Democracy in Motion

Focus groups, aux armes! The revolution will be won at last: not in the mechanisms of the state, but in consumer showrooms nationwide. This spring, when DaimlerChrysler makes its new PT Cruiser available to customers, we'll finally see an automobile produced to resemble the mind of the nation.

Evidently, the national mind is pretty mixed up. The aim of the car's design was to take whatever citizens in focus groups liked--and then give them plenty of it. "It was a new technique at the time," says DaimlerChrysler research director David Bostwick, who patiently explains the company's unusual surveying methods, in which the French-born psychiatrist G. Clotaire Rapaille gathered data through his unique "archetype study" technique.

A prototype car, like the blank from which a key is made, was set down in the midst of a roomful of citizens. The participants were asked to provide their first impressions of, for example, its size, and the feeling of being inside it. Then Rapaille led them through a mixture of dreamwork and regression therapy to get their deep responses.

"We ask: What is it that it's suggesting it's supposed to be?" Bostwick says. And whatever the car suggests it is, it becomes. All responses were studied, and then more than a few of them were incorporated simultaneously into the design of the PT Cruiser's body. The result is more pluribus than unum. "You know the little story about Pavlov's dog--we can show him a steak, and ring the bell?" Bostwick asks. "We have lots of bells and steaks."

Indeed. The finished vehicle has a cubist quality; it looks like a different car from each angle. Jeffrey Ball, automotive reporter for The Wall Street Journal, identified a 1920s gangster car, a hot rod, and a London cab. DaimlerChrysler execs discern a 1930s running-boarded sedan and elements of the "woodies" of the 1940s. There's also a resemblance to an armored vehicle: perfect for these troubled times. As for the mechanical heart that beats beneath the PT Cruiser's schizophrenic exterior--well, it's something like a minivan's, and something like a short car's. It will follow the SUV tradition of classing itself as a truck, thus evading the emission standards that a passenger car would require.

DaimlerChrysler's automotive expression of the popular will calls to mind Russian-émigré artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who caused a stir in 1998 with their "most wanted" American painting based on scientific polls of 1,001 citizens. The finished canvas featured blue tones, water, frolicking vacationers, wilderness, deer, a hippo, and George Washington. Komar and Melamid are still at it: Their latest commission--St. Paul, Minnesota's "most wanted" (elk, lighthouse)--was installed this past November at the Minnesota Museum of American Art. The viewer response? "There are a lot of other things I'd prefer to put in my living room," museum-goer Adele Binning told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The Russians, at least, were onto the comedy of creating anything based on the fragmentary preferences of aggregate poll respondents. "It was our idea to visualize this view of the new kind of dictator, because we [grew] up in a condition of dictatorship, Lenin, Stalin, et cetera. And when we came to United States, we recognized that another dictator here is the so-called majority," Melamid recounted on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Which brings us to politics. Is the way to a nation's soul really to find the little bits and pieces of the public will, and then dish them all out in oversized portions of consumer-preference gumbo? And did this idea seep out of political campaigns, or did it just wind up there? Focus groups can make lists of micro-opinions, but most people would like their two cents to go toward some coherent point of view.

Not that this is stopping their would-be seducers. George W. Bush, forgetting what his father learned about lacking "that vision thing," is building a candidacy out of the adoption of all possible positions and commitment to almost none. President Clinton has since 1996 excelled at cobbling together little poll-pleasers that vanish with exposure. And Clinton's clownish Mephistopheles, Dick Morris, roars full steam ahead with, his web-based effort to canvass citizens' disparate beliefs and flog officeholders with the results. "Should kids who kill be tried as adults?" "Do you believe in Santa Claus?" If your elected officials don't feel as you do about these vital issues, somebody's going to hear about it.

But if the PT Cruiser is any indication, maybe these politicians are onto something: The more you stare at pictures, shot from angle after angle, the more strangely enticing the whole package becomes. More is more. Why settle for one car when you can drive 10?

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