Sunday, January 11, 2004

Stale and Intellectually Bankrupt

(part 3 of the 3-part epic poem entitled: These Candidates Suck)

The Dean campaign has caused quite a stir. The Dean Revolution they call it. It's caused all sorts excitement and consternation among Democrats, Republicans, the pundits, and just about anybody who's following the election at this point. Everybody is buzzing about Howard Dean. So what is it that makes him so different? Is it his background, his experience? Not really. He's got some nice credentials, but they're not measurably better than the impressive credentials of his competitors. Is it his policy? Doesn't look like it. His policies are nearly indistinguishable from any of the other Democrats. So what could be causing all the stir? He's angry. That's right, he's downright indignant about what the Bush administration is doing and he's shown it on the campaign trail. Even more disturbing, by all accounts this outburst of emotion seems to actually be genuine. Sometimes he even speaks without running his words past an army of consultants. It's revolutionary. Unheard of.

Does that say anything to anyone else? Should it tell us something that a simple display of emotion summons up recollections of candidates long past? McGovern. Goldwater. Does it mean something that simply seeing a candidate with fire in his belly sets the political world abuzz? It means something to me. It means our democratic process has gone past its freshness date. It's gone past rotten and is starting to ferment. I can smell the stink from here.

What happened to vision? What happened to inspiration? Creativity? More importantly, what happened to honesty? Sincerity? I'm not trying to knock Howard Dean. He stands a level above all his competitors on all of this. But it still leaves him standing 10 feet above rock bottom. How can we have 9 candidates and they all want to do the same damned thing? They want to internationalize the occupation of Iraq. They want to rescind Bush's tax cuts. They want to institute health coverage for the uninsured. They want protectionism and corporate welfare. They want to distort, invent, and massage economic numbers to show how a few minor economic initiatives will put us at record growth rates. They want to contort themselves into funny shapes to impress southerners and other key constituencies. They want to put on a happy face and lie to Americans about the severity of problems facing us.

Can we have someone who will speak to us honestly? Can we have someone with the guts to treat complex issues with complex analysis? Can we have someone with the courage to not remold their identity 50 times in the course of a campaign? Can we have someone who can say something obviously right, like that we need to take an even hand with the Israelis and Palestinians, and not be run off their position by the media heat? Can we have someone willing to acknowledge issues where we're in a bad spot and come up with bold policies to address the problem? Can we have a candidate who will admit to the limits of presidential power, and that there are some issues, the economy being a key example, where the president exerts a limited amount of influence? Can we have someone whose issue research and policy projection numbers come from non-partisan and academic sources?

The convential wisdom says no. The party establishments say no. The pundits say no. But they also get really excited about someone so revolutionary as to actually show a bit of emotion. Could it be that they're all wrong? Not just a little mistaken, but hugely, extraordinarily wrong. If Howard Dean's little sliver of radicalism can rally massive popular support and put his face on the front page of every newspaper and magazine, could a candidate who is honest, bold, and visionary light the political world on fire?

I'm not looking for extremists. Boldness doesn't have to mean socialism or libertarianism or any of the other movements that sit at the fringes of the political spectrum. A moderate who dealt with issues in a fully honest and intellectually robust manner would be a revolutionary.

This is a pipe dream in many ways. As much as some may deny its existence and as much as Howard Dean has tried with some degree of success to circumvent it, there is a political establishment, and it carries tremendous power. There is a group of people, from congressional leaders to pundits to national party committees to editorial boards to lobby groups and major political contributors where the ideas that are driving our election process are deeply entrenched. It's not a shadowy conspiracy, but then I don't believe the neo-con movement is either, and the effectiveness of their exercise of power is readily apparent. It, like the neocons, is simply a confluence of like-minded individuals in positions of power. They are gate-keepers. They hold the power to elevate a candidate into the national spotlight or to dash them into obscurity before a single vote is cast. They have certain ideas of what constitues electability, and the definition is awfully narrow. And those who don't meet the requirements are not worth their time. Howard Dean bucked their expectations, if ever so slightly, and only on the back of brilliant campaign driven mostly by the desperation of a small group of voters to find a decent candidate has he managed to fight his way through the gates.

Even if a candidate could survive that challenge there are still the American people to worry about. It seems clear they yearn for an honest, sincere, and frank politician. Popular culture is rife with depictions of such characters. But they also seem remarkably averse to accepting painful truths and equally averse to intellectual engagement. There was a time before movies and TV when towns would turn out to hear itinerant lecturers and hefty political treatises were published in newspapers across the nation. This tradition is no more. Could frank talk about reality compete with the myths and wishful thinking that our conventional politicians are pushing? Would the relief of having an honest to god effective solution to the social security crisis be able to overcome the necessarily painful costs of implementing it? I can't say, but I'm not optimistic.

I see this as our real challenge. How do we create an environment where candidacies like these can survive and flourish? This may also seem a pipe dream. But it is a problem that is growing ever more critical and the time for solutions is now. We can't allow ourselves to see it as wishful thinking. We need to see it as a solvable problem and start plugging away at solutions. The Dean candidacy is a baby-step in the right direction. We should support that, but there needs to be more. This problem is tougher to crack than any of the others we've encountered in our discussions and lays at the root of many of them. It's the problem that led Henry to conclude that the only solution is to remap the educational system to produce an electorate that not only accepts such candidates, but demands them. That's a legitimate response and may be the right one, but it's an experiment and one that will take a great deal of luck, perseverance, hard work, and time to make reality. Meanwhile we need to keep after it. I don't know the answer, but it's a priority and I'm going to work on it.

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