“When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery…”
–Martin Luther King Jr.
is a 30+ year new media development pioneer & veteran who served several years in the US Peace Corps. His earliest political memory is arguing the merits of RFK, McCarthy, and Humphrey on the playground with his 2nd grade classmates in West Lafayette, IN. Ask him about his avatar (or maybe not).
There was no such thing as a career politician in 1776; neither the occupation nor the concentration of wealth that has accompanied it was part of the “wisdom of the founders.” Government may have been limited to propertied white men, but those men included clergy, ordinary merchants, sea captains, farmers, physicians, frontiersmen, even a licensed philosopher, and more. Everyone kept their day job; no one lost touch with we, the people. To see what our founders intended in the America of today, you have to journey to where it all started, to New England, and the state legislatures there, to the often raucous New Hampshire General Court, in particular, with its 400+ citizen legislators, no party aisles to cross, and no more than $100/year/member salary, as mandated by the state Constitution, which, to be fair, represents a 3300% raise over what the gig paid for most of the state’s history.
Do we have a House or Senate of true representatives today? Perhaps more than we did a year ago, but when last measured, the median member of Congress had a net worth five times that of the average American household; the average senator was a millionaire. And these numbers are conservative–they include, for example, a quarter of the membership whose net worth is considered negative only because their financial disclosure forms require them only to report what they owe on their mortgages, not what the properties themselves are worth, just one of many loopholes our astute members are quick to exploit to reassure us that they haven’t lost touch.
But as in so much of life, it’s the psychographics, even more than the demographics, that tell the Wife of Bath’s tale. How many mailmen, pipefitters, short order cooks, sanitation or construction workers, beauticians, or their equivalents are there in the people’s house? There is one waitress, and she’s scrutinized as if she were an unidentified flying object originating from Sino-Ri. Is it really Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel that roil the waters, or is it the hijab? When Al Gore grew a beard, it was considered proof that his political ambitions were over. One in four men in the US has facial hair–how many men in the House or Senate do? We’ve had presidents who are active or recovering alcoholics, even former cokeheads, but Founder(s) help you if you seek office with a history of anti-depressant use (and you’re not a Kennedy), even though one in five Americans experience mental health issues in any given year, and some of our most effective presidents are now believed to have been depressed or even bipolar.
On issue after issue after issue, huge majorities of Americans in our “hopelessly divided” nation are in agreement with policies and attitudes that have no traction in Washington. It’s been commonly assumed this is just the world-weary consequence of wealthy donors getting their way, and there’s no question this is at play–an extensive recent study found that 70% or more of government action at the federal level is on behalf of wealthy elites–even bills that look like wins for ‘the little guy’ only get through, in all cases, because the wealthy want them too. But a highly-charged event earlier this year, one that had nothing to do with the policy agenda of the well-connected, and that nearly all our politicians would like us to forget, lit up the true depths of the hollows and became a signal apotheosis of how unrepresentative our representatives themselves have become.
Let There Be Light
I speak, of course, of the thirty-five day government shutdown.
Not just lazy, well-fed, incompetent, overbearing government employees were affected by that upheaval, as projecting politicians may have thought, or felt they could spin, but also their families, the communities they live and work–many in small-town ‘forgotten’ America–that depend on them to unleash their paychecks. Not merely ‘bureaucrats’ were ‘owned,’ but service workers and contractors (whose losses were and are permanent), and people who were literally owed money regardless, like impoverished Native Americans whose fragmentary remaining land our ‘representatives’ lease by ‘treaty’ in our good name. Millions and millions and millions of Americans. All this in a country where nearly half of our fellow citizens face financial ruin and poverty if they miss a single paycheck and/or are unable to fund $400 in unexpected expenses out of what they have in their bank accounts. All this at Christmas, o pious representatives fighting the good fight against happy holidays, at Christmas.
And contrary to what the political class would like you to believe, it’s not over–no, it really isn’t–and may never be. Not only are many still dealing with financial repercussions months later (ever had to get your credit score back, on which so much depends today, after it was wrongly dinged? for starters?), but it was a trauma, and traumas last, like slowdowns on the highway of life, long after the accidents that caused them have been cleared. People will be looking over their shoulders for years, every time tempers flare on one side or the other, because while this instance may literally be laid at the foot of the man who bragged he would own it, this wasn’t our first rodeo, and not all the riders have been Republican. In some ways, for some people, it will mark them for life, even beyond, because, as we are learning, trauma is heritable.
