DROP THE PRETEXT THAT WE HAVE A SENSIBLE DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT
I have an imaginary friend. He’s a Martian. Sometimes I like to bounce ideas off of him. He’s a useful friend to have when trying to make sense of a social phenomenon that is universally taken for granted.
For instance, assume you were trying to explain the U.S. election process to my Martian friend. If you began with the premise of a democratic election, that the candidate with the most votes wins the election, what assumptions might a Martian, with no preconceived notions of an election process, make? Now let’s not blow the Martian’s mind by trying to explain the caucus system, delegates or the Electoral College. Let’s start slow, because Martians have no understanding of earthling things.
With this common sense understanding of democratic process the Martian might predict that the candidate with the most popular platform, supporting the most popular policies, would win the election. Therefore, Senator Bernie Sanders, running in the Democratic Primary, should be the predicted winner, hands down. After all, we know that Bernie is running on a very popular platform. He has an ecliptic on-line presence. It seems like every appearance he makes on TV becomes a viral video. His main rival, on the other hand, is doing very little in the way of making firm statements on the issues, is backed by an unpopular sector of the society, Wall Street and the economic elite. That she might draw a significant number of the female earthling vote would make no sense to our Martian friend. After all, what is the significance of a vagina in making political decisions?
So imagine our Martian friend’s confusion when we explain that it is universally recognized that Senator Sanders will not win the Democratic primary, let alone the general election. This assumption isn’t just flawed common wisdom, the typical victim of sociological analysis. In this case, the common wisdom has objective support in polling data that puts Hillary Clinton ahead by a long shot.
Now we are faced with the impossible prospect of explaining to our confused Martian the nuances of variables other than platform positions that might influence election results. Try explaining things as “likeability,” “optics,” the nuances of party politics and in-group/out-group dynamics, or “power-ties” let alone penises and vaginas! There’s lobbying, campaign adds, playing and plying the press, party dynamics, backroom deals, superpacs, charisma and pantsuits. Regardless, what conclusions could our Martian friend draw from this description of American democracy? This democracy thing must be a pretty ridiculous, quasi-religious ritual or some kind of distracting performance…some form of slapstick entertainment suitable for children. There’s no way that any rational people would ever conduct such an exercise for the sake of forming legitimate government.
Look, Matt Yglesias and Joe Posner at Vox.com had an interesting take on the Bernie explosion. Their thesis is that Bernie Sanders knows that he doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning, therefore, he isn’t even trying. “That leaves him free to just come out and say things that nobody making a serious bid for national office would say.” Yglesias and Posner are, quite rightly, inferring that there is a script that any real prospective candidate must follow if he or she is to be taken seriously–and this script must be performed different depending on whether the actor has a penis or a vagina. Now there might be some slight variations of the script depending on the prevailing mood of the electorate. There are catchphrases that are easily Tweated or broken down in to soundbites, but the script itself must be followed by any serious political contender.
For the most part, his unwillingness to follow the script is the only real criticism of the Bernie campaign other than some quibbling about his grumpy old man persona. That Bernie’s evaluation of the problems facing the United States is pretty much dead on accurate is beyond dispute among those paying attention. His proposed solutions are largely popular with the electorate and even have significant historical validity. But Bernie is actually willing to say, “what’s wrong with trying the things that have worked in other countries?” For this, or for some other immeasurable reason, it is understood by the press that, yes, Bernie is fun to watch, maybe he’ll even shift the debate, but he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell in the primary election. After all, it’s Hillary’s turn, as if she’s been waiting for twenty years to go down the slide in the playground that is American politics. Sorry, Martian, this is what it is.
And if this is the critique of Bernie Sanders, then it must also be a rebuke of the American electoral system. Democracy cannot be scripted. There’s no such thing as a scripted debate. If the American political process is nothing more than a ritual performed for the sake of selling advertising space, then we are not talking about a democratic process. This suits the power elite just fine. They are, after all, the ones who are writing the script. They cannot allow someone like Sanders, someone who does not read the prescribed lines, to ever be president, to ever be taken seriously outside of Vermont.
That this assessment of the Bernie’s chances is, most likely, accurate, is more a critique of the U.S. electorate than it is of the Sanders campaign. Bernie is standing for the things we want our elected officials to stand for. If we are not willing to stand for him and for his platform, then that is the ultimate criticism.
Is this really what democracy is? My Martian friend asks.
No, I respond, this is what democracy has become.