Jim Clyburn’s billboards, as he proudly announced yesterday while endorsing Joe Biden for president, read,
“Making America’s greatness accessible and affordable to everyone!”
So, one presumes Clyburn means that he works to provide access to health care, education, work with dignity, and the hand-up needed by millions just to be able to prepare for the process of “accessing and affording” everything currently out of reach.
Aspirational goals, measured in dollars, degrees, houses, and portfolios, as well as healthy bodies and even more healthy children, sounds wonderful. And all of the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination endorse the aspiration. Some, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren propose political revolution and radical structural change respectively.
In the face of the very real possibility that Sanders will be the nominee, many in the Democratic party are expressing serious concerns that a Sanders candidacy will rule out any chance the Democrats have to win back the White House, and the Senate, while putting their chances of holding the House of Representatives in serious jeopardy. Those with the deepest concerns express this scenario as an “existential threat” to democracy. Another four years of trump, they argue, and it will be highly unlikely that the United States that has been a global leader for centuries will be recognizable in 2024.
The current occupant of the Oval Office injects adrenalin into the fears, the grievances and the venomous anger of his cult supporters. And he does it by using vernacular, attitudes and “power-trips” of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Parachuting into towns and cities in which Democrats are about to hold caucuses or primaries, thumbing his (and his cult’s) nose in contemptuous scorn, is one of his primary messaging techniques.
And, of course his “calling card” is a vibrant economy, a nearly invisible unemployment number, and tax cuts for his wealthy oligarchic gang. And, if the Democrats are ever to regain the upper hand in this titanic struggle for what Jon Meacham calls the “soul” of America, the argument has to be framed, and then language in concepts, words, principles and petitions that go far beyond the clichés on which trump is totally dependent.
Reductionism, to dollars and cents, and to banned immigrants and refugees, to billions for an exclusively symbolic and utterly useless border wall, and national security reductionism that calls for an additional $750 billion for the Pentagon is little more than a propaganda “trap” for the Democrats. And even Clyburn has fallen for it, while his motives are honourable.
Putting a price on everything, with only a nano-second period for evaluation, generates headlines, and gives the appearance of “gaining control of the daily news” another of trump’s base impulses. However, the headlines, and the daily news coverage only echo the trump barking rendering their talking and writing heads complicit in his game.
Occasionally, a Democratic candidate will utter the word “values” as a way of raising the level of the conversation. Unfortunately, most eyes glaze over at that point, unless one has a life-long conviction about overturning Roe v. Wade. Blazing his bugle into his cult’s ears about fears of immigrants, especially Muslims and those from “shit-hole countries in Africa, and those from Central and South America, along with touting an evangelical zeal about protecting the RNA and Americans’ right to own guns, including assault weapons, while calculating many policy options in terms of business “freedom” even the kind of ‘wild-west’ laissez-faire of the past literally silences sophisticated talk of values. And, of course, the president is a strong advocate of “family values” and pre-existing conditions, and “motherhood” in his brazenly dissembling false sycophancy to whatever it takes to appear ‘presidential’ in the moment, and then going about demolishing the institutions, traditions and careers of the republic.
Democrats are going to have to find a almost completely new vernacular in which to deliver their messages, regardless of the name on the top of the ticket. Values, and aspirational goals like affordability and accessibility may have found receptive ears, minds and hearts in the past; they will fall on the asphalt of insouciance, and impatience in this campaign.
Language that delves in and humbly recounts the fine details of the personal life of the candidate, as detailed by Biden and Warren and Klobuchar, and to a lesser extent Buttigieg, seem to be one of the needed connecting bridges to an electorate starved to be noticed, to be respected, to be honoured and to be waiting, however sceptically, to find favour in a standard-bearer. For their part, Bloomberg, Sanders and to a lesser extent Steyer refrain from such an approach. The issue of authenticity, so prominently on display in all of the punditry, given the papier-mache insincerity, inauthenticity and outright devious deception of trump, plays a significant role in this election, perhaps even more than in previous elections.