So how could a single one of those who claim to represent us go along with doing this to millions and millions of their fellow citizens, including hundreds of thousands of military veterans who have already experienced much more than their share of trauma on our behalf? How could they have watched, passively, for weeks, looking only for political advantage, to score political points, after the members of our oldest military service, the Coast Guard, whose officers put their lives on the line daily both in wartime and in peace, were advised to sell their hard-earned possessions in garage sales to deal with the crisis? Imagine a scenario in which terrorists took over several of our major cities, not allowing anyone in and out, treated the myriad American hostages they held badly, denying them basic necessities, and for more than a month our government acted as if it weren’t happening at all, provided no support to the captives at all, apart from the occasional helpful hints on how said hostages could escape, assuming they had resources like private jets at their disposal, and then it turned out that all that was needed to end the crisis was an agreement to disagree. How far is that from what happened, and what would you want to do to every government official involved?
This cris de coeur may seem belabored or overwrought, but we make it because the politicians are right when they kick this can to the side of the road and expect us to forget it–our greatest strength, our ability to adapt, is also our greatest weakness, because it also allows us to forget, to normalize. And we must not forget this moment, when the political class was fully laid bare for what it is, not when the 2018 election showed us the first shaky, tentative rays of light on the horizon, and not when events since have shown us how hard it will be to lift the sun or turn the earth another degree. We’ve mentioned the travails of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, but a reasonable case can be made that they brought at least some of their troubles on themselves, not to mention the generation of more than a twinge of policy nostalgia for the simpler time when first year representatives just sat back and listened for a while.
To truly appreciate both the potential for change that electing different kind of representatives could bring, and how hard our breathtakingly shallow political culture will fight it (in recognition–conscious and not–of the threat it poses), the best leader to study and follow may be someone quieter, less assuming, an anti-celebrity like Amy Klobuchar. Yes, you could argue, she’s part of the establishment; she was there, and not on the hustings, this past January; but let’s not trap ourselves into what we in the online community-building business call the Billy Preston problem. Let’s start with Amy.
When pundits called Hillary Clinton “Hillary,” it was viewed, correctly, as a sign, however unintentional, of misogynistic disrespect. With Amy Klobuchar it’s different. She titled her memoir The Senator Next Door because so often people who meet her for the first time are sure they know her from somewhere. Unlike Clinton, who, in her own words, “reminds men of their first wife,” Amy Klobuchar tends to remind people of their moms, one reason (among many) why the kinds of attacks Trump launched on Clinton would be likely to backfire, badly, if he tried them on her.
If “next door” were an adjective, and it is now, meaning someone who still is where they came from, thick upper Midwestern accent and all, not just someone who can conjure up that priceless memory when they really need it, she would be the ‘type specimen.’ You don’t get much more all-American than being raised by a lifelong schoolteacher and an ironworker, especially (in 21st century America, that is) when ironworker dad has a substance problem, is an abusive drunk, yet finds sobriety in the land of second chances, “pursued by grace,” in his words, while Klobuchar herself transcends these modest, troubled beginnings in a classic American way–by working her [fill in the blank] off and seizing every opportunity she sees.
The way she gets into politics is straight out of that local classic, Ms. Smith Goes To St Paul, too–she’s kicked out of a hospital by her insurance company twenty-four hours after giving birth to her first child, forced to leave her infant daughter, whose swallowing problems made it difficult to nurse, behind. Jimmy Stewart had letters; Klobuchar had a committee room packed with pregnant women, as Minnesota passed a law mandating a postpartum stay of at least 48 hours for all new mothers that became a model for the nation.
You might expect that a representative who has remained strongly bonded to the community she serves, who knows to the depths of her soul that her constituents just can’t afford the partisan strutting and posturing that passes for serious debate these days, would be someone who regularly reaches across the aisle, and you would be right. In the most recent Congress, Klobuchar ranked 1st in the Senate in getting bills passed, ranked in the top five for overall legislative effectiveness–the only member of a minority party to do so since 2002, only the second ever (John McCain in 1994)–and ranked 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in her party, if not the entire Senate, in a wide variety of other measures of what at this point, the real American people care most about, and always have–getting things done. Again, as a member of the minority party, in the most bitterly partisan and acrimonious Senate in decades.
