Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why Celebrities Do not Leaders Make

The tragic flaw of American democracy is that we seek the same qualities in candidates for political office as we do in the movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most recent case in point.

Celebrities have name recognition. They are easy on the eye. And they pretend really well. Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to keep a 13 year old secret from his own wife. Whoever said he was just a robotic bodybuilder clearly underestimated his considerable acting ability.

It is no wonder that good actors make great politicians. Like actors, politicians use image consultants to change how they look; their words are crafted by somebody else; they have publicists for image (or damage) control. And so mimesis occurs alike in art and in politics. Because both the actor and the politician revel in the attention that comes with being on stage, Plato did not think it wise that actors should have a political role in the republic. (Actually he wanted them expelled.)

Yet let us not malign the actors. The difference between political deception -- whether it be the innocent smile of a John Edwards or Arnold Schwarzenegger's family values spiel -- and acting is that when doing the latter, the audience understands that make-belief is part of the game. Whereas the actor performs to entertain, the politician performs to gain office.

The distinction between acting and politicking, however, is less clear in our corrupted democracy. And citizens must accept our complicity in this, because we have come to expect a degree of deception from our politicians just as we condone make-belief in our actors. For it was too easy, too comforting for Californians to believe that an action-hero would sweep in and solve the state's budget troubles. The Governator pulled out all the stops of his celebrity to encourage this lazy assumption.

Californians, and Americans in general, have two choices. Either we stop allowing actors to pretend their way into politics, or we stop complaining when they fail to live up to their big-screen reputations. The outrage we express whenever we find out that our predictions of moral rectitude expressed in our votes were way off is just our way of avoiding the more painful truth that the heuristics that we had adopted to guide our vote were entirely inaccurate. Sophisticated citizenry requires that we understand that glib actors with charming smiles are lovable, but that does not mean that they would love us back.

Our politicians and our citizens today worship at the altar of make-belief (policians make, and citizens believe) images. Someone has to break the glittering cycle. It might as well be us.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Same Ole Party for Now

In 2010, the Tea Party movement was out and about. Newly christened and newly outraged, they created the enthusiasm gap that creates victories in an age of evenly split bipolarized politics.

This year, the rage has sizzled out to disgruntled listlessness. Even for those still against Obamacare, the memory of its passage has waned because the promised effects of its eventual implementation will not become evident for a few more years, and the debate about the national debt is either too real (in medicare) or too esoteric (as in the debt ceiling) for easy populist manipulation.

If Republicans are still waiting for a political novice from a mid-western town to emerge out of nowhere to take the country by storm (ie, their Obama), then they best wait for the next cycle, because their most talented candidates have already opted to do so. The smart candidates, if they can afford the time, are polishing their CVs for 2016, because they know that whoever it is, incumbent presidents are just hard to beat; plus they just happen to have to be facing an incumbent president who appears as adept at filling his war-chest as he is at delivering campaign sonnets.

Trump was a fun fantasy, as was Huckabee, and as remains Herman Cain. So many tantalizing options, some sparks of celebrity; and yet no magic, no candidate with the star quality -- the je na sai quoi of our era of infotainment politics. It's not that there is no talent on the Republican side, but that the talented have wisely chosen to withhold their talent for a better shot in the future.

And so all we have on the Republican side right now is the same old. The front-runner, as far as any is visible, is a stiff millionaire with Wall Street credentials with the slick hair to match his slick politics. He was for health-care in Massachusetts before he was against it in Washington. But he does raise a lot of money, so at least he satisfies the bare minimum requirement for what it takes to take on Obama. And that's it. For all the Right's talk that Obama is just about the worst president that has ever befallen American (so terrible he's even been deemed, literally, unAmerican), there is a gaping lacuna in their search for an alternative.

