The Ugly American President

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There’s a lovely little scene in the 1958 book The Ugly American. The United States is trying to maintain influence in the fictional country of Sarkhan (it’s Vietnam, ok?). When a food shortage breaks out, the wealthiest country in the world decides to intervene and earn a little credibility at the same time. A shipment of grain arrives, and American journalists take pictures of the sacks of grain being unloaded at the docks. They photograph the American ambassador shaking hands with the Prime Minister.

The ambassador for the Soviet Union, meanwhile, has been busy. Unlike his American counterpart, he speaks the language of Sarkhan. He has studied its history, its popular culture, its customs. As the American diplomats make speeches about the graciousness of the United States, the workers unloading the cargo stamp it with the emblem of the Communist Party. The drivers carrying it the cities and towns that need it announce that it is a gift from the Soviet Union. It takes the Americans a week to even notice any of this, by which time it is already too late.

Oh, I’m not even close to talking about Bernie Sanders - or at least I hope not. In this comparison I’d say that if Hillary Clinton is the, say, American State Department, then the Soviet envoy would likely be Donald Trump. And here’s why: while it seems like that was a cute story about American arrogance, the form of the relationship between the Soviets and Sarkhanese and the Americans and Sarkhanese is virtually identical. Both want popular support, and try to achieve it through grand gestures of ‘benevolence’. The Soviets jump happen to be much better at it.

In this comparison I'd say that if Hillary Clinton is the, say, American State Department, then the Soviet envoy would likely be Donald Trump.

While the Communist ambassador is more well connected to the local society, it is still entirely a one-way relationship. He is able to be more effectively manipulative, but his aim is still to manipulate. Now, I am no expert on foreign affairs so perhaps this is the ideal way to cultivate relations with other countries - and there is something to be said for the approach of appealing to the general population rather than a handful of elite autocrats. But there is something strange about how apt the comparison is between an imperialistic diplomat and a person seeking public office in a democratic society.

That’s what I mean when I say the ‘form’ of the relationship. A typical politician treats an election like a more serious form of day-to-day popular opinion. You can never completely escape from it, but the more that you do the better. Best of all is to delegate popular opinion through intermediaries - popular local and regional politicians, whose opinion is trusted and whose influence can be counted upon. A person like Trump upsets this by being big enough and popular enough - with the unending help of the clueless news media - to get around this bureaucracy, but he’s really doing the same thing, just not through the usual channels.

Is it time to talk about Bernie Sanders? The thing is, this relationship, or rather the form of this relationship doesn’t just depend on the people at the top. Like any relationship it depends on what both parties are looking for. A lot of people see in Bernie Sanders the same form, the same relationship, but with a more reliable kind of person - and maybe one more sympathetic to their interests. They talk about ‘aiming high’ and ‘fighting the good fight’ and all those things, but they are still looking for a foreign country to come in and save the day - which means one always will.

So here are a few thoughts for the Bernie Sanders campaign, if those involved are interested in changing more than the surface appearance of politics - if they are interested in changing the form of that relationship itself.

Vary the speech.

The stump speech is great, and it’s wonderful to hear all those things being said. But there’s a lot more to the campaign than that - more detail, more ambition, more to explore. This serves two purposes.

First, it creates variety and a reason to come back to multiple speeches. When every speech is on YouTube anyway, a potential supporter doesn’t always need to run through the tutorial every time. It’s there if they need it - and so can every other topic and issue you want out there. Basically it’s like the iceberg theory of writing fiction - one speech should be at most 10% of your platform.

Second, it actively involves people in policy in a way that the pure rhetoric speech never can. Suddenly people are having to think critically about the changes required for postal banking or single payer health care - and their concerns and needs can be felt and expressed. This also connects with my next point.

The democratic part of this matters. A lot.

The democratic principles behind this campaign are often mentioned (‘political revolution’, ‘this country belongs to all of us, not just the billionaires’, etc.), but there is a core belief at work here that I believe is very powerful. And I mean that both philosophically and politically - and rhetorically, for that matter. And that is this: that this, a democratic country, should be run solely by the decisions of the people. That the people of this country are able to discuss and decide upon their own interests, confront their own mistakes, and improve upon their own governance better than any political elite have been able to.

This means that a ‘political revolution’ is not just marching on Washington to demand free health care - it means taking responsibility for bringing about free health care, even if ‘demanding it’ doesn’t work. It means taking responsibility for the future of the country. It’s a big deal - don’t undersell it.

Admit when you are wrong, or don't know something.

Yeah yeah, what a nice platitude. Here’s why it actually matters. If the form of the relationship between politician and people is to change, then they have to be able to have a conversation. And you can’t have a conversation if, for whatever reason, a person cannot admit they are wrong, or are unsure of something. Most politicians can’t do that unless popular opinion has really swung against them. But a truly democratic politician needs this, desperately.

The example that shows this is the recent discussion over reparations. First off - whatever their merits, Bernie, saying they are ‘politically unrealistic’ is a terrible response. You know it’s a terrible response, I know it’s terrible - we all know. Just wanted to say that. Secondly, the problem was that despite disagreement, there was no real communication because everyone was too obligated to where they already were. That turned an opportunity for a group of people to discuss and decide on something into just another political side story that left everyone unsatisfied.

So that’s that. Would be interested to hear thoughts on this, I think.

Written on February 24, 2016