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Politics as an Attention Economy

Jonathan Last has published a fascinating article in The Bulwark (an anti-Trump conservative website) about how Republican politics now follows the rules of an attention economy. To whit, politicians don’t get elected because they do their jobs well (govern, pass laws, etc.). They gain power by getting attention (even negative attention). The obvious example is Donald Trump, but the same thing applies even to Matt Gaetz, Madison Cawthorn, and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Here’s an excerpt, but do read the whole thing (it is relatively short):

Does it matter to his future political prospects that Matt Gaetz doesn’t advance legislation? Does it matter that Madison Cawthorn staffed up his office with comms people? Does it matter that Marjorie Taylor Greene doesn’t have committee assignments?

Well, these quirks would matter in a system where legislative accomplishments influenced voter behavior. But the preponderance of evidence suggests that Republican voters don’t care about tangible government outcomes.

They don’t care whether or not a border wall is built, or who would have (theoretically) paid for it. They don’t care about whether or not the government fails to manage a global pandemic, killing hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. They don’t care if unemployment is up—or down. They don’t care about stimulus checks. Or the national debt.

Republican voters—a group distinct from Conservatism Inc.—no longer have any concrete outcomes that they want from government. What they have, instead, is a lifestyle brand.

The key here is the idea of a “lifestyle brand”, where buying a certain product (including a politician) is important because it says something about the buyer’s life. We may not know why the Kardashians are famous, but we pay attention to them because they are famous. And the more people pay attention to them, the more famous they become. Why? Not because they do anything helpful or important.


Also published on Medium.

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3 Comments

  1. notycoon22 wrote:

    The Kardash-who? “>D

    Thursday, April 8, 2021 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  2. Jeff wrote:

    Good article, but I think he’s describing something that has been playing out in politics for a long time: why solve a problem when you can run on it?

    What would happen if Republicans got their border wall? They would lose a key plank to their platform. What would happen if the Supreme Court overturned Roe? A large chunk of “single issue voters” might realize there’s more to politicians than their stance on abortion.

    The only thing that’s changed is we have more outlets for marketing a point of view.

    Thursday, April 8, 2021 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  3. paradoctor wrote:

    The only Cardassians I’ve ever paid any attention to were on Star Trek.

    Thursday, April 8, 2021 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] for their legislative abilities or the solutions they propose to common problems, but rather for the lifestyle brand they affirm. It is an observation I have supported for a while. […]

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