Everyone knows that some consumer products go together. Ties go with suits, check shirts and RM Williams boots go with country music, and beer goes with barbecued sausages. As Grant McCracken argues, goods have cultural meanings. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the suburb we live in, and the car we drive are all signals that other people use to decide what kind of person we are.
If you drive a hand-painted old Combi, sport an unruly beard, wear your hair in dreadlocks, and refuse to eat meat, then many people will assume that you you’re not keen on logging old growth forests or locking asylum seekers up in detention camps. In the recent US presidential election John Kerry endured sly attacks on the Frenchness of his consumption habits. Obviously anyone who prefers French wine to American beer isn’t going to stand up for the victims of 9/11 against militant Islamists or the butcher of Baghdad.
In his book Culture and Consumption Grant McCracken writes about something he calls the ‘Diderot effect’ – a force which prevents "an existing stock of consumer goods from giving entry to an object that carries cultural significance that is inconsistent with the whole." The link between ties and suits isn’t practical. For example, the combination isn’t any warmer than a suit and skivvy or suit, collarless shirt and suit.
This makes me wonder whether people choose their political beliefs for their cultural meanings too. Perhaps support for Work for the Dole and the belief that welfare recipients are stupid and lazy is just a way of telling people that you identify with talented and hardworking people – a roundabout way of saying that you are talented and industrious.
Most of the people who express political opinions have no direct influence on policy. A tough-talking, beer drinking coalition voter who says that Bush ought to nuke Tehran and Pyongyang isn’t really increasing the chances of nuclear war. What he’s doing is telling you he’s a man of action and believes in taking hard, unpopular decisions. It’s like a 50s film buff telling you he prefers The Thing From Another World to The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Once an off-the-shelf political identity is established there doesn’t need to be any logical connection between the beliefs that signify membership. Believing that global warming is a left wing beat-up is no different to preferring VB to chardonnay. The function of both is to tell the world who you are.