The age of personalization

Welcome to the age of personalization. We live in a time of personalized products, personalized technology, personalized democracy and, of course, personalized politicians. We want our media to be a panopticon of mirrors; everywhere we look, we want to see ourselves -- or, at least, we want to see people who appear to resemble ourselves. In the appropriately entitled "The Mirrored Ceiling", the excellent NY Times columnist Judith Warner reminds us that this age of personalization disgorges inauthentic everyman/woman politicians like Sarah Palin and George W. Bush:

"One of the worst poisons of the American political climate right now,the thing that time and again in recent years has led us to disaster, is the need people feel for leaders they can “relate” to. This need isn’t limited to women; it brought us after all, two terms of George W. Bush. And it isn’t new; Americans have always needed to feel that their leaders were, on some level, people like them."

How odd it is that in the age of personalization, an age in which we cherish the familiar and the authentic, we are seduced into electing characters who are, in fact, nothing like ourselves. We get what we deserve, of course. But maybe Americans should learn from their disastrous fling with the all-too-ordinary George W. Bush and chose exceptional politicians quite unlike themselves -- crippled patricians like FDR, for example, or mixed race oratorical superstars like Obama.

Our age of personalization is actually more complicated than it first appears. On one level, of course, it represents a culture of narcissism in which we are so in love with ourselves that we want to see our reflection everywhere we look. But I suspect that, on another level, it reflects not only self-love but also self-loathing. Paul Krugman touches on this in his "Resentment Strategy" column this morning. Krugman wonders how wealthy, well-connected East Coast insiders like Mitt Romney and Rudy Guiliani have the gall to preach an anti elite message to the Republican faithful:

Can the former mayor of New York City, a man who, as USA Today put it, “marched in gay pride parades, dressed up in drag and lived temporarily with a gay couple and their Shih Tzu” — that was between his second and third marriages — really get away with saying that Barack Obama doesn’t think small towns are sufficiently “cosmopolitan”?

Can the vice-presidential candidate of a party that has controlled the White House, Congress or both for 26 of the past 28 years, a party that, Borg-like, assimilated much of the D.C. lobbying industry into itself — until Congress changed hands, high-paying lobbying jobs were reserved for loyal Republicans — really portray herself as running against the “Washington elite”?

The conventional What's The Matter With Kansas explanation of this is that socio-economic elites like Guiliani and Romney are tricking stupid ordinary Republicans into voting against their own interest. But I wonder if it isn't more complicated that this neo-marxist logic. Maybe Freud is a better guide to the American ruling class than Marx. You see, there is a strong element of self-hatred, of repressed guilt in the American elite. Thus, the Romney-Guiliani hatred of their own class is a very public form of self-flagellation. These guys really mean what they say about the corrupt American elite. But the real object of their critique is themselves.