The Importance of Dark Brandon and of Narratives

Brian Beutler makes a very good point about what the rise of the absurd Dark Brandon meme implies for politics (boldface mine):

There are two big schools of thinking about how political opinions form and change.

In one school, material reality competes against (and ultimately can overpower) propaganda, tribal loyalty, and mass hysteria. This is the follow-the-polls school. The “good policy is good politics” school. In this school, the truth will out. Politicians who pander to consensus, who fill their platforms with popular ideas, and then govern well, optimize their electoral viability. Good outcomes, and promises of more to come, can generally swamp efforts to distract and mislead individuals from their material interests and moral values.

In the other school, humans are mostly social creatures who form their opinions based on whatever ideas happen to be ambient among their peers and in the media they consume. This is the vibes school. The post-modern school, where politics can be about anything good politicians and elite opinion makers want it to be about. Here, talking points and memes and stunts and affected displays of passion reign, because memorable things (viral moments, as the kids say) are how populations generally sort out what seems important from what doesn’t. Or at least, they play a greater role than objective reality and the rational assessment of priorities.

And here I want to stipulate a few things: First, both dynamics play a role in determining public opinion at any given moment. Second, the Dark Brandon meme would not have caught on, and would have made no sense, in, say, May, when Build Back Better was dead, IRA didn’t exist, gas prices were climbing, Trump was re-ascendent, and Democrats had no idea what to do about the right to abortion

Dark Brandon caught on when victories materialized to validate the concept. But we delude ourselves if we assume the arrow of information runs entirely one way. Having caught on, its purpose isn’t to confirm people’s latent knowledge about recent developments in politics—most people probably have no idea that Democrats have had a good month, or that their poll numbers have improved. Its main purpose is to change the sum of social knowledge about Biden and his presidency. Suddenly the commonly held, but seldom defended, idea that Biden is a senile oaf with a failed presidency, is contested by the similarly fanciful idea that he’s a magician from the underworld who fixes problems and punishes those who stand in his way.

The effect is probably equivalent to spending millions of dollars on paid media to tout the Democratic Party’s record of achievement—except this option is basically free and self-perpetuating, and does more than spread discrete facts about the parties. It spreads feelings about them. It’s stupid, but it also quite clearly a better explanation for how most people form political opinions than the Enlightenment-y notion that individuals are rational actors who gather information, assess empirical reality, and reason their way from there to conclusions and (eventually) ideology.

To use old school terms for the ‘vibes school’, there is an important role for building narratives, both about yourself and your opponents. Policies, both enacted and proposed, feed into these narratives, but so do ‘character’ issues and the like. And all of this requires constant repetition of multiple ways of communicating these narratives, all of which most professional Democrats have historically believed is beneath them.

If calling it ‘vibes’ works though, viva les vibes.

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