have to be some closure, some conscious agreement, to end the fight to get elected, and start instead the fight over governing?
They're two different fights, I think. One is about brand, the other is about reality. And my biggest fear is that the successes of campaigning preclude the faithful from seeing the difference.
The idea of a perpetual or constant campaining serves only the interests of the elected (and those who would profit, directly or otherwise, from their possession of power). Our candidates, from whatever political persuasion, aren't given their jobs so that they can be right all the time, or so they can busy themselves with staying employed. Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann make their livings making the case for disconnect and discord, not context and conclusion. They succeed when governing fails.
With the election ending tomorrow, I'd offer up three Requirements of the Governed that we, as citizens -- or as "consumers" of politics -- could demand of our leaders (elected, media, special interest group), and perhaps help them succeed on our behalf:
First, stop the negative campaigning. No government bill, or public policy issue, should be described in the negative, as in "our opponents want to do X." Don't tell us what other politicians think, or what you think they think. If there are differences, set up honest "taste tests," and let the people decide. Everyone should be held accountable if they violate this simple rule of clarity in communication -- say what you think and feel -- and challenged to restate their positions accordingly
Second, every issue needs objective substantiation. Before the parties debate any major piece of legislation, or the President proposes some action, there should be numbers and/or authorities that are agreed to be the arbiters of fact. Like Internet search, we are overwhelmed by numbers, and data can be manipulated to support any point (and thus support none). What should matter as the metrics of good government? I have no idea, but what a valid thing to debate starting right now
Finally, there should be more formal follow-up. Much of the chaos we see in our world is the product of what we're shown; when our government takes action (or not), there's usually no focused return to the issue later on (the next news event takes precedence). We should explore ways to establish regular revists of the issues, so both parties can present their updates and analyses. Consider the UK's Prime Minister Questions before Parliament every week. It kinda puts our President's discretionary press conferences to shame.
Whether we’re happy or sad with the outcome of today's vote, may we all have the wisdom and patience to accept it...and then demand something more of our politicians, and of ourselves.
We may have voted for a brand, but we're getting a new President.