You might expect that a representative who has stayed fully grounded would be unusually honest, the way a real friend or neighbor is, and be Constitutionally unable (yes, with a capital c) to make crowd-pleasing pie-in-the-sky promises, even when her political life depends on it, and you would be right. Not since Bulworth, and before that, Bobby Kennedy, have we seen a politician as willing to be straight with potential voters, whether it’s repeatedly describing the Green New Deal as “aspirational,” and defending this characterization in detail, or patiently explaining to an audience of college students, during a widely watched town hall, why she can’t and won’t cancel their student loan debt, and why it would be unfair to those who need support more than they do. Can you imagine the man whose favorite adjective is “tough” ever telling even his most fervent and loyal supporters that they can’t have whatever and everything they want?
Ah, but she’s so “ordinary,” she lacks “charisma,” she’s… meh, which has been the kiss of death in the less successful of the two parties this past last half-century, at least until/unless “meh” is the last one standing (Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry), which still hasn’t moved the lever in the end. Leaving aside some of the older, yet wiser, among us who actually find her to be the most refreshing candidate we’ve seen since 1968 (which makes her charismatic enough, already), let’s grant that in these times, especially in these times, we, the people, could really use a leader who makes us feel tingly all over, a leader who can inspire us, as ‘all of us’ as possible, to tackle the tsunami of challenges we face that dwarf the powers of government alone. Then let’s unpack this assumption a bit, like we’d do when we suspect something really important to us might have been left behind in Des Moines.
Fortunately, recent history gives us decent cell sizes on either side of the c-word question. The chart below breaks down all the presidents we’ve had since the end of World War II into two categories:
|Charismatic||Not So Much|
|John F Kennedy||Harry S Truman|
|Ronald Reagan||Dwight D Eisenhower|
|Bill Clinton||Lyndon B Johnson|
|George W Bush||Richard M Nixon|
|Barack Obama||Jimmy Carter|
|Donald J Trump||George HW Bush|
How do these two columns compare, where greatness, accomplishment, legacy, and the benefit of hindsight are concerned? Column A has literally all of the most popular presidents in recent history, but as anyone who’s been to high school knows, that’s not exactly dispositive. Bill Clinton began–in multiple ways–the path to moral degradation of the office that’s reached its nadir in the current occupant, while cooking the legislative and regulatory books so badly that every fiscal alarm system couldn’t stop the economy from collapsing not once, but twice. The Reagan administration, we learn more and more, created the photonegative of Bobby Kennedy’s “tiny ripples of hope,” to the point where even its greatest brags, like “ending the Cold War,” have not aged well. To be fair, we now know that for medical reasons, Reagan was not as connected to us as he might otherwise have been. Exactly.
George W Bush was a contender for the worst president in history until the last two+ years happened. We’ll never know what kind of president JFK would have really been, but many believe Bobby, less charismatic, with reedy voice, thicker accent, rougher edges, a relentless work ethic, more serious policy chops, and a stark honesty that united the white working class and minorities as no politician has managed since, would have been better. So might the one-time ne’er do well of the family, Teddy, who lacked the magnetism to unseat Jimmy Carter, but went on to become one of the greatest lawmakers of all time.
Barack Obama, whose accomplishments in the face of unprecedented opposition were extraordinary, is the exception who proves the bigger rule. Raised by a single mother as the first president who saw foreign policy through the eyes of the world, rather than the davosphere that floats over it; African-American, with the most improbable of presidential names (especially in the wake of 9/11), Obama was even more Other to the political class than we, the 99%, are, and as such he shared with anti-celebrities like Klobuchar a keen awareness of the need to reach out and find common ground. In fact, we still live in a time when virtually any woman who achieves power on her own is still “other” enough, as a result of her gender, that she will never be allowed to ‘forget her place’ and get vertical separation from regular folk. While the difference between the way men and women are treated is reprehensible, the silver lining, such as it is, is that it’s hard to imagine a woman leading the charge to make it more difficult for regular Joes and Janes to declare bankruptcy and discharge their debts. Where and when Obama fell short, it wasn’t because he didn’t “golf enough with the Republican leadership,” but more likely resulted from his distate for the sometimes grubby work of selling his ideas to the common man, something he somewhat ruefully admitted when he predicted that whoever became his successor would be someone “less aloof and professorial.” Exactly-squared.
Contrast this checkered, at best, legacy of our political superstars, with Column B. Four of the six–Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush–were all more or less despised at the end of their presidencies. A fifth, Eisenhower, while beloved, was also considered something of a simpleton and a joke who did nothing but play golf all day. But history has been kinder to all of them as we’ve become increasingly aware of the quantity, depth, and importance of what they accomplished. In fact, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson, in particular, regularly rank in historians’ presidential top tier. As for Dick Nixon, the first line in his obituary will always be Watergate, but the second, seeking to capture all the breakthroughs and innovations he was responsible for, will be much longer. He’s often referred to by top historians, for good reason, as our “schizoid president.”
