News that the New England Confectionery Co. may go under, after more than a century in business, sent shock waves through the candy world. Those who adore the company's chalky, multicolored Necco Wafers are snapping up cases. A Florida woman offered to trade her car for the remaining stock.
I can understand the collective freakout. Heck, I wrote a whole book about the confectionery industry because my favorite candy bar on Earth - the miraculous Caravelle - had vanished from the racks.
But the lesson I learned researching "Candyfreak" was ultimately as simple as it was brutal: There's no room in capitalism for sentiment.
The ultimate law of the marketplace is the law of supply and demand. Which is to say, if Necco Wafers go the way of the dodo bird, it will be for the same reason as the Caravelle: Not enough people bought them.
In fact, the same algorithm governs every realm of American endeavor these days, from our popular culture to our political theater. It's not about the quality of the product. It's about the quantity of units sold.
This maxim is useful to recall, especially when one is being assailed by TV addicts who lament the untimely demise of cult TV series such as "Freaks and Geeks" and "My So-Called Life." The reason they went off the air so quickly shouldn't be taken as a personal affront. They were simply better at generating passionate fans than huge ratings.
The same rule applies to all those who recall how VHS ultimately defeated the higher-quality Betamax format in the heated war over video-recording technology.
Obviously, there are ways to game the marketplace, such as establishing monopolies and/or engaging in predatory pricing schemes. But the predominant form of capitalism in America boils down to a de facto popularity contest. A product, or a person, dominates the market based not on intrinsic value but external worth.
As far removed as this might seem from the fate of Necco Wafers, our public discourse has followed the same pattern.
Consider the fate of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's signature legislative achievement. The product Democrats rolled out was a law they insisted would reform America's health care system and make insurance coverage more widely available. In fact, the ACA did achieve these goals.
But opponents of the law told a very different story about Obamacare: that it represented a "government takeover" of health care and would usher in an era of death panels destined to euthanize elderly Americans.
These claims weren't true. But they were frightening and wildly popular, and they managed to erode support for the ACA, even among those who stood to benefit most from it.
The one American politician who most clearly understands the power of this capitalist algorithm is President Donald Trump. Early on, he intuited that modern presidential elections were not so much a contest of ideas as a war for attention.
In previous eras, his willingness to make openly offensive statements would have relegated him to the fringes of American political discourse. In 2016, this brashness made him a media magnet.
Why? Because he generated ratings. As a reality TV star and tabloid celebrity, he knew this better than the pundits who gnashed their teeth at his ascent.
What mattered most wasn't his qualifications for office, or his policies (such as they were). What mattered was that Americans loved to watch him, whether in rapture or disgust.
And thus, the prevailing market forces induced cable TV stations to provide incessant coverage of his rallies and rants.
None of this was hidden from view. In February 2016, the chairman of CBS, Les Moonves, confessed to all of it at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in San Francisco.
"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Moonves told the assembled crowd. "Donald's place in this election is a good thing. Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? ... The money's rolling in and this is fun. I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
It may seem like a stretch to conflate the potential disappearance of an obscure candy with the current state of our democracy. But both are the result of the exact same forces.
Just as a capitalist marketplace represents the will of consumers, who select the most popular goods and services, so too, a capitalist democracy delivers us leaders who ultimately reflect our values as citizens - our devotion to scandal and sensation, our generalized apathy when it comes to the mechanisms of self-governance.
For those Americans who lament this state of affairs, the most effective remedy lies not in hate-watching democracy on TV but in the old-fashioned labor of civic engagement and activism.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Steve Almond is the author of numerous books, fiction and nonfiction. His most recent is "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country?" He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
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