Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rhetorical Juxtapositions: A Democratic Presidential Primary

What are you thinking about as you sit there on your living room sofa, maybe with your spouse or significant other, or maybe with some friends and family, feet reclined casually and a cold one condensating seductively on one of your fashionable coasters?  My guess is that you're probably not thinking about any of these details in the room around you, or about the power of democracy and the responsibility of you as a citizen to make an informed decision about which presidential candidate to vote for.  My guess is that you're probably not even really thinking at all.  Your consciousness is probably running on its default setting and you are transfixed in a weird sort of lazy attentiveness by the luminescent television screen, around which your furniture is centered--much like how the pews in large churches concave around the pulpit.

This lazy attentiveness is insidious and pernicious in the subtlest ways.  It ensures your absolute undivided attention on the screen and the colorful images and the vibrant sounds coming from its direction.  It ensures that you absorb all of the data it's transmitting.  It does all of this, but with the understanding that you're not really thinking too abstractly about what it all means and that you're probably not considering how this passive consumption of corporate sponsored, doctored, and in-real-time edited political information is anti-choice.

Ask yourself this question: is it a good thing for American democracy that the introduction to a presidential primary debate is formatted almost exactly like high-stakes sporting events?  And what does it say about us as "informed" citizens that we're okay with this?  And what does it imply about how the corporate elites view the general public?

In our natural default setting we just accept the situation for what it is and before we realize it we're buzzing with excitement over the fact that in a few minutes we'll be seeing "the Democratic presidential candidates go Head-to-Head, brought to you LIVE, by CBS News."  At this point the game is already lost because we've accepted the lens of the CBS News cameras as our lens, our default point of view.  This is all a fabrication of course, but we, viewing from home, don't realize it; we're just casually sipping our beers as we wait for the action to kick off.

But because we've already accepted the lens of the CBS News cameras as our own, we don't realize that this is an incredibly unnatural experience from the perspective of the candidates themselves.  I mean, imagine yourself behind a podium on a stage, with hundreds of people in the audience staring at you, and several $10,000 cameras pointed at you which you're fully aware are live-streaming your face to millions of strangers all over the country.  And we expect--even demand--that these people need to be "relatable" and appear like normal human beings in order to earn our votes.  But in order to appear relatable and normal to us at home, these politicians have to do the most unnatural and non-relatable things.  I'm describing, at least tangentially, the profession of the modern actor whose job it is to appear vividly human on screen and to be comfortable in front of these cameras and spectators.  Our politicians however, are not trained actors; but many of them try very hard to perform nonetheless.

It's blatantly clear to us that the former Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, is uncomfortable on stage.  We see his hands shaking and we can hear his voice tremble with nervousness.  But he's still trying his best to do the required puppet dance of modern national politics.  He quickly finds the appropriate camera, points his index finger sternly, and delivers the most painfully feigned of emotional oratories that I've seen so far from any candidate.  He wants so desperately to seem sincere; his eyes squint slightly as he delivers a soft and powerful emotional point, and then they widen brightly along with his smile and the volume of his voice as he extols another vague and intense American virtue.  It makes me squirm in my seat, and I avert my eyes.  It's kind of like when a new acquaintance that you're still unsure about makes prolonged intense eye contact with you as you speak, and nods her head vigorously with wide eyes that refuse to release your gaze.  It's a proper nightmare for anyone with even the slightest bit of social anxiety.

But O'Malley's obvious act of sincere desperation is small cheese compared to the heir apparent of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  Former First Lady, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has been playing this nightmarish national political rite of passage much longer than the former Maryland Governor who's clearly in over his head.  Her political persona is so far developed for the big leagues that we don't squirm with discomfort when she speaks--at least not the same sort of discomfort that we attribute to O'Malley.  If Clinton makes us uncomfortable, it's not because we can see through her act or because it's obvious to us that she's uncomfortable on stage herself.  Quite the opposite is true.  She's much too comfortable on stage, and much too talented at playing this game.  If you pay real close attention to her--not to what she's saying, but rather to how she's saying it--you find yourself getting increasingly furious at the skill with which she's able to appear sincere.  She scans the room slowly, punctuating her points with quick and emphatic finger jabs.  She is fully in her element and is thriving upon the awareness that, in those moments when she has the floor, every single person in the room is taking her SO seriously.  She's the expert, the experienced politician, the professional, the calculated and stern leader.  She wears all of these masks, and she wears them well.

The only discernible cracks in her otherwise perfect political facade are revealed when she gets indignant--as she did in the second debate when the only human on stage challenged her financial bona fides with respect to Wall Street.  Ignoring the absurdity of her subsequent deflection, which didn't address the criticism at all and instead attempted to justify huge financial ties to Wall Street by invoking 9/11, notice her demeanor throughout her response.  It seems that there is an inverse correlation between how impeccable her routine is and how effectively she's criticized by opponents. This is the only crack in an otherwise impressive unnatural feat.

Normal human beings are anxious creatures whose level of comfort diminishes as the level of scrutiny upon them increases.  And the only thing that seems to be preventing the former Mayor of Burlington, and current Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, from losing his self-conscious shit up there on stage among all of the lights and cameras is his deep conviction in progressive principles that he feels are lacking in establishment politics.  He's indicated before that he likes his job as a Senator and wouldn't be running for President if he thought any of the other candidates could take on the monied interests in Washington.  And if you watch his behavior on stage, you have to believe him.  He is by far the most uncomfortable person in the room--although, a strong argument could be made for O'Malley.  But the only reason O'Malley maybe looks comparatively more uncomfortable than Sanders is because O'Malley is still trying to fight his discomfort and conform to the same rhetorical schtick that Clinton is already doing much better.  Sanders on the other hand is unapologetically uncomfortable and, were it not for his populist/progressive agenda, would probably admit that he hates every minute of being on that stage.

Put simply, of the three remaining Democratic candidates for President, only one of them isn't playing the game that's expected of them.  Sanders scoffs at Clinton's answers on stage, and barely contains his frustrations enough to remember to politely acknowledge that he has a great deal of respect for the Madame Secretary, before going on to call the business model of Wall Street "fraud," breaking all implicit rules that urge him to keep his trap shut.  His demeanor doesn't change depending on the situation he's in.  He isn't an adept political chameleon (like Clinton), nor does he even pretend to want to be (like O'Malley).  His Brooklyn accent sits heavy on his voice.  He gets passionate about a point he's making and he stumbles over his words, often screwing up the emphatic result he was aiming for.  He tries to thread a very difficult needle on gun control and bring some much needed nuance to that discussion, even though he knows it won't be received well in a partisan Democratic room.  It's as if all of the subtle signs that govern the behavior of every modern American politician fly completely over the head of this grumpy old Vermont Senator.  I don't think any of it's flying over his head though.  Especially considering that this is a man in whose office hangs a poster of Eugene V. Debs, I think all of those signs are painfully obvious to him.  And I think he's deliberately ignoring them, and for that reason (among many more), he's the most qualified candidate on that ridiculous stage.