"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, June 18, 2012

Selling Dreams–Electoral Politics in 2012

There is no greater difference in approach to electoral politics than that of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.  Carter talked about human frailties and the need to overcome them.  We were in ‘a crisis of confidence’, he said, and needed to rally our best instincts to overcome it.  It would be no simple matter, since such crises are a long time building and go to a social and cultural core, but once a country loses its focus and direction, it may drift for years.  Sounds about right, doesn’t it?  A clear, logical, and insightful argument, appealing to people’s intelligence, patriotism, and civic honor.  Just as we have always rallied together in difficult times, so would we now:

In June 1979 Jimmy Carter's pollster, Patrick Caddell, wrote the president a devastating memo. Inflation was at 11%. Unemployment, the price of oil and tension with Iran was rising. Caddell was anxious. "For the first time, we actually got numbers where people no longer believed that the future of America was going to be as good as it was now," he said. "And that really shook me, because it was so at odds with the American character."

Against the advice of many, Carter tackled these concerns in a national address. He spoke of a "crisis of confidence" posing a "fundamental threat to American democracy". "[Confidence] is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people," he said. "We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own." It was one of the most pilloried speeches in recent presidential history. Eighteen months later, Carter was out of a job.

Why was the speech so vilified? And why was Carter considered to be a weak president?  I can only think of Shakespeare’s Henry VI who was a thoughtful, sensitive, and considerate king.  The internecine warfare at his court which blossomed into the 15-year War of the Roses was a hateful thing to Henry.  He could not understand why his nobles would fight over such trivial matters such as the color of a rose.  He was even more philosophical than Richard II, the poet-king, who reflected often on the evanescent nature of kingship.  Henry was a weak king, manipulated by his court and his wife, all of whom did not see the War as a trivial affair, but a desperately important one about the right of succession to the throne.  He, like Jimmy Carter, was vilified, and of course murdered.  By whom?  Richard III who with Henry’s head was just beginning his quick and bloody trip to the throne. 

Carter could simply not get it right.  He went on to give a famous fireside chat where he, dressed in a frumpy cardigan, told the American people to turn their heat down.  A few degrees wouldn’t matter and would do so much to free us from foreign oil.  Of course he was right; but a president just doesn’t say such things.  You say ‘drill, baby, drill’ and shove those stiff rotating steel bits down into the earth to bring up liquid gold.   A strong president never talks about a crisis of confidence or suggests that anything is really our fault.  It is the Arabs, the oil companies, the Chinese…anyone but good, hardworking Americans.

Ronald Reagan understood this, and his famous Morning in America ad, defined the new vision of presidential campaigns.  There was absolutely nothing wrong with America, said the ad, no problems to fix, no issues to confront, no crises of any consequence.  The ad showed ‘ordinary’ Americans at work, at home with their families, with friends – in other words a romantic, traditional view of middle America that most people aspired to.  America was, in Reagan’s words, that ‘Shining City on a hill’ – evocative of ancient Greece, Jerusalem, and simply and expressively evocative of a nation on top of the world, a beacon to others, a light to the rest of the world.  It was brilliant. 

Reagan came by this naturally.  In one of his earliest recorded speeches in 1952, he said:

"I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land. It was set here and the price of admission was very simple: the means of selection was very simple as to how this land should be populated. Any place in the world and any person from those places; any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here."

He believed what he said, and that was one of the reasons he was so effective as The Great Communicator.  A silver tongue can get you a long, long way; but a silver tongue speaking heartfelt words which resonated with the audience created magic.

Perhaps no speech exemplified Reagan’s simple but resonant vision than his speech before the Republican National Convention in 1984:

"The poet called Miss Liberty's torch 'the lamp beside the golden door.' Well, that was the entrance to America, and it still is. And now you really know why we're here tonight. The glistening hope of that lamp is still ours. Every promise, every opportunity, is still golden in this land. And through that golden door our children can walk into tomorrow with the knowledge that no one can be denied the promise that is America. Her heart is full; her torch is still golden, her future bright. She has arms big enough to comfort and strong enough to support, for the strength in her arms is the strength of her people. She will carry on in the '80s unafraid, unashamed, and unsurpassed. In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal; America's is."

What a brilliant speech!  The image of of Miss Liberty carrying the torch which became in Reagan’s words a soft, glowing lamp which bathed us in loving light.  The triumphal, heroic Statue of Liberty became a warm, earth mother ‘big enough to comfort and strong enough to support”; and then the final, ecstatic line:

“She will carry on in the 80s unafraid, unashamed, and unsurpassed.  In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal; America’s is”

Ronald Reagan carried this vision throughout his presidency, never strayed from message because the message was his.  The American people were adoring of this man who spoke to them and reflected their hopes, aspirations, and patriotic sentiments about their country.

We are now mired in a presidential election campaign which has no such vision; nor does it have any of Jimmy Carter’s much maligned but correct assessment of our frailties and our problems.  The candidates, however, still remember the lesson of 33 years ago as a recent article in the Manchester Guardian suggests :http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/17/obama-romney-restore-hope-president

To question this confidence, even if the aim is to restore it (as Carter's was), is to invite electoral suicide. Voters generally want leaders to reflect the enduring nature of their myths rather than reflect upon their fragility. But to ignore that frailty can be no less fatal. In times of national crisis, voters want someone who addresses their underlying anxieties – not someone who covers them in rhetorical crazy-paving.

