April 17, 2015 by Thomas Hauber
Who am I this time?
In a 1955 Kurt Vonnegut short story adapted for American Playhouse, a young Susan Sarandon in town for a few weeks is persuaded to try out for a small town community theatre production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Her “Stella” audition is uninspiring until she meets her “Stanley Kowalski,” played by Christopher Walken, a normally shy drug store clerk but an on-stage dynamo who proceeds to bring out the best in her.
Both become enthralled with the power of acting and while Sarandon falls in love with the on-stage Kowalski, he is shy and inept at courtship in real life. The two manage to kindle a romance by reading romantic scenes to each other. This is a story about individuality and identity and suggests role-playing is a path to identity. Does our personality depend on the roles we play? In the end the two are asked to star in another play and Sarandon asks, “Who am I this time?”
Hillary Clinton wants to be President. A recent New Yorker magazine cover showed us her many faces. She has played many parts in her lifetime: mother, grandmother, dutiful wife, wronged woman, professional partner and alternately high profile and low-key First lady. She has acted as a bold advocate, a restrained listener and finally respectful senator and loyal Secretary of State. Some people feel they know who Hillary Clinton is, but what we don’t know is what kind of President she would be. We ask, Who will she be this time?
The political stage is the biggest one of all. To be elected, candidates want us to believe in them. Like actors they strive for “authenticity” using all their skills to convince the voter audience they can be the character, in this case the President. To be convincing the audience must read the actor and “decode” the signs into a believable performance. The audience is asked to suspend disbelief and buy in. Sometimes the actor pulls it off, sometimes he doesn’t. The same goes for politicians.
Ronald Reagan, despite some questionable politics, was successful in getting us to like him personally. People believed implicitly in Franklin Roosevelt. Not enough people believed Mitt Romney or Michael Dukakis or John Kerry to elect them, but they believed Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. For whatever reason voters trusted them. Both were good actors. Whatever IT is, they had it. Not many people believe Barack Obama anymore. Maybe he needs acting lessons. What about Hillary Clinton?
Her campaign wants us to like her. But what does it really matter if we like her or not? Most voters liked Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and even George Bush, they were authentic but that didn’t tell us much about what their Administrations would be like.
Unfortunately Hillary’s low-key presidential campaign announcement gives us few clues. Shakespeare quotes ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players… and one man in his time plays many parts…” In modern campaigning one candidate can effectively play many parts, all at the same time and they don’t have to do it live and on-stage, where it’s really tough.
Consent in our Democracy is increasingly “engineered” and political campaigns are “managed” by professional operatives so that the selling of a candidate takes place off-stage, on TV and print media, on the Internet and through social media. Campaign staffs and advisors are secured in secret and strategies are carefully constructed and announcements orchestrated. The fact Hillary has chosen an Internet video for her announcement suggests she has in large part chosen the tools of professional media to do her acting for her. This is really no surprise, the country is inured to it but we don’t like it.
The wizard of Oz seems alive and well. Clinton’s campaign announcement was more like an invitation to a magical mystery tour than a run for the Presidency. The video message is effective in a feel good sense but bereft of any policy substance. Hillary has substituted specific policy vision for the kind of personal spiritual journey so popular these days. She will be “hitting the road” to be with Americans on their individual quest. Her video promises a campaign reminiscent of her New York senatorial “listening tour.” Shown prominently are working women, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gay couples, single moms, students, young couples, retirees, Yankee fans, dog and cat owners and lastly a bald, white-male small business owner.
Hillary’s “digital director” Katie Dowd tells us what to expect, “…no big rallies, but conversations about what matters for our country. You might not be able to meet her in person but you can still be a part of the action.” Wow! We can follow the tour on Twitter and Facebook. No better way to self-promote where staff polls and focus groups can tailor every photo, video and tweet to what her audience wants to hear. Now comes the other part. Hillary says she will fight for every vote but she can’t do it alone.
Dowd’s latest email is one of five I have received in the last three days, all of them welcoming me aboard “Hillary for America“ and shamelessly shaking me down for money. Last I heard she had 2.5 Billion in the war chest. With personal friends like Lloyd Blankfein, why does she need my $5? And whose contribution will she remember?
I’m a registered Democrat but I’m getting fed up with the dog and pony show. The problem with liberal politics is that we are supposed to contribute to lofty goals while stilted leadership shakes its head and whines when those goals are not achieved. Instead, comes pathetic whining and desperate fund-raising appeals warning the Republicans are “on the attack” and the leadership doesn’t know what to do.
There seems little commitment to the bucket work of building an actual base. Sadly the strategy defaults to counting the youth, race, and gender vote and doling out just enough crumbs to keep the under-classes from voting Republican, yet more and more of them curiously are. The true liberal warriors who can actually speak the language of the working-class American are gone and the few who surface to take their place are not in the race. There seems little alternative to Hillary’s nomination when the liberal warriors like Elizabeth Warren and Jim Webb have not stepped up, but it’s not their fault. Nobody’s listening. Until the Democratic leadership decides to teach and explain the benefits of progressivism the voters won’t even recognize a true progressive when one appears.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to explain to voters the Earth is worth saving, that for profit healthcare should not bankrupt America, that unions can actually improve working conditions, pay and benefits, that your retirement account is not better off in the hands of stock-brokers and bankers, and that the aim of corporate capitalism is not to encourage competition but to eliminate it altogether.
In fairness to Hillary, there is little doubt of her historic commitments to civil rights, women’s rights and American family life as community. Democrats only hope that she would advance those issues and fight for traditional progressive causes as well and not give in to the Conservative assault. The Clintonian version of governance is that change comes only incrementally through compromise and working with the other side, but incremental change is easily hijacked along the way. Many of Bill Clinton’s policies: NAFTA, unprecedented deregulation of banking and financial services and telecommunications consolidation have all backfired on working class America. Bill said the Republicans made him do it, but when the big money gets plunked down on your campaign the pressure is on. Hillary’s supporters are the same bankers, Wall-Streeters and corporate America.
So has modern politics devolved into a money-dominated, media-driven public relations game designed to confuse, obfuscate and bamboozle the already perplexed voters. We end up not knowing much at all about the candidates. The only real clue is the amount of money they raise and where it comes from. This gives us a pretty good idea who will eventually have to be paid back.
Hillary can easily win her party’s nomination and go on to win the Presidency. The liberal Democrat Party faithful will remain solid and the power of the women’s vote may finally be unleashed. Huge sums will finance a media campaign designed to convince the remaining undecided voters that she will serve them best. In the end whomever she faces in the primaries or in the general election, those voters will have a difficult time decoding who the candidates really are and what they are up to. Unfortunately we’d rather decide who we’d like to have at the backyard BBQ and whom we’d like to have a beer with.
The campaign will ostensibly focus on all fifty states, though maybe twenty battleground states will receive the most attention while other regions will be virtually dismissed or taken for granted. Here lies the true irony of American politics. The strategy does not have to be inclusive; all you need is slightly more than half the votes to win. You can claim the voters have spoken, that you speak for “The American People” and that you possesses a mandate to govern. If you are confused by this, so am I.
In truth no one politician or party speaks for the American people, we are just too diverse and confused. To many voters, the business of politics is intriguing but fatiguing and not worth the effort. Considering only 70% (7 of 10) of eligible voters are registered and only 60% of those eligible will actually cast ballots, (that leaves 4 of 10) only slightly more than half of the remaining (2 of 10) of voting age Americans will actually elect the next President of the Unites States.