Political Fiction

It hasn’t escaped my notice that, in the current US presidential election race, two of the most prominent super PACs, or nominally independent political action committees that support a presidential candidate, use the word “future” in their names: the Mitt Romney-supporting Restore Our Future and Newt Gingrich-supporting Winning Our Future. One could also count Steven Colbert’s Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow super PAC, but will put that on the side for the moment.

Use of time, invocation of eras and projection of visions come and go in political messaging. As this handy list shows, for US presidential campaigns, when they do invoke time, slogans tend to talk about the short-term—often in one-term increments. McKinley’s “Four More Years of a Full Dinner Pail,” or Reagan’s “Are You Better Off Now Than Four Years Ago” use this yardstick, for example, in either direction. It probably wasn’t until Reagan ushered in the era of slick political communication on a grand scale that we started getting competing visions about epic futures, but even then, they sought a future that would be a return to a fictional past—what I’ve called imagined authenticity. The Tea Party has built almost its entire “brand” on this, right down to the costumed characters at rallies recalling an 18th century idea of America.

Campaigning as he was in the late 1990s, Bill Clinton took a stab a roadmapping the future rhetorically, with his “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century” call to action, urging the country to embrace the investments that he and others thought would help us make this transition to a new century—an idea that evokes a leap to the “other side” of this century divide, like jumping through a time portal. Plenty has been written about fin de siècle psychology, but it was an interesting attempt to appeal not just to progress, but to an active embrace of the future. Contrasted with a WWII hero in Bob Dole, it was a very stark rhetorical choice. 

Now, with the Republican race at full tilt, we are seeing two different uses of the future emerge. The “going back to go forward” idea is what Romney has put forth, for example, rhetorically calling for the US to return to some lost path as the way to the future—inherently conservative, from the historically moderate candidate. Gingrich, on the other hand, is painting an increasingly detailed image of a future as he sees it—an odd mix of restored historical “norms” (as he sees it) and very modern, almost aggressively futuristic ambitions, like his moonbase concept. Gingrich’s fondness for grand future visions is well documented, and has even become a campaign issue in debates. And on the Democratic side, President Obama’s campaign hasn’t missed this trick either, calling for an “America Built to Last,” gently invoking a long-term future, though one arguably built on a mashup of future-facing investments (e.g., clean energy) and “bringing back” a manufacturing base from the past, restarting a blue-collar workbase on an obsolescent platform. 

So, three of the major candidates are playing with different constructions of the future, and one of them—Gingrich—is increasingly painting detailed scenarios, describing day-by-day plans of action, and putting a vivid vision of a Gingrich-driven future in his followers’ minds. One wonders if he will be the first candidate not just to depict a fantasy present for America—sun shining and picket fences—in TV ads, but if he’ll go one step further into the realm of fictional future scenarios, the kind we get from tech companies and defense contractors, showing what a day in 2017 in Gingrich’s America, with moonbase launches and biometric immigration checks. I think it’s where we’re headed—the first design fiction candidate for president can’t be too far off.

This isn’t a political commentary, but a professional one, and surely not the end of the discussion. Politics, foresight and design are tightly intertwined, as Stuart Candy’s great Ph.D. dissertation covers in depth. I look forward to opinions and views from some of my colleagues as to how they see this playing out. We have at least 10 months to watch!