Yet, times are tough in America:

Financially, at least, they're right. Their wages have stagnated while the cost of living has skyrocketed. Since 1973, wages for 90% of American families have been flat, rising just 10% over almost four decades. Meanwhile, since 2001, a family's average health premiums have increased 113%; between 2000 and 2010, the cost of college tuition has increased by 32%; since 2006 median house prices have slumped 20%; a record 53% worry they won't have enough money for retirement. Those who can work longer, save more, consume less and expect less are treading water. The rest are sinking.

How can the candidates address these holes in the American dream without blaming ‘ordinary Americans’?

The central challenge of the forthcoming presidential election will be to provide a plausible narrative for how the country got here and how it will get out, without ever admitting the narrative exists or taking any responsibility for it. The central tragedy of the election is that neither candidate can plausibly do that.

Mitt Romney has tried to evoke the visionary legacy of Ronald Reagan, but his visions seem stale and shopworn.  He is without Reagan’s passion and commitment, nor does he have the shameless poetic rhetoric of the former president.

The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, is appealing to past glory, imperial power and manifest destiny. "There was a time – not so long ago – when each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter," he told the National Rifle Association in April. "Because we had a gift that no one else in the world shared. We were Americans. That meant something different to each of us but it meant something special to all of us. We knew it without question. And so did the world. Those days are coming back. That's our destiny."

This speech has nothing of Reagan’s insight.  Reagan created an image – an unforgettable image of Liberty holding a guiding, comforting lamp which shed its warm, protective light over us.  She was our mother, a warm, trusted being and an image of an America which has internal strength and confidence.  Romney simply says that Americans our great.

No one trusts Romney anyway.  The Great Flip-Flopper doesn’t win any votes on the trust and confidence score, and has to revert to the same old nostrums of his Republican past.  In other words, neither does he give Americans a shining vision, nor realistically address the problems that affect us.

Obama doesn’t do any better, for he, too understands that he needs to skirt the issues and try, as Reagan did, to appeal to emotional issues:

Obama's message is more compelling but no less nostalgic. Referring to his grandparents in his last state of the union speech, he said: "[They] shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over a depression and fascism … They [understood they] were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share – the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement. The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive."

This speech is no different from Romney’s – a more Democratic view of life as seen from the humbled poor, but scanty in ideas and imagery.

The reason why Reagan was so successful was because the American electorate could not then and cannot now understand the complexities of economics, foreign policy, and social dynamics.  Reagan won over former blue-collar Democrats not because he convinced them that his economic policies would help them.  On the contrary, his trickle-down, lower taxes for the rich, union-busting, anti-government policies would certainly do the opposite, at least in the short run.  He won them over because of his universal appeal to emotional issues.  Only Ross Perot in 1992, with his squeaky voice, big ears, and bigger flip charts, got through the the American electorate about debt and the deficit.  This, however, was a small glitch in American politics, and we are well back in the feel-good, there-are-no-problems mainstream.

It is no surprise whatsoever that the election is being fought on non-issues, such as the eternal ‘family values’, socialism, gay marriage, a strong military, a defiant stance against China and all comers.  Neither Republicans nor Democrats have a way out of the unemployment mess.  Consumer….and here comes that word again….confidence in the economy is still low; and that of the corporate, hiring sector not much higher.  In other words people are not buying and producers are not producing.  It is market economics in bold headlines: SUPPLY AND DEMAND.  Ronald Reagan was a big believer in the Laffer Curve and Supply Side economics.  The Curve was no accurate predictor of economic reality, and supply-side, trickle-down programs have never worked.  In these days of fiscal austerity, the usual tax-and-spend Democratic stand-byes are impossible, and reflections on Roosevelt and his mammoth government spending during the Depression are only glimmers on our modern wall.

The incredible polarity of the the election makes popular focus on issues almost impossible.  It is not hard to envisage that in a more bi-partisan environment, people could actually take the time to listen to and study proposals on health care; but in today’s acrimonious cloud, neither side is to be trusted to tell the truth or to give the facts.

The campaign this year is very hard to watch.  At least during the Republican primaries it was fun watching Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry self-destruct in a circus of pandering, gaffes, and missteps.  It was scary at times to contemplate the thought of one of these guys in the White House, but the thought passed.  Now we are faced with the humorless middle.  Candidates become even more centrist and careful, and the old hackneyed nostrums become more in evidence.  ‘When the stake is high, risk less’ goes the American electoral adage.

I would like either Ronald Reagan or Ross Perot to come back on stage.  In Reagan we would have lyrical theatre and the greatest political acting performance of all time.  We would love his celestial images and defining rhetoric.  We could believe again.  In Ross Perot, we would have geeky realism and a hard-nosed but clarifying look at the complexities of the economy.  Ross would keep it real and make it clear.   

Instead, we have Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  We’re stuck with them.

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