Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

Showhorses and Workhorses

The mistaken goal of being seen strays far from what someone elected to public office should want. It says “showhorse” and “phony” at the same time.

The inescapable hothouse of national politics that has consumed many Americans for the last five years may finally be getting more fresh air.  The election brought on a dramatic shift in power that has made it possible to witness the refreshing sight of some “workhorses” replacing “showhorses” who mostly just feigned administrative competence.

The equestrian reference is an old canard about politics repeated by practitioners and observers alike.  A showhorse is an individual who is primarily a self-promoter. Interest in working with deliberative and administrative processes is limited or non-existent. It’s been said about many senators that you could be run over if you accidently came between a specific member and a group of reporters. In contrast, a workhorse is someone who seeks progress on specific policy or oversight goals, not requiring the limelight to be motivated.

This second breed is less common. Fewer people who offer themselves up to be leaders or legislators at the federal level are interested in the hard work required to build coalitions and find routes to compromise. They do exist. But their very anonymity in our media makes it even harder to notice their hard work. For example, there is a group of seven women in the House of Representatives who are trying to put together a package of immigration reforms.  Representative Linda Sanchez describes all of them as “not doing it for the glory or for the credit,” but to repair a broken system. Their names– Lofgren, Roybal-Allard, Velázquez, Chu, Clarke and Bass–are mostly unfamiliar. Members like these are content to broker solutions without using them as springboards to fame.

We are in a prolonged period where more leaders are attracted to federal electoral offices for the performance chances they offer. Cameras and interviews mean celebrity recognition and a puffed-up sense of self-importance. These people who want to be known as “players” see their chances for power mostly in their ability to build their own “brand” and maybe shape public opinion.

 

For Trump, being the President was far more interesting than functioning as a President.

President Donald Trump’s pleasure at playing to the crowd was so obvious that it at times its unintended humor was better than what the comics at SNL could think up.  And remember the crowd that had to be gassed and removed so he could walk across the street from the White House to be photographed in front of a church clutching a bible like an Olympic medal? He craved media coverage. The same distorted priority was revealed on January 6 in his unwillingness to call the National Guard to stop his minions from braking into the Capitol. He was reportedly immobilized and delighted by the spectacle of the rioters with flags bearing his name. Eventually it fell to Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi to summon more protection against the mob.

Consider one more case. Seemingly unaware of how far afield he drifted from the job he sought, North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn (R) was quoted recently in Time Magazine noting he has built his office staff just for communications “rather than legislation.”  That’s a departure from most congressional offices that have people to research issues and help craft bills that members will promote.  But Mr. Cawthorn is apparently using the public’s money to run his own self-marketing agency. Refusing the work of legislating is like going into business to create swimsuits that can’t get wet, or making wedding cakes from plaster. Such an emphasis on appearances strays so far from what someone elected to a deliberative body should want.

Perhaps this is how American leadership will wither and die: at the hands of people more interested in media appearances than in helping constituents desperate for governmental action.

Do We Still Know Who We are?

We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but it is obviously a rhetorical covering for a far more varied collection of individuals.

A recent survey by Politico asked 35 “thinkers” to summarize what these last few years has taught them about our society.  What had they learned that they did not know? The most common response was about the deep social and political divisions within the nation. But I was especially struck by what Stanford Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama concluded at the end of his statement:

“At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Many of us can only add a sigh of acknowledgement that, indeed, the mental pictures we have of our collective selves is badly in need of revision.  The reasons are perhaps less about the mendacity of this hapless President than about the millions of supporters that thought he was on the right track.  Most of the rest of us continued to believe that we were moving away from America’s original sins of racial exploitation, nativism, and our perpetual devotion to paranoid and conspiratorial fantasies. These traits all have their own markers in the nation’s recent and distant past. And many of us hoped beyond reason that we were finally breaking free of them in the Obama years. But it is disheartening that these core features still can make our political life toxic. Our public rhetoric is now filled with statements that implicitly disenfranchise, devalue, or deny Americans that have a right to be acknowledged.  Note, for example, that Trump only wanted a Wisconsin vote recount in liberal Dane County and in Milwaukee, where many African Americans live.

 

Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.

The President as the vessel for many of these conspiratorial and racist views polled weaker than what was actually tallied after the election. One explanation for this discrepancy is that there might be some shame in revealing support for a demagogue. Poll respondents may not want to “own” that kind of association to a questioner. Perhaps it is just my own fantasy, but there may be a level of embarrassment that comes with supporting a candidate intent on ripping up the social contract.

Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.  By now you know the catechism of complaints: jobs taken by immigrants, crime festering in racially diverse cities, “socialism” fostered by our allies, and so on. These ideological dinosaurs can be embarrassing to publicly express. Indeed, the very idea of a full-throated defense of a position with evidence and good reasons has itself become an “elite” standard: a liberal ruse that people filled with more opinions than evidence won’t accept.

Fukuyama’s candid admission is also reminder that any nation-continent is not reducible to personalistic descriptors like “compassionate,” “fair-minded,” diligent,” or other terms that we might use to describe an individual.  We can’t easily use terms of character to describe a mass comprised of millions of people. The nation is too big and too diverse.  We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but the phrase is a rhetorical covering for a far more heterogeneous collection of individuals who are variously rich and poor, inner-directed rather than other-directed, honest and manipulative, educated and suspicious of educational institutions, thoughtful and willfully ignorant, generous and selfish. We are all of the above.

It would also be the same if we lumped the nations of the European Union together into a single political entity. As we now know, a plurality of the British will have none of it; their divorce from the EU is almost final. Even Italians have their own problems reconciling the common idea of “sophisticated” northerners sharing a state with more flamboyant citizens living in the south.

These days it  should not be a surprise that many Americans barely recognize the beliefs and attitudes of their compatriots. Our foundational documents are under greater scrutiny for their own biases;  we sense that