, Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley has written an article targeted at people like me (maybe you, too?) – independent thinking, but cynical thinkers tired of political rhetoric from either side.

Before delving into his advice for us, let’s peer into the mind of a cynic, and show what it is that has turned us into what Professor Reich considers cynics.

Advisory: If you’d like to cut to the chase and see the lessons for Marketing, just skip through to the last section!

The Case for Cynicism

There seems to be plenty of cause for cynicism. For one thing, scholars note that the United States is not a pure democracy, but a polyarchy of ruling elites who believe that we, the voters, are largely ignorant of issues and policies, lack the competence to participate in public life, and do not care to participate in the political process.

Elite Control: One of these elites, Walter Lippmann, wrote In Public Opinion (1922), that a “governing class” must rise to face the new challenges in a period in which the stability of the government was threatened by democratization. According to Wiki:

He argued that distorted information was inherent in the human mind. People make up their minds before they define the facts, while the ideal would be to gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions…Lippmann called the notion of a public competent to direct public affairs a “false ideal.” He compared the political savvy of an average man to a theater-goer walking into a play in the middle of the third act and leaving before the last curtain.

Early on Lippmann said the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” This class is composed of experts, specialists and bureaucrats. The experts, who often are referred to as “elites,” were to be a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the “omnicompetent citizen.”

Meet the 99%: One isolated quack? Hardly.  An integral part of the power structure, Lippmann was an informal adviser to several presidents, and was presented by President Lyndon Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The views of Lippmann and Gabriel Almond produced what became known as the Almond-Lippmann consensus, summarized on the basis of 3 principles:

  1. Public opinion is volatile, shifting erratically in response to the most recent developments. 
  2. Public opinion is incoherent, lacking an organized or a consistent structure to such an extent that the views of U.S. citizens could best be descried as “nonattitudes.”
  3. Public opinion is irrelevant to the policy-making process. Political leaders ignore public opinion because most Americans can neither “understand nor influence the very events upon which their lives and happiness are known to depend.”

Cynical enough? Certainly no more so than a political candidate who represents the interests of the economic elites, but attempts to conceal it by changing his positions to suit the audience. It might be said that these entitled opportunists are are the true cynics.

So What Does All This Have to Do With Economics?

Framing Reality: Austin O’Malley wrote, “A hole is nothing at all, but you can break your neck in it.” The same can be said of abstract phrases like “liberty,” “justice,” “freedom,” “democracy” and the “free market.” Abstract as they are, elites in the defense, energy and other industries readily use these notions to lead our youth into harm’s way in foreign interventions, treating the public as pawns in a game of chess.

Economic Stockholm Syndrome: Ironically, if you are fortunate enough to have a job, and even more fortunate to have a career, the impulse is to forget that you are dispensable and internalize the values of the elite class, a variant of Stockholm Syndrome. Both the Republicans who buy the theory of supply side economics, resurrected in its current form as job-creator worship, and the Democrats who believe that their representatives will pass meaningful legislation that the economic elites won’t get around, are being systematically hoodwinked. This is the result of a two-party system and media that answers to a common corporate agenda, but shapes public opinion around distracting ideological issues that divide people into opposing left/right camps through bias confirmation.

The sound bites you hear from either political camp, amplified by the media and peer repetition, are carefully sculpted to manipulate and distract you from the underlying fact that corporate personhood has trampled individual rights. Economically, you are a manufactured product, conditioned to find secondary reinforcement in shopping for things you don’t really need, but are taught to desire. Politically, you are a rubber stamp for corporate agendas.

Is There a Way Out?

Meet Marketing’s Evil Twin: As a Marketer, I continue to focus on honesty, clarity and responsiveness to consumer needs. But, as in any discipline, there is a dark side, and Marketing’s evil twin, psychological coercion is extraordinarily effective. Is there a way out? Wiki notes that John Dewey thought so:

Philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) agreed with Lippmann’s assertions that the modern world was becoming too complex for every citizen to grasp all its aspects, but Dewey, unlike Lippmann, believed that the public could form a “Great Community” that could become educated about issues, come to judgments and arrive at solutions to societal problems.

So the alternative to cynicism isn’t starry-eyed idealism, but education. This has been a continual focus of this blog. Professor Reich agrees. He writes:

This is for those of you who consider yourself to be progressive but have given up on politics because it seems rotten to the core…Your cynicism is understandable. But cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you succumb to it, the regressives who want to take this nation back to the 19th century win it all. The Koch brothers, Karl Rove, the rabid Republican right, CEOs and Wall Street titans who want to entrench their privileges and tax advantages — all of them would like nothing better than for every progressive in America to throw in the towel. Then America is entirely theirs.

