The progressive narrative sells. The vision of an outsider is what is most appealing to both left and right. The fact that most Americans distrust their government—75 percent according to a 2014 Pew Poll—places us in a very precarious position. Rhetorical devices become exaggerated and people begin to grasp for emotional bonds rather that rational motives. This explains why people who distrust government can rationalize either extreme of political discourse: Trump on one hand and Sanders on the other. One a “businessman,” the other, an aging “revolutionary.”
Politicians must be iconic: it’s part of the job, to represent an idea and an emotion more than the mess that is a person. Most scandals that lead to resignation are ones that reveal the humanity of our politicians: i.e. sexuality is still the third rail of American politics.
However, beyond the perceived extremes that become highlighted in the iconification of politics, we all do have one very important thing in common: we all know our government is corrupted. The question now is, what can be done about it and how can it be achieved?
On the far right and left this primary election cycle has shown us that most Americans are disaffected by their governing bodies. This is not necessarily out of cynicism, rather a very valid understanding that our elections are influenced by folks much wealthier than us. It is easy to fall into hyperbolic rage when writing about this subject, let alone thinking about it but it will behoove us to keep a level head for emotion leads us into ideological debates that are not relevant to this matter. Again, we all have this problem and all know that we have this problem. The good news: there is an alternative. First, let’s look at how these problems are manifesting themselves within the presidential primary currently being waged.
Pew Poll showing levels of distrust of the government in the United states from 1960 to 2014.
Donald Trump has confounded, riled, denigrated (and much worse) his way to the top the Republican polls. Why is this? After everyone noticed he wasn’t going away, heavyweight journalists started paying him more attention and some very good articles have come from it. They all find the same conclusion: Trump is running as a persona, an icon of American can-do spirit plated in brass and made to shine like it’s gold. There is also, and this is usually given less gravitas because it’s ugly, his willingness to incite latent and overt racism as a way to galvanize his supporters. Perhaps it’s also given less importance because middle-class white americans all have a cousin or uncle who harbors these racisms and dismiss it because “deep down, they’re a good person.” As if that cognitive dissonance can be abided. Trump reaches this set with the invective, “I’m just telling it like it is.”
An article by Mark Leibovich, recently published by NYT Magazine, follows Trump around as he repeatedly and incessantly brands himself for the writer. Trump is very aware of what he is doing, even if it is founded in a deep need for narcissistic approval. “They want success. They wanted humility in the past. They wanted a nice person” he says speaking of American voters. Interestingly, Trump has pinpointed what has made him successful and extremely dangerous from a Democratic point of view. He is inhabiting the “political strongman” who can bear on his back the hopes and dreams of nations. A figure that went out of fashion with the end of World War II and the collapse of Fascist nationalism as a valid political ideology. The type of government that constantly imperils democracies in the African Union, a dynamic that President Obama commented on in a speech to the African Union two months ago.
What are the appeal of these political icons? What power signification leads us to resign to the will of one? The same group of people who reviled Obama for his own use of iconic branding “CHANGE” in his campaigns are falling prey to Trump’s. What do we still find appealing within the political icon?
Shepherd Fairey's iconic Change poster that helped secure Barack Obama's bid for the presidency.
Icons are an interesting phenomenon within politics since they can much more easily rely on a lack of intellectual concomitance. The icon has long been recognized as a dangerous cultural phenomenon, leading some cultures and religions to ban the practice. They deal in imagery more than text and for that reason were popular forms of political organization before mass-literacy, but that does little to explain their renewed importance in the American political landscape.
Icons inspire: this may be the most important aspect in the renewed popularity of the iconic. They give one point on which all subjects can place their hopes, desires, fears, etc. without critique. Text, line by line, must lie in relation to its precedents and antecedents. Images stand alone and return a person’s input. They are mirrors of how a person feels, symbolizing and reaffirming our own insecurities and aspirations.
Leibovich’s article does a great job of zeroing in on the effects of icons. Trump sells what Leibovich terms “aspirational consumerism.” Aspirational consumerism as a concept was first articulated by anthropologist William Mazzarella in his book Shoveling Smoke that examined the practices of Indian advertising firms in appealing to consumers on ethical grounds. Leibovich calls out Trump's “prosperity--theology [sic]” and likens Trump's rhetorical approach to the seed faith churches that comedian John Oliver recently lampooned by opening his own church, the “Church of Perpetual Exemption.”
Trump has spent years branding himself as wealth incarnate and goes to great lengths to reinforce that image. His repeated replies to policy questions offer little more than “I’ll make it great because I’m great, come on!” In a way, it’s the perfect response. Most people don’t care a whole hell of a lot about the minutiae of policy. They care about what’s real to them, and frankly, none of us have the time to be experts in policy, nor should we be within a representative democracy (though I’ve always harbored a fantasy of living in a direct, internet democracy… maybe someday). We have a compact with our representatives that they make decisions in our best interest: that they represent our, the People’s, interest.
That compact has always been under threat. Corruption is not new. There was a time when political corruption was very quid-pro-quo. Now, it is murkier, but the level of illegal corruption is at an all time low. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have an excessive amount of legal corruption that is damaging the institution of our government. The influence on our representatives by special interests is plain to us and we have lost faith in our government to uphold their side of the bargain. Again: 75 percent do not trust the government.
Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard University and probably one of the most interesting presidential candidates currently running, wrote a book in 2011 called Republic, Lost. In it, he details our descent into mistrust, how influence is solicited legally by thousands of corporations and organizations.
Meticulously detailed, the greatest feat of the book was not the collection of data and anecdotes, but rather an unforgiving optimism and unwillingness to demonize. Our politicians are not bad people, they are not actually corrupt. It is our system that is corrupted because it forces politicians into a position where they must consistently solicit donations in order to keep their job. Enter the lobbyist: lobbyists, originally policy wonks who acted more as consultants representing concerned parties in legislation, became bundlers. Not only contributing to campaigns on a personal level, but a major fundraiser who would bundle other donations together in order to free up the representative from having to solicit donations personally, thereby ingratiating themselves with the politician. No longer were they mere partial policy advisors (corrupt enough for most) but they came with cash—the most important resource in American politics.
The type of corruption that exists now, Lessig contends, is not one that exists within an exchange economy (money for services) but rather a gift economy. This gift economy is extremely important in business, and even in journalism. A small free token once given will lend a golden patina to the memory associated with that organization. Translated into politics, someone who has given $2700 (the personal contribution limit) to a candidate or bundled tens of thousands of dollars for them is much more likely to come into contact with the politician. To have a phone call answered. The politician is effectively beholden to, at the very least, lend an ear.
Another NYT article published on Tuesday, depicts very plainly the kind of expectations leveled on candidates by the donor class. In it, they quote Republican lobbyist and donor, Theresa Kostrzewa: “Donors consider a contribution like, ‘Well, wait, I just invested in you. Now I need to have my say; you need to answer to me.’ ” This expectation is patently absurd. It is courting illegality but we all know that this is the assumption. We all know.
Trump plays into this by touting that he is too rich to be influenced. He doesn’t need the Koch’s money or lobbyists money to campaign and therefore his is allowed to say non-politically correct things. The issue with this is that political correctness is very important to allowing American culture to progress, to remain civil and avoid the pitfalls of emotional prattle and remain clear of our historical hangovers. Side note: being politically correct has become associated with repressing one’s true feelings for the sake of not offending others when in reality, it should be considered a strategy to create new social relations. Political correctness is a strength, rest assured. Also, rest assured that Trump, if he were ever to attain the power of the presidency, would use it to enrich himself. No doubt about it. We all know it.
We go back and forth, every election cycle. Promises of “Change” and populism, kicking out the intrenched career politicians, etc. These promises of systemic change are rarely achieved, nor can it be if a radical alternative is not embraced by the electorate.
There must be a systemic change within the electoral cycle. We all know it.
Oddly enough, some of that systemic change has come from one of the scariest fringes of our current political climate: The Tea Party. Two examples in particular: The Tea Party successfully blocked earmark additions to the 2011 federal budget and has set up an Office of Congressional Ethics.
The decision is up to us now. As a nation, we have it in common that we do not trust or believe in our government to partially represent the people—we don’t want impartial, that duty is up to the judicial branch. The question is, what do we do about it?
Lessig, the man who wrote the book on Washington corruption, and is running, isn’t doing it to gain power. In fact, his candidacy may be one of the most unusual candidacies in the history of the office in that it is anti-iconic. He is running as a “referendum candidate.” Essentially, he has lent his name to a statement. If elected, he promises systemic change to the way in which the U.S. Government allows individuals to campaign for office. After that change is carried out, he promises to resign.
From his website:
Most candidates have a long list of goals they wish to achieve as president. Lessig has just one. He will serve only as long as it takes to pass the reforms necessary to fix our corrupt political system. Once passed, he will resign, and the vice president becomes president of a government that works.
Unusual, and rather counterintuitive, no? On one side, we have a brash icon of the strong man who promises to take power and “Make America Great Again.” On the other, an academic who maintains that his only interest in running for the presidency is to make our Democracy work better. (You’ve noticed a lack of mention of Bernie Sanders in this article no doubt. Sanders, though I find ideologically very agreeable, is set up to do little. Recognize the obstinance Obama encountered in his terms and times that by 100. When opponents are willing to tag a patently neoliberal president as a socialist, imagine the obstruction they’ll heave at Sanders. In fact, the main issue that Sanders is running on, to address income inequality and inequality in general, will be greatly absolved by the systemic changes Lessig proposes.)
The act that Lessig proposes is entitled “The Citizens Equality Act of 2017.” This act will include: automatic registration, shift election day to a national holiday, and introduce a voucher system to fund congressional and presidential campaigns.
I’m pessimistic that Lessig’s revolutionary approach will make many waves or be taken seriously precisely for its innovative premise of a “referendum candidate.” It flies in the face of the Iconic, rebukes the idea of the political strong(wo)man. Most importantly, and damningly, it is selfless. But, if we the People, truly want our government to represent us, we need to hold the purse strings. America already fought its revolution; now it need only be held responsible for its promises. I, for one, believe that can only be done by backing a candidate disinterested in easy, iconic sway.
(Image at the top: A doodle produced at paintwithdonaldtrump.com. It's fun, you should try it.)