Crucially, charismatic presidents even come up short on their primary reason for being. Far from inspiring mass action, our most magnetic leaders–Reagan, Clinton, George W, Obama, Trump–have also been our most divisive, whether intentionally or not. Even Jack Kennedy generated a deep enough reservoir of ill-will to fuel a cottage industry with an endless supply of possible conspirators in his assassination. The power and fear that charisma generates, perceived disconnects between popularity and policy or action, anger at what “they” are “getting away with,” and the extent to which charisma permits, and therefore engenders, a certain degree of flabbiness and laziness where decision-making is concerned, could all help explain how and why our most attractive presidents have generated so much enmity among those who oppose them.
Like the journeymen who often make the best sports managers and coaches, less charismatic leaders understand they have less margin for error, and therefore may be more closely attentive to what we, the people, are telling them we want and need, as well as more motivated to be creative and innovative in this regard. Really, none of this should surprise us. After all, in the place where performance is evaluated most objectively and rigorously, the market, the myth of the celebrity or superstar CEO has been among the most debunked by business research in recent years.
In politics, the proof is often found in a pudding made of mud. You know someone has hit upon a threatening truth, or challenges the established order just by who they are, when the politicosyst starts slinging it. In the case of Amy Klobuchar, it seems apparent that a somebody or three realized relying on the celebrity culture to disqualify her via done-nothing punditry, like the snark who declared she might make “a nice deputy secretary of something someday,” wasn’t going to be enough. Faced with a candidate who actually speaks for–and has remained part of–the 99 percent in authentic presentation and attitudes, what could be more nuclear to that highly appealing image than claims that she’s an abusive boss?
So it’s more than a little curious that just days before her scheduled announcement, stories, all from anonymous sources, started breaking that she routinely treats her staff not just badly, but worse than any other politician whose last name doesn’t start with a T and end with the most intelligent part of his anatomy. I know I don’t take such charges lightly–the unprecedented way that Bill Clinton routinely threw subordinates under the bus rather than accepting responsibility for mistakes, which I thought was a hugely damaging potential example to set for the country (I think I was right), caused me to break with the Democrats and support Bob Dole in 1996.
But more than a few things didn’t and don’t add up in the highly damaging coverage. First, there were the many staffers who have been with her for years, including a number who left and came back. Then there were all the ex-Klobuchar staffers who secured better positions elsewhere, including many in the Obama administration–does she deserve no credit for mentoring them up to that level, and is that not what a very good boss does, too few bosses in fact?
What’s also curious is that, as Klobuchar herself has pointed out, she spent years in the private sector in an executive position, and before she ran for Senate, she was the district attorney for the largest county in Minnesota. Where were all the stories of abuse then, and why didn’t anyone from any of these previous places of employment come forward to corroborate the claims being made? Did Klobuchar have a highly unlikely photonegative Road From Damascas moment when she reached the Senate where treatment of employees is concerned? Ah, but noted psychologist Caitlin Flanagan (yes, that’s the sound of sarcasm dripping), in her hit job on Klobuchar for The Atlantic, has at least one smouldering gun: this letter. Go ahead and read it, dig in on the anonymous complaints, vague charges–with one key exception–and all. Read it, and ask yourself: would this letter ever have been written, let alone have seen the light of day, if Klobuchar had been more of a ‘how high’ supporter of the union local that wrote it?
In the era of #metoo, we’re taught to “believe the victims/accusers,” anonymous or not. But the profile of an abusive boss is the inverse of a sexual predator, as anyone who’s had one knows. While the predator singles out his victims for surreptitious attack, leaving everyone else oblivous, a boss who’s abusive is usually an equal opportunity sociopath–pretty much everyone in the office gets hit directly or at least with the flak, early and often, except, in some cases, a golden boy/girl favorite or two. So why has the media chosen to focus on scattered anonymous accusations, while ignoring this letter, signed by more than 60 current and former Klobuchar staffers, that paints a very different picture?
