Watching the New Hampshire primary results roll in, it looks like a narrow Bernie Sanders victory over Buttigieg and Klobuchar – moderate, corporate Democrats – with ex-Vice President Biden and opportunist identity politician Elizabeth Warren falling short of 10% share of the vote. Mobs of ecstatic followers – or crowds of enthusiastic supporters, if you prefer not to think about the implications of a thousand human beings shouting in unison the same three syllables for minutes on end – assemble to make the ‘white noise’ for their candidates and speeches at podiums framed by star-spangled banners are sent out to deliver exhortations, platitudes and vows of exceptional patriotism to the world’s media.
So much so familiar.
What I don’t understand about today’s world – and a result like this, in a strongly libertarian traditionally non-conformist state, can be a useful paradigm – is this coming together of a very resilient bigger picture conservatism with what looks like the triumph of fiction over fact. All the fiction needs to do is deliver better feel-good, in the moment, than the prosaic fact; and it wins votes. Why doesn’t reality matter more than fantasy? The former has consequences. It impacts real lives. The latter is here today, gone tomorrow, like an evening’s narcotic indulgence?
Bernie Sanders, whatever one’s opinion of his analysis of society or the solution his platform proposes, is a politician with a long track record in public service. His background is consistent, his opposition to entrenched power well documented and his message to the electorate has a simple consistency. Democratic socialism. Healthcare for all. Education for all. Less money spent on foreign war. More taxes from tax-avoiding trillionaire corporations. Love it or loathe it, as an ideology, Sanders has been on message for decades. This is an example of ‘reality’. It’s documented by fact and embodied in this 79 year old Brooklyn Jewish man’s long and authentic American lifestory.
Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of a small city in Indiana with a few years in office and a mixed bag of results. He’s been running down the political middle of the American political road since college and has been making legitimate progress as a professional lawmaker moderating the attentions of dynamic business in a town much in need of investment and urban renewal. Buttigieg is an archetype of centrist, corporate Democratic Party outreach: good communicator, mainstream white skin – not white hair – with a single humanizing ‘flaw’ (he’s gay). Mayor Pete looks credible.
By rights Buttigieg should be at the start of a long career in public service, as yet untested and still to build a record of facts in the real world by which his credentials for President can be properly assessed. This lack of substance made him an underdog before the Democratic campaigns began but with the early backing of the Democratic Party heterodoxy and the heavily corporat mainstream media, an idealized Mayor Pete was lifted to national coverage. Audiences responded well. Pete may not have much on his public service record but twenty years of preparation for public speaking in front of the mirror served him well in the transition to photo opportunities with podiums and flags above stock price tickers and news media headline bars.
Here’s where I lose touch with the thinking of half my fellow voters. In the Democratic Party corporate headquarters, polling and performance showed sleepy Joe Biden wasn’t a hit with voters. He had none of Obama’s charisma and speaking ability. Biden reacted ornery when questioned by friendly interlocutors, which presaged disaster if he was ever placed on a stage with Donald Trump’s barfly provocation. What’s more, the white privilege entitlement – albeit with a mostly benign patrician heart – was alienating the rump of the Democratic voter base. Biden’s appeal to his long record in politics, achievements (by his own light) of some note, rather than winning plaudits for the fact was losing support for ‘too much detail’. No surprise the DNC switched horses to back Buttigieg.
What I don’t understand about Biden isn’t his crony-capitalist American exceptionalism but why the facts of his record of proven centrism is a voter loser where the promise-filled rhetorical vaguery of Buttigieg’s bullshit exceptionalism – albeit spoken with Hollywood aplomb – persuades actual voters with actual ballot papers to commit their future (and the country) to such an unproven, unknown big business apologist?
p.s. this isn’t a problem solely in the United States. Boris Johnson in the UK played up his role as a fantasy buffoon, bumbling but likeable, fascism with a good speaking voice. He beat the sincere, long-suffering opposition parties with ease and the rump of his voter base came from the very demographics his platform has – for decades – sought to exploit. Bizarre.