Law in Contemporary Society

Symbolism, Politics, and the Future

-- By DanielKetani - 16 Feb 2012

Politics and polytheism

Thurman Arnold in “The Folklore of Capitalism” asserts that politics is governed by myth and symbolism rather than reason. In a political campaign, candidates, at least the successful ones, preach why their interpretation of the national creed is the true faith and their opponent’s is heresy, with the most successful invocations of the heroes and symbols that invoke the creed winning the election. While Arnold wrote about America in the 1930s, much of what he said is still relevant to any discussion of elections in America.

One assumption that Arnold seems to make that I do not think has proven true, if it ever was, is that the creed changes across time but does not vary within the population. I think it is more accurate to say that most voters belong to the creed, but as with many polytheistic practices, different sects may have different hierarchies. In the pantheon of heroes, some may worship the Warrior or the Scholar or the Priest more or less. In effect, I think Arnold has somewhat underestimated the degree to which individual beliefs do matter; not in terms of rational preferences, but the symbols that matter to different adherents.

The era of television

Until recently this differentiation has not mattered that much, since the primary method of political campaigning has been through mass media. Television advertising changed political campaigns forever, utilizing multimedia to bombard voters with ideas and symbols in their own homes. Essentially, the ideal candidate became the charismatic man with no history, a blank slate. TV ads are used to paint him as the American hero, while attack ads would paint his opponent as the Devil. These ads are fundamentally inefficient though because they retain Arnold’s assumption of homogeneity in belief. Candidates are limited in their ability to target specific audiences with specific advertising. They can target by region and somewhat by age, but since the symbols have to be aimed at a wider audience, and one which contained some people who may respond adversely to the symbols, this method is fundamentally inefficient.

The future

Modern developments may erase this barrier to efficiency in political (and perhaps commercial) advertising. First, technology has created networks that make it easier to target specific audiences. Cable television makes it possible to more specifically target audiences, but that change is insignificant compared to the development of the internet and social networks. Social networks create a whole new level of potential in specifically targeting advertising. Even in the absence of explicitly listed preferences as far as politics and other factors, social networks allow a profile to be built of individuals and target much more specific characteristics without any of the waste of mass media.

These same changes and others may also increase the effectiveness of symbols. Social networks can track the actual behavior of the target of advertisements, providing much more data on what makes advertising effective by monitoring real behavior instead of just reported behavior. Another development that may soon come is a deeper understanding on the biological level of the effectiveness of symbols. This study and others are beginning to find ways in which brain scans can reveal the unconscious effects of advertising, which often are very different from what the targets think they are.

These developments offer a somewhat bleak picture of the future of political campaigns as one where the candidate with the most money and most sophisticated (and probably expensive) staff is able to control his or her image separately and effectively among numerous groups. In this world, candidates know which symbols will actually work on whom and they use them effectively towards the electorate. The strategy of taking a blank slate and painting it for the public is replaced by one where various segments of the public each get the image they desire, at least so far as the opponent is unsuccessful in counterattacking through negative advertising. As a result, charisma aside, the candidate with best staff and most money has a major advantage, which does not bode well for any aspirations of democratic government.

There are some ways in which the internet can help counter these effects. One is that it has become much easier to organize grassroots movements, since there is essential a close to zero cost public sphere in the internet in which to meet. By enlisting volunteers the organization can try to spread support both in the real world and the internet, though there is no reason these techniques can’t or won’t be used by well financed candidates, whose use of advertising can help gain volunteers as well.


The traditional route to reform has been focused on restricting the ability of candidates to spend. However, campaign finance reform seems to be essentially dead right now, at least until the membership of the Supreme Court changes. And even the old levels of spending limits and rules and restrictions encourage the entrenchment of our current two party system.

The real issue that really needs to be confronted is why do we allow advertising in our homes in the 21st century? Advertising on TV and radio made some sense when watching it was free and restriction of access difficult, but now most TV viewers are paying for content and still receiving advertising. Most if not all of the functionality of websites like Google and Facebook can be replicated for a small fee per user. Money would still be an advantage in campaigns for hiring staff and the costs of production of media to distribute virally, but the loss of efficiency would make it less important.

Perhaps the problem as it stands now is exaggerated, as social networks and the internet do not advertise as effectively as television and some advertisers are growing skeptical they ever will. If networks start adopting more invasive advertising techniques, maybe users will stop using them. But either way, raising awareness that we need not and perhaps shouldn’t live in a world of advertising is an important step for both political and social reform.

I would like to keep editing over the summer.

-- DanielKetani - 18 May 2012


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r4 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:23 - IanSullivan
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