It’s also interesting, with a capital I, that the media has used these claims to define Klobuchar, while there’s been no coverage of claims that male media darling, and professed class-free egalitarian, Bernie Sanders has been and is a notoriously abusive so-and-so to work for, in plain sight. Also so far below the radar that one can be excused for suspecting it’s been drowned is the fact that seven of the ten senators with the highest staff turnover are, like Klobuchar, women. Does this just mean women are worse bosses than men? No, not in my experience and I suspect not in yours, either–if anything, reality says the opposite. What’s a lot more likely is that women senators, like other women in authority, have had to work twice as hard and smart as men to get to where they are, and as a result often have higher standards. Some, and mind you, we don’t personally know anyone who has ever actually done this, may even send work-related emails, angry ones, after midnight (don’t worry, sarcasm stains are easy to get out).
The best indicator that the establishment was keenly aware of the threat a candidate like Klobuchar poses, and determined therefore to get the knife fix in early? The effusive praise she recieved from a chorus of Republican senators and congressmen the day after she announced. “I don’t know if this will hurt her chances” one observed, coyly and disingenously. Meanwhile conservative media rushed in an apparent panic to make clear to potentially wavering pieces of the Trump coalition that she’s not an alternative to staying red or home. And the ‘liberal’ media has made a conspicuous effort to erase her from coverage that can’t be explained by polling numbers alone, given the unearned media O2 they’ve been pumping into other campaigns that are doing no better. Nearly two-thirds of voters don’t even know enough to have an opinion about her–that’s Tulsi Gabbard territory–though there’s an upside for her in this too.
But perhaps nothing in this onslaught better illustrates the disconnect between who Klobuchar is vs what the pros would make of her than the latest Clue game piece: the comb. You know the story: Klobuchar was on a plane, on a regular domestic flight, not a private jet, natch, waiting for her aides to bring her a salad from one of the concessions. When it arrived, it turned out that someone had forgotten to include flatware, and because the only implement available to eat it with was a comb, she used that instead. Then, quel horreur, she asked the aide who brought the salad to clean the comb, presumably because unlike a typical one-percenter, she needed to use it again. Was it weird? Yes, it was–unlike blow-dried simulacra, normal people are weird. They’re also resourceful and spontaneous, not programmed, and this was too. A bit of a sexist trap, as well, by the way–if you are a woman or know women’s metabolism, you know that not eating the salad was probably not an option, and can probably understand her anger at the aide, too. Still, maybe she should have eaten it with her hands–that would definitely have played better, right? But she neglected to poll before picking up the comb, so we’ll never know.
One of Klobuchar’s secret weapons was and is expected to be her Midwestern sense of humor. Little known fact: a disproportionate share of our country’s humor comes from the heartland: The Onion, Prairie Home Companion, Second City, David Letterman, Johnny Carson, and much more (full disclosure, if it’s not already obvious: that’s where we come from too). It was in full evidence when Trump tweaked her for declaring her candidacy and support for climate change legislation in a snowstorm, which she used to flip the tables, with prejudice, on typical commentary about female candidates, and there’s little doubt she’d cut him to white powder on his favorite piece of furniture with it in any debate. Like other normal people, she’s often in danger of taking shtick too far (we’d stick with just “How was the salad?”, Senator), but her bigger challenge appears to be that coastal elites just don’t get the joke, based on their reaction to her “this is where you’re supposed to cheer” line in a recent CNN Town Hall. Watch it–you’ll likely be puzzled by the pundits who described it as her pathetic Jeb! “Please clap” moment, and hopefully get an even clearer sense as to why the media is not to be trusted when it comes to anti-celebrities like her.
What’s as sad about all this as she is funny, is that in a country whose president, Congress, and courts are as clueless as ours about how the rest of us live, a candidate from “flyover country” who still is where she came from, and who’s proven she really can ‘work across the aisle,’ not just talk about what turns out to be my-way-or-the-highway ‘bipartisanship,’ may well be exactly what we need most in this fraught moment. Just as we needed another plain-spoken, honest, passionate but pragmatic Midwesterner with a wicked sense of humor, who was often mocked for his looks and backwoods ways, the last time we were this divided.
There’s a simple line we’ve heard Amy, and only Amy, deliver, several times in recent forums, in reference to veterans’ care, that always gets big applause. “Nobody was standing in line to go over there,” she says, “so they shouldn’t be standing in line when they get back.” Why is she the one who came up with it? Because most of the other candidates haven’t had to stand in line for anything for years. Why does it resonate, and always get applause? Because the rest of we, the people, have.
Dedicated to my mom, Baker’s nana, who raised me to believe we all have an obligation to serve. Part of our Politicians 2.0 series. Are there other anti-celebrity politicians you think we should be celebrating and supporting? Tell us in comments below.
Creative Politics synthesizes the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk. All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing The Federalist today.