Economic Action List

Action as an Alternative to Cynicism: Reich’s alternative to cynicism is to become more involved in politics to create a progressive force that can’t be ignored. Reich suggests a clear set of demands, to include these:

  • Make it our goal to reverse Citizens United, even if it takes a constitutional amendment. And have public financing of elections (including requiring the media to provide free political advertising as part of their commitment to public service).
  • Also break up the biggest banks and resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act.
  • Put a 2 percent surtax on wealth in excess of $3 million. And a one-tenth of 1 percent transaction tax on every financial transaction. And restore top tax rates to what they were before Ronald Reagan became president. Use half this revenue to pay down the national debt and half to make sure every American has a world-class education.
  • Put a tax on carbon, and use the revenues to reduce or replace payroll taxes.
  • Have a single-payer health-care system that delivers care at far less cost than our current balkanized and inefficient one.

Isn’t Politics “the Art of the Possible?

Reich points out that, no matter how rotten the system now is, we’ve done it before:

I remember when progressives joined with African-Americans to get enacted the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. I remember when progressives stopped the Vietnam War. When women finally got freedom of choice over their own bodies. When the Environmental Protection Act became law.

Who would have imagined two decades ago that America would elect an African-American as President of the United States? Who would have supposed gays and lesbians would begin to achieve equal marriage rights? Of course we can take America back. Stop complaining and start organizing.

It Starts With Attentive Research: I suppose I needed that kind of swift kick to awaken me from complacency. What about you? Do you still cling to the artificial and essentially meaningless ideologies used to frame the issues, or do you the research economics outside the box of Fox so-called News and MSNBC to get to the real truths about economics, science and the hidden powers behind the political light show?

The Middle Road Between Idealism and Cynicism Is Attentiveness

Be Attentive: In retrospect, it isn’t me who is the dyed in the wool cynic. The real cynics are the ones who use rhetorical mechanisms of psychological control to promote a concealed agenda. I am just a realist in the face of the ideological canards of supply side economics and libertarianism and the false gods of national defense, finance and energy. I am just barely smart enough to discern that the national budget deficit these interests create is a tactic of control to put forth a false argument for austerity and further the erosion of individual economic initiative.

Engage!: As Robert Reich points out, a vote against a plutocratic candidate isn’t enough;  the corporate corruption is pervasive in both political parties. The necessary second step, according to Reich is engagement:

Step two: Starting Election Day, regardless of who’s elected, commit at least three hours every week to political organizing and mobilizing. Connect with other progressives in your city and state. Help find and recruit new progressive candidates to run against Republicans in swing states, and against conservative Democrats. Support the members of the progressive caucus in Congress. Raise money. Raise a ruckus.

Execute with Rigor: This is where Occupy Wall Street failed. In contrast to the Tea Party, self-interested business leaders coopting an ideologically conditioned, bewildered citizenry, OWS are educated folks who understand economics, yet underestimate what it takes to counter a massive wrecking ball. The lesson in the way that OWS was denied their supposed right to assembly, and that the Tea Party was coopted by corporate sponsors is that these movements have lacked the organization and discipline to engage in sustained roots-based effort.

So, my corollary to Robert Reich’s recommendation is as follows:

Support the next true grass roots democratization movement – one that represents the economic interests of the 99% in the form of coherent economic policies that:

  • Restrain corporate personhood, big energy and defense’s adventurism in the name of national security and a few temporary “jobs,” large agribusiness, big banking, overseas outsourcing, privatization, and other oligarchic power grabs.
  • Empower small enterprise, equal opportunities regardless of class, gender or nation of origin, through federal investment in education, public projects, immigration reform, and meaningful regulation.
  • Insist on transparency – meaning, primarily, an end to the corporate-controlled media agenda, public campaign financing that excludes corporate funding and outlaws distorted campaign rhetoric. Let’s make honesty a requirement for public office, and the cynical political rhetoric of the spin doctors illegal.

In a word, it’s about empowerment.

Applications to Marketing: Empower the Consumer

Thanks for hanging in this long! Yes, this is all leading somewhere.
The mental discipline required to see through the what you already believe, ie. “think outside the box” is what marketers need now more than ever to be better marketers.  It’s easy to get stuck in the Lippmann-eque elitist rut of treating consumers as impressionable masses who need to be conditioned to desire things they don’t really need. But social media has made consumers more empowered today.
The Door to Consumer Democracy Is Now Open: Advertisements and slogans that tell consumers what to think no longer work. They now interact through social media and know how to research products for themselves. The door to consumer democracy has been opened, and there’s no going back.  Today’s marketing needs to respect the integrity of the individual in an age of consumer empowerment. We can no longer frame the issue, and tell them what they want, but have to listen to them carefully and respond honestly and appropriately. They’ve learned to see through spin and rhetoric. Unless we offer them value in the form of information and superior service, they are fully prepared to go to a competitor. The marketer who learns how they think, and what they require will succeed where competitors fail.

ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest is an e-book, “Beyond Outrage,” now available in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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