Trump leads by at least 5% over his nearest opponent in the Republican race for the nomination while, in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 44% to 37%.
Both Trump and Sanders are giving voice to a deep reservoir of anger, resentment and alienation among the ordinary people. Of course, there is the lingering residue from the economic collapse of 2008-9 which burst the bubble of dreams for millions of Americans, and linked to this development is the continuing bitterness directed toward the Wall Street perpetrators of those credit default tricks and the continuing skyrocketing of the Dow and corporate and investor profits. Sanders is the public voice of this anger and disappointment; as he repeats in every speech, “The billionaires cannot have it all!
Trump, the billionaire himself, is also protesting the straight-jacket of political correctness that pervades public discourse. Like a ‘white rapper’ Trump is giving the metaphoric “thumb” or “finger” to that kind of pre-programmed, focus-group-tested political persona. Relying on no ‘sugar-daddy’ (he is his own!) Trump can and does reject all forms of dullness, boredom, headaches and other snoozes he attributes to his opponents, while he “brings energy” and unpredictability and showmanship to the race for the Republican nomination. Fox, of course, loves Trump, given the 24 million viewers who tuned in to their debate last week, featuring Trump and the ‘nine dwarfs’, the mini-dwarfs having been dispatched to a smaller stage, with microphones powered by less electricity, politically and metaphorically.
Hillary, for her part, is mired in an increasingly muddy morass around her use of a private email server while she served as Secretary of State, aided and abetted by her own (and her husband’s) penchant for shaving the truth so finely that many wonder if they don’t actually ‘break it’ with their fine tuning (remember the definition of ‘yes’?). The inevitable consequence of when a message was declared “classified” is lost on many, while to Hillary, if it was not so “classified” at the time of her writing or receiving it, the her hands are clean.
Whether Trump or Sanders, both are voicing the margins of their respective party ideology: trump to the far right, Sanders to the far left.
The issue is becoming, Is the United States giving voice to a bi-polarity that has always existed in its political culture? And if so, what are the implications of this extreme expression on both sides?
To be interesting, even riveting, all drama must seize the sensibilities of the audience, through a portrayal of character, plot, setting and language that grabs the audience by the shirt collar and pushes it up against the wall, in empathic identification with the main characters. In the political theatre that United States politics as polished to an art, perhaps even tarnished to a fault, has become, without the creativity and the nuance of language of the artistic playwright, political aspirants have had to adopt the persona of a Swarzenegger in Terminator, the pose of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in his many iterations, Patton, and Evil Knievel rolled into one. In order to garner the attention of the media serfs, the “act” has to trump the substance, otherwise the substance is never heard, listened to or even acknowledged. It is a truism of politics that candidates must campaign in the primary by pandering to the base, and then revert to the centre when competing for the top prize in the general election. Another truism is that one campaigns poetry and governs in prose.
This campaign is so bereft of poetry that, if any of these candidates actually wins his party’s nomination, each will need an infusion of Obama’s literary talent even to enter the final campaign. Wrestlers, even with a hint of political gravitas, are still wrestlers in a ring of faux flips and phoney throw-downs. And, given the early stages of these two races, phoney and faux are ‘trumping’ substance, garnering media attention and disclosing a vacuity of both aspiration and inspiration. Rhetoric that shouts out “that is the problem” is not rhetoric that either inspires or solves that problem. Muscle, macho-media power, and even charisma are no substitute for nuanced and relevant feasible and credible proposals on policy, governance and making a broken Washington function effectively.
Does the American voting public have such an insatiable appetite for “the show” that they do not even require political nourishment. Are they so determined to die of political diabetes, given a surfeit of “sugar” and “salt” by both sides of the political spectrum. Certainly the media is not above reproach either. They really seem starved for horse races, opinion polls by the nano-second, so co-dependent are they on ratings and so deeply embedded are they in ‘the show’ as well.
In professional sports, when one makes it to the big leagues, one enters the “big show” as a rite of passage. And then the performance is measured and monitored so microscopically as to be the literal definition of one’s career and fortune. However, the analogy with professional sports does not hold in politics. Decisions, even those recommended by presidential candidates will not be enacted, no matter how charismatic the “voice”, unless and until the Congress debates and votes on the measures. At best, only the broad outlines of a prospective policy will waft across the podium from all candidates, stirring as much passion and adrenalin as it is possible to generate. It was a candidate for the Prime Minister’s office in Canada, back in the early 1990’s, Kim Campbell, who uttered a fatal statement that campaigns were no place for serious debate on government policy. She was both right and vilified. Right because her observation is factual; vilified, because no one in the political class can accept that mere sound and fury are the stuff of political campaigns, and not nuanced debates about policy merits. Only broad brush strokes are delivered, and then couched in such narrow caveats that no one has to deliver. Furthermore, issues in both domestic and geopolitics are so complex and so rife with differing points of view, even among those in the same political party, that scorecards of accomplishments, of a leader, and of a representative body are and have to be left to historians.
Furthermore, if it takes sound and fury to get attention, then how is character, that so sought after and so proferred commodity, to be judged. Is getting attention from a public addicted to another reality television show really a valid measure of character? Hardly. Is even a political record (Sanders has one, Trump does not) a determining factor in judging character, possibly. Are the friends one keeps a sign of one’s choice of company and thereby one’s upstanding character. That may have had some legitimacy when we were adolescents but no longer.
The real danger in this melodrama of the larynx is that billions will be expended to buy the air time necessary to make that larynx audible, and that only an emotional ‘gut check’ will be available to voters who are both victim of the money used to purchase the air time, and victimizers of the political process by permitting it to be high-jacked by the wallets and the suits. In the U.S. voters will be choosing the “leader of the free world” as we are so often reminded. And the choice has to be founded on much more than the demonstrated capacity to attract a crowd. That, in itself, is merely another “paint-by-number” program available from millions of good marketers and political consultants. It is highly possible that literally anyone can master the twists and turns of such a program, if s/he is willing to prostrate his/her person to the dictates of the program’s designers. Someone even wrote a book outlining the campaign of Richard M. Nixon as comparable to the marketing of a Coke bottle. The world needs serious, and complex and sensible and articulate and collaborative leaders who can and will do more, much more, than draw big crowds and then feed them political pablum.
This is not yet a third world country, and its political campaign must be a visible and credible manifestation of the high level of sophistication to which the United States has reached in so many fields of human endeavour. What we have seen so far fails the candidates, the voters, the media and the rest of the world. And as one listens to the sound bites in the Canadian election campaign, without the loud decibels (we are Canadian after all!) one is struck by the simplicity of the offerings as little more than the minimum requirement to “make the nightly news casts”.