Anthropologist Grant McCracken, in his book Culture and Consumption, describes a cultural phenomenon he calls “displaced meaning”. In this practice, individuals, but also organizations and the culture as a whole, cope with the clear inability to achieve their ideals in the real world by crafting stories about contexts in time and space where their ideals have been or will be achieved.
People in messed up medieval European countries could look to the court of King Arthur. Religious believers can look forward to pie in the sky when they die. Misunderstood teenagers in Ohio can dream of some day moving to Manhattan, where the people know how to live. People in Manhattan can read about the maple sugar harvest in Vermont.
What’s key in systems of displaced meaning is that the meaning remains inaccessible. We try to displace our ideals into settings that are extremely difficult to reach, so that we can’t reach them, so that we can then feel more at peace about living in a way that doesn’t match what we say we believe in.
Camelot is long gone. Heaven is not a place anyone alive can get to. The rent in Manhattan is outrageous. There aren’t many good jobs in the hills of Vermont.
In the context of our own society, in which consumption of goods purchased commercially is a central mechanism for the creation and transmission of meaning, McCracken proposes that we use commercial goods as repositories of displaced meaning. We like to believe that, once we are able to purchase certain objects, we will achieve an ideal psychological or social state. Of course, when we do make these purchases, we almost never find that ideal, but there is always another product to dream of, in which to displace our most cherish level of meaning.
Could the same thing be happening in our nation’s political sphere? Political candidates and elected politicians seem an awful lot like the commercial goods that McCracken described. Barack Obama, when he was just a candidate back in 2008, seemed like a dream to many liberals, even though he actually gave speeches contradicting their values, perhaps because the general tone of Obama sounded right, and because it was difficult even for many liberals to think that he might actually be elected.
After Obama was elected, Democrats always came up with some kind of ideal state that had to be achieved before Obama could be expected to actually live up to his campaign promises, and to the other hopes of the electorate. First, we just needed to give Obama some time. Then, we just needed to get the Blue Dogs under control and to get a veto-proof majority in the Senate. Then, we needed to get the Republicans out of Congress. Then, we just needed to wait for re-election. Always, liberal ideals were placed somewhere down the line, someplace that was outside the here-and-now, to justify Obama’s increasingly right wing policies.
I suspect that something similar may be going on at the level of political parties. Not too long ago, our reader Bill asked, “How do we identify real third party candidates with a real chance, and then really empower them to take their best shot? Sitting around waiting on wannabe dress-up players clearly isn’t getting the job done.”
I propose that the very point of third party candidates is to not seem real, but to serve as repositories for displaced meaning. So, as the Green Party argues for single payer health care as a better alternative to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats are busy applauding what they call Obamacare, even though it turns out not to be as great as Democrats had been saying it would be. The Green Party enables Democrats to aim low by associating the ideals of liberal Democratic voters with a political party that’s known for consistently polling in the single digits.
If this is the cultural mechanism that’s supporting the Democratic Party’s embrace of Republican-friendly policies, what tactics can change it? If the function of third parties is to keep idealism out of the political mainstream, what are idealists to do? Is supporting the Green Party a mistaken tactic for liberals, or does the Green Party need to do something to stop being used as a repository for ideals we aren’t ready to act upon?