Politicians have always known the power of symbolism, but the professional-era has turned it into an art form, where simply wearing a lapel badge is enough.
Lapel symbolism for politicians first came to my attention with the pink ribbon campaign. Sure, they’d all worn poppies in the past, but we all did. Politicians were reflecting community symbolism. But with pink ribbons politicians were becoming special interest advocates.
Lapel badges have taken on some new levels of absurdity in the UK. As Olympic readiness became a negative issue, politicians grabbed onto the trend of wear the London Olympic pin.
The reasons are obvious. A section of the community care about an issue or event. They design a pin to show they care about that matter. Those who want to claim solidarity with that event, also wear the pin. Professional politicians want to curry favour across the spectrum, so they wear the pin.
The symbolism gets weird when a tipping point is reached and not supporting the pin is interpreted as either not caring about the issue, or a deliberate rejection of the matter. See shops NOT selling ‘gay Olympic’ pins accused of “homophobia”.
With professional politicians, the tipping point is reached quickly. This is because symbolism is so much of what they do every day. In a community of disparate and competing interests, they think that appeasement (or call it civility to be generous) is what keeps them balanced on the bar of public opinion.
To show tolerance or empathy with interest groups; politicians say the right things, appear at the right functions; issue media releases of support, and even propose laws they know will never see the light of day, or if they do, won’t be in danger of changing much.
There’s much to like about recognising community interests this way. Everyone feels better. But there’s only a sheaf of paper between symbolic acknowledgement and legitimising interests over others.
There’s also something very insidious about symbolism: that appeasement is only lapel deep and the symbolism becomes “doing something”. Politicians can show support for the Olympics, breast cancer, leukemia, or whatever, but not do a single real thing to help or hinder the matter.
So I had empathy of Obama when he ditched the Stars and Stripes pin saying what mattered was in his heart, not on his lapel.
The trouble was, he felt political and public pressure to put it back on only months later.