Monday, February 09, 2015

Lennon Read A Book On Marx, or why Bernie Sanders Still Isn't Running For President

As much as I'm hoping that a viable Hillary Clinton alternative emerges, or even that Hillary Clinton herself pretends to run a real Iowa caucus campaign, I've been convinced for some time that the alternative is NOT going to be Bernie Sanders. At this point I'm only adding evidence to that conclusion.

In December I wrote:
Sanders still won't say "I'm a Democrat," a seemingly necessary precondition to running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.

Read this sentence again:  

Sanders said a grassroots political movement is needed in the country, whether or not he runs for president.

It's not about the running for president part at all.

It's about the grassroots movement part.
Sanders' Iowa visits always include a lot of time with groups like CCI and ICAN, and the mission seems to be the outside groups pulling the Democratic Party, and by extension the near certain nominee, leftward.

Then over the weekend, this piece by Alex Seitz-Ward at MSNBC:
And it’s still unclear whether Sanders has the stomach for a run. He despises what he calls the “game” aspects of politics, like fundraising and building a personality cult. “What is politics? What is serious politics?” he asked Saturday. “It’s about having a serious debate about issues, not gossip, not personality.”
Bernie, I've been a fan for 25 years, but you're wrong here. Maybe politics SHOULD be "a serious debate about issues, not gossip, not personality.”  It's a mistake lefties often make: the assumption that well reasoned, rational, complex arguments will win out just on their own merits.  It's the ideological belief that the didactic is morally superior to the dramatic.

Looking back over the modern mass media era, back to the birth of radio, I can think of countless presidential candidacies where style trumped substance. But I can think of very, very few candidates who were all issues, no persona. Even those who are ret-conned as being about ideas or ideology - I'm thinking especially of Reagan here - initially got into office in large part on personality. 

The best example I can think of for a pure issues, no persona candidate is Eugene McCarthy. And as soon as he started seeing success on Just The Issues, or rather just THE issue. Bobby Kennedy jumped in and trumped him. Because RFK had both the issues AND the personality AND the narrative of the Restoration Of Camelot, which of course ended in a tragic repetition.

Bernie Sanders invokes so much of that Sixties Left mood, and the people drawn to him seem to fit that mold. But I prefer my Lennon to my Lenin, so here's a couple songs.

Lennon sometimes described "Imagine" as "'Working Class Hero' with sugar on it for conservatives." It is "Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted ... Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey."

Two great songs. But "imagine" has a profound simplicity that is universal and timeless, as relevant today as it was in 1971.  In contrast, "Working Class Hero" is designed to be harsh, with two deliberately dropped F-bombs that, while dramatically justified, limited its audience in an era when government-licensed broadcast was the only available mass medium.

And the rhetoric, while still more poetic in Lennon's gifted voice than in lesser hands, still feels strongly of its time and place. It's more of a "serious debate about the issues," but less of a song.

Which statements made more impact on the actual proletariat?

Back to me from December:
This fall I had the chance to meet and see both Sanders and the other progressive dream candidate, Elizabeth Warren, up close.

Sanders is pure issue, pure message, which activists love but is overwhelming to regular folks. There's no Bernie there.  And, it seems, he's proud of that:

“We have reached the stage where people who actually talk about the issues like me seem to be kind of weird,” Sanders said. “Imagine somebody involved in politics talking about issues.”

A fair critique. But Warren carried much the same progressive message as Sanders, only wrapped it in the family and biography and story that Americans seem to need in order to digest issues.

Other nations have a symbolic president or a monarch who can carry the flag and the national narrative, while a purely political prime minister does the heavy lifting of issues and governing. The American presidency is a rare office in this world, both head of government and head of state. We Americans simply can't handle issues without story, issues ALONE aren't a story, and when the two are pitted against each other, story wins.
I don't think she'll run either, though I hope, but Warren plays the Imagine to Sanders' Working Class Hero. Or, more accurately, she is willing to sing Imagine where Sanders isn't.

Bernie Sanders is a smart, smart man. He can Imagine a world where politics is pure issues, where he could run for president as the Working Class Hero.  But he knows that's unlikely to change in what's left of his lifetime, and he's not willing to change himself to score some points. If he can't run for president just by talking about the issues, in his own way, then he won't do it.

Sanders' natural role is as a challenger, not an electoral challenger but more as one who pushes the Overton Window of what's possible. And in his own Working Class Hero-ness, Sanders helps the rest of the political world Imagine.


pooter said...

I think you let your metaphor get away with you. "Countless" presidential candidates since the birth of the radio era?

Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy are the few two who were about issues?

I would say McGovern was about issues, as was Henry Wallace, in his alternative bid. Your mileage may vary.

John said...

Not that Gene McCarthy was the only candidate about issues. He was the only major example who tried to be ONLY about the issues and was dismissive of the personal and narrative aspects of candidacy. McGovern was MOSTLY about the issue, but also had a personal narrative that he tried but failed to sell.

Henry Wallace, or for that matter Ralph Nader, are both interesting cases. But they were largely marginalized and neither was competing for a major party nomination, which is the context Sanders is in now.