In case you were camping over the last three days, the Republican Party took control of Congress on Tuesday night. To paraphrase an oft-heard line on the Capitol floor, I’m not a social scientist—so I’m not interested in the actual, complex causes of the victory. I am, however, interested in the rhetoric around the victory, particularly the conversation about Republican “rebranding.” On 2 October 2014, Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, introduced the next in the cycle of what MSNBC called “A Perpetual State of Republican Rebranding”:
Republicans will unveil a rebranding effort Thursday aimed at changing its image as a political party focused solely on obstructing President Barack Obama’s agenda to instead a champion of ideas and action.
The idea that a party is a brand suggests that voters are consumers, that politics is a commodity to be sold and bought. To think about rebranding and the rhetorical commodification of politics, I turn to an unlikely pairing: the BBC’s Doctor Who.
A little more than a month before Reince Priebus rebranded the Republican Party for the umpteenth time, the Doctor rebranded for the twelfth. A core mechanic of Doctor Who is the Doctor’s “regeneration,” his ability to reincarnate whenever he suffers serious injury in the plot—or more importantly, when the actor playing the Doctor changes. Between series 7 and 8, the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) gave way to the 12th (Peter Capaldi), to the chagrin of many (shallow) fans who resent Capaldi’s age (he’s all of 56-years old). Though the 1st Doctor was portrayed by the then 55-year old William Hartnell in 1963, the show’s reboot saw 34-year old David Tennant and 26-year old Matt Smith change the role of the Doctor into a character surrounded by discourses of sexiness. The show itself deepened this association through romances between the Doctor and the young (emphasis on the coded-as-young) women who played his companions: an explicit relationship between the 10th Doctor and Rose Tyler (23-year old pop-icon Billie Piper), and ever-present sexual tension between the 11th Doctor and his companions Amy Pond (21-year old Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswald (26-year old Jenna-Louise Coleman).
In Capaldi’s first episode, the show rather heavy-handedly responded to fans’ ageism. The villains are ancient robots who have repaired their cybernetics with human organs for millennia in order to survive; their predicament prompts the Doctor to wonder if one is still the same individual if one replaces all one’s parts. Clara insists, “I don’t think I know who the Doctor is anymore”—and the show spends the rest of the episode berating her for it. The coldly pragmatic moral compass of the episode, Madame Vastra, castigates Clara: “He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover even. […] But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold. He has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range.” The most telling moment, when the Doctor seems to speak directly to disappointed fans, comes at the tail-end of the episode:
The Doctor: I’ve made many mistakes. And it’s about time I did something about that. Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.
Clara: I never thought you were.
The Doctor: I never said it was your mistake.
I’m not the only one to recognize this as a gesture outside the text, but I would like to particularly call attention to that final line. The show passes some of the blame on itself: it coded the Doctor as sexy, and now, it has to step back from that.
Devotion to fans aside, capital is the core motive behind the message that the Doctor is still the Doctor even if he’s replaced all his parts. The franchise needs consumers to retain its enormous profit margin. To keep viewers tuning in (and buying commodities like my 10th Doctor Sonic Screwdriver pen), the message must be clear: we’re different, but we’re still the same; buy us.
The Republican Party has walked this tightrope for the last several years as they simultaneously cater to their base and try to attract new voters. A series of wonky and casually misogynist ads targeted women by painting Obama as a bad boyfriend, or Democratic candidates as hideous old wedding dresses that women need to cast off in favor of the sexy new Republican dress. I’ll leave out any actual discussion of the party’s thinking on race, class, and gender because in fact, as The Daily Show’s coverage of the election suggested, when it comes to branding, ideas don’t matter—money does.
This is not merely a matter of removing money from politics. When an election costs about $3,670,000,000 (writing it as $3.67 billion obfuscates the immensity of the cost), we’re talking brand marketing, not politics. Capitalist democracy gives the lie to arguments like Michel de Certeau’s theory of consumption as resistance, because here, consumption remains just that: consumption. Republicans offered a “new look, same great taste,” and voters happily purchased it. The parts are new; the Doctor is the same.
But Reince Priebus is not your boyfriend.
Peter Katz is the editor of Metathesis and a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Victorian Literature and Culture. His dissertation focuses on sensation fiction, the history of science, and the history of the novel.