Trust, in the candidate, carries with it the potential to once again trust the government s/he might potentially lead. Trust in the government, now so dangerously sliding off the freeway and into the cavern at the bottom of the mountain, having been trashed by the president, is so high a priority on the electorate’s mind and heart, (at least in the Democratic primaries) that all numbers have to be viewed through the lens of trust, authenticity, integrity, and the ability to demonstrate one’s commitment to not merely reaching the bare minimum of that bar, but to exceed expectations in that regard.
Selling oneself is not only difficult; it is categorically oxymoronic. And, clearly, the current Oval Office occupant has seduced millions while “selling his snake oil” of fool’s gold of promises. Modesty, of the kind demonstrated by Buttigieg recently in his opening on the issue of race relations, is one good place to begin. And for the gay, thirty-seven-year-old former mayor, of a medium-sized town in the decimated industrial heartland, to tell his audiences that he has no idea what it feels like to be a black man or woman, walking through a mall and being stared at for not other reason that the colour of his/her skin, rings true; after all, as a once-closeted gay soldier, serving in Afghanistan, Buttigieg knows full well what it is like to be stared at and rejected for his sexuality. Just as Biden knows the “weeds” on cancer treatment, given both his duties as Vice-president, and his intimate connection to his deceased son’s glioblastoma, so too does Klobuchar know about the pressures of needing health care in an emergency (her daughter’s first days). Warren’s story of early teaching days, losing her position upon becoming pregnant and the returning to college, and eventually teaching at the Harvard Law School also rings true.
Humility, modesty, biography…these are all relevant traits to both seek and to emulate in a presidential candidacy, in a cacophony of trumpeted “accomplishments” and “promises” that beg not merely scepticism but actual cynicism. While serving as a kind of hint into the thinking of a candidate, they are unlikely to be enacted, especially those reaching for the “revolutionary” and the “structural transformation” without the support of first, the independent and Democratic electors in the primaries, and then the independent and Republican voters in the general election.
There is a kind of intellectual glaze that takes over the eyes and ears when listening to the bickering over who “wrote the bill” or “who is going to pay for X” or how the next president is going to “get everyone to work together”….These are not merely hollow epithets; they are merely talking points designed to paint a picture of a candidate whom we can believe and to whom we can think about extending a mere finger of trust.
There is a real concern that among some voters, only women candidates merit the trust of the American people, as aspirational wishing has emerged on the editorial pages of the New York Times, in their shared endorsement of both Warren and Klobuchar. Of the two, Klobuchar has my vote for humility, modesty and authenticity. Warren wins in championing the impossible, while exuding integrity in her personal, professional career. And that apparent dichotomy may sink her candidacy.
Politics, and the act of marking a ballot is a highly personal, physical, psychological and even aspirational series of engagements, most of them at arm’s (eye’s, and screen’s) reach. The presentation of a person, through the various digital platforms, and through the increasingly dense fog of misinformation, lies, character assassinations, as an necessary piece of American culture, theatre and national character, has become so fraught with impermanence, instability, micro-moments, and instant analysis by those so deeply embedded in a broadcasting/journalistic/editorial culture that is steeped in the ratings/profit game, one has to wonder if there is a drill-hole through which the truth can flow, in the barricades of distortion, prevention and disabling.
Unfortunately, as so frequently and tragically demonstrated in the lives of televangelists, and hucksters, and guru’s, those with the most obvious and more profound charisma, that magnetism that glues millions to their presence, and cements them to their personalities, as “stars” is precisely the wrong way by which to judge a potential leader of the free world. Nevertheless, in it into the midst of just such a culture, theatrical, Hollywood, entertainment and pop music, as well as political, that each of these candidates has agreed to throw their “hat” in the hope and dream and potential promise that they might win that coveted prize, the presidency.
Ironically, anyone who follows this president will inherit such an incredible mess of reputation, despondency, hollowed-out bureaucracies and policies on those very files where the greatest dangers lurk that it will take them at least a full first term to begin to set the ship of state “right” in the very stormy waters the people of the globe all face.
And the decision of the American people, for better or worse, will have an impact on the lives of all voters, and on the children and grandchildren of all of the people around the world. Whether the American voter is apprised of, and appreciates the import of his or her decision, we can only hope that Putin and his thugs, and trump and his sycophants are not the ultimate victors in November, later this year.