The Experience Gap

An IBM executive brief from 2008 asks, "Do individuals feel like your brand is relevant to their lifestyle? ... Or, as they wander from store to store, do your potential customers forget your brand as it blurs in their minds with those of competitors?" The solution? Immersive retail: a "memorable, interactive and emotional" experience

full of "personalized dialogues." It's "more about involving the customer than it is about the merchandise."

Taking advice from IBM at a time when every coffee-house in Brooklyn is full of hipsters pecking at Mac PowerBooks might not seem like the best idea. But the IBM brief does help to explain Barack Obama's popularity in 2008 -- in fact, it could have been inspired by Obama's presidential run. Democrats and progressives -- especially young people who had never been involved in politics before -- were taken with the entire Obama experience, not just a series of campaign promises.

Just two years later, everyone agrees that Obama's party is having trouble "involving the customer." These days, the Tea Party is the political movement that offers its members a thrilling collective experience. Democrats bracing for disappointing results in the midterm election cite "the enthusiasm gap" -- the fact that conservatives are palpably more excited about politics right now than liberals are. What happened to the droves of young people who were such avid Obama supporters in 2008? Writing in The Nation about a month before the midterms, Chris Hayes gave a succinct explanation for the gap: "The people with the most faith in the president and the Democratic Party are the hardest hit by the continuing economic disaster."

If, though, as the IBM brief posits, it's not the quality of the merchandise that matters -- the lack of a public option in the health-care bill, the failure to pass immigration reform or repeal "don't ask, don't tell," the ongoing stagnation of the economy -- then it all comes down to re-creating the "memorable, interactive, and emotional" experience that was the 2008 campaign.

Obama was once pretty good at this. He was hopey, changey, positive. He wasn't just against Bush; he was for something! And not just good policies, like ending the Iraq War, but creating a different kind of government, one that's accessible and harmonious. More important than all of that, he was new. Not another old white guy. A wheat-pasted Shephard Fairey poster instead of a stars-and-stripes yard sign.

Obama is no longer new, and most of the problems he pledged to fix persist. Hayes calls it a "cognitive dissonance between hope and reality." In some ways, it's a classic incumbent problem, but not because young people necessarily think federal office corrupts all politicians. To the contrary, a new report by Project Vote finds that young voters actually have quite a bit of faith in government and believe it "should work to provide for the needs of all citizens." Obama's base still wants a positive political experience. The question is, how does his party foster that?

The Democrats can start by looking at what young people are excited about these days -- which is not specific issues. Based on the number of Facebook invitations I've received, I can safely say that a lot of left-leaning members of my generation are pretty excited about the satirical rallies that Comedy Central faux-news hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are holding on the National Mall just days before the midterm elections.

Democratic strategists fretted that the rally would affect get-out-the-vote efforts and further decrease already low turnout. Like it or not, Stewart and Colbert are more successful these days at "involving the customer" than Obama is. Sure, Obama's got a country to run, and Stewart and Colbert are just comedians. But they openly mock Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers. They maintain an appropriate level of sarcasm and eye-rolling when discussing the "potential threats" associated with having openly gay and lesbian soldiers serve in the military. They offer a unique way of experiencing politics.

Sure, comedy will always be hipper -- and more fun -- than sincerity. The more fundamental error that Democratic strategists make, however, is that they think this kind of engagement is exclusive -- that the young people who attend the Jon Stewart rally won't remember to vote or encourage their friends to do the same. But what the Obama campaign figured out is that engagement is cumulative -- every little thing that draws people in makes it possible for them to get involved further. People seek an experience of politics, not just a set of policy positions. Customers, as IBM correctly observed, want to be involved. As the Democrats cope with the fallout of what is sure to be a disappointing election, they need to remember that lesson and recommit to it.

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