Politics & Policy

The Power of the Bernie Brand

(Alex Wong/Getty)

Strolling through the propaganda-laden streets of New York City, one wonders: Would Bernie Sanders be as big a deal if he had better hair?

All around — on buttons, on stickers, on signs, on t-shirts — is Bernie’s hair, that white corona flying skyward, charged, like he’s spent a lifetime shuffling his feet over carpet. It’s everywhere, the hair — and the thick-frame glasses, and the throwback name, “Bernie” — though sometimes it’s just “bernie,” because lowercase is in right now. Just like Bernie himself. And it’s hard to imagine that, if Bernie had a thicker, more orderly coiffure, he would be quite so in. Likewise, if his voice were less laryngitic; or if his suits were a bit better cut; or if he didn’t have that Brooklynite honk . . .

But, baruch Hashem!, none of that is the case. And that’s a good thing, because it just so happens that it’s a good time to be Bernie. Bernie sells right now.

His supporters like to say that Bernie Sanders started off as a candidate, but became the leader of a movement. That’s nonsense. What he became is an aesthetic. Every art form goes through phases; America’s left-wing politics is in its Bernie phase: kooky, unpolished, angry, loving, lovable. Call it neo-folk-nostalgist, a taste of Vietnam and Woodstock for Millennials.

No more ‘Hope and Change’; we want to ‘Feel the Bern.’

This is considered “authentic” (buzzword!) in part because what was authentic before it — Barack ObamaTM — is now out of vogue. In 2008, the then–junior senator from Illinois was a new and different aesthetic: smooth, polished, unflappable, clued in. Obama was the definition of cool. But that was eight years ago, before Obama’s many political failures came to be packaged in with his cool, which made the latter considerably less so. The in political aesthetic now is a reaction against Obama. No more cool; we want fiery. No more satin smooth; we want rough-and-tumble. No more “Hope and Change”; we want to “Feel the Bern.”

It’s no coincidence that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gained traction in the same election cycle. There are genuine political grievances at issue, certainly. But Sanders and Trump also create a feeling, a mood. The 15,000 Trump fans who gathered on Long Island earlier this month, and the 25,000 Sanders supporters who crowded into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Sunday, showed up not for a political rally, but for an aesthetic experience. Sanders and Trump are brands. People are investing not in Bernie Sanders the candidate, a Democratic senator from Vermont who has these and those particular ideas. They’re investing in Bernie’s brand, in the aesthetic that he has brought into being and that now transcends his particular person. They’re investing in BernieTM.

#share#There has been a significant change in American political life. We are requesting from our politics the amusements we enjoy from the entertainment world. We are applying to political candidates the criteria we apply to musical artists. We are, in a word, consuming our politicians, not electing them. And the success candidates are having apotheosizing into brands is accelerating. Before JFK, had it ever happened? (Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps. Always sui generis, T.R.)

This bodes ill for the republic. Politics is not intended to amuse us, and politicians are not entertainers. One sphere can’t harmlessly adopt the requirements of the other. We are already seeing the results of this trend. Has our politics ever been more frivolous, or our entertainments more self-important?

#related#In all of this, one almost feels bad for Hillary Clinton, who has never succeeded in becoming a brand (try as she and her acolytes might). The reason is obvious: Everyone knows Hillary is lying. There are no circumstances in which she can be believably packaged as “authentic.” We all have her number. So Hillary remains a flesh-and-blood candidate. She has to gut it out on her merits.

So will other candidates, going forward — good and deserving ones, who for whatever reason can’t “sell” as a brand. But what good are merits when you’re running against a Kardashian?

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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