In the era of the permanent campaign, when all elected politicians are already campaigning for their next appearance at the poll, now is rather late in the game that we are not already speculating about the most viable candidates. Now granted the speculations are often wrong, but the point is early speculation is a sign of enthusiasm that helps create a victorious wave for whoever the nominee is later on. The last time there was an incumbent president on the ballot, the Democrats were going gaga over Howard Dean at this time in that cycle. We are well past this point for the 2012 cycle, and yet the Republican Tea-partiers are only just getting over Donald Trump's flirtatious clownery. Whereas by 2006, the lame-duck George Bush was already being eclipsed by the media's extended foreplay with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, most eyes remain on the same two characters, even if some are cast in contempt. There still isn't a newsmaking, paparazzi-feeding figure on the Republican side who also looks credible enough to party apparatchiks. (Sarah Palin fails on the latter criterion), in part because no candidate on the Right has yet mastered the fine art of credible populism -- as close as one can come to giving the je ne sai quoi of presidential star quality a name in the era of plebiscitary and anti-intellectual politics. The existing range of candidates are sub-par because they are either too stiff or too silly.

All populists are, to some extent, sweet-talking thespians. It cannot be otherwise, because democracy makes the voter sovereign, and sovereigns love flattery. But while it takes a populist to win, it takes a populist with a head on her shoulders to govern, and thank goodness, our electoral system is still able to wield insanity out. The situation with the Republican field today is that there are populists, and there are clowns who until recently were still stoking the "birther" issue for a day in the political sun. But the serious candidates -- those with the talent to both gaggle and govern -- have for now, chosen to wait this one out.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden is Dead

Osama Bin Laden was reported to have been killed by US forces late Sunday night EST at a compound in Abbottabad, just outside Islamabad. This will be a tremendous morale boost for the US, and it would be a crushing blow to Al Qaeda's. Sure, Bin Laden is just a figurehead of an organization which has now sprouted branches all over the world, and sure his death will likely provoke retaliatory attacks by his followers seeking to revenge his "martyrdom," but there is little doubt that this development is a net gain for the US.

As supporters spontaneously gathered outside the White House and in New York to sing the Star Spangled Banner and to chant "USA" upon hearing the news, we also already know that President Obama will benefit politically from this event. Fair or not, the future of the history of 9/11 will forever be: 9/11 happened under Bush's watch, and America's revenge occurred during Obama's watch. (The president made sure to highlight in his late-night speech from the White House that he had ordered the successful operation in Pakistan.)

Obama was very wise to have called President Bush before his speech at the White House. He knows how history would be written, and he wants no impression that he had a hand in writing it. It almost doesn't matter how much of a success or failure Obama's presidency will be for the rest or possibly his next term, for Obama has gained an immunity from being ranked with the likes of James Buchanan and Warren Harding. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been poured into America's search for justice, and the US, whose influence in the world appeared to be mocked and challenged on 9/11, has been sorely in need of vindication for nearly a decade. Whether or not our world is safer, Americans needed a psychological catharsis and a reason still to believe that we always prevail.

The CIA is also up, as is the national intelligence and the counter-terrorism community writ large. As it turns out, Bin Laden was not hiding in a cave, as we might have been led to believe, but in a mansion specifically built with multiple layers of security to house a VIP in a military town near Islamabad, as if he was under the Pakistani military's protection. Even though President Obama has claimed otherwise, it is difficult to believe that the Pakistani government, or at least the government under Pervez Musharraf, has been as cooperative with the US as they have been claiming. In the weeks and months to come, the US will have to reassess the manner in which we co-opt allies for our counter-terrorism efforts.

What matters now is how the succession battle within Al-Qaeda pans out. There has always been and will always be people who hate the United States, but it took a very rare mastermind with the organizational and motivational skills to launch a successful attack on US soil. Al-Qaeda's international network is a motley and complex crew, so it is entirely possible that the organization caves in under its own disunity if they cannot decide on a leader to match Bin Laden's charisma and credibility (as was the case for what happened to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's insurgency group in Iraq after he was killed.) With the turmoil in the Middle East and Arab leaders focussed on internal order and with less resources to fund Al-Qaeda, and with the treasure trove of intelligence information found in the compound where Bin Laden was killed, we might well be facing a turning point in the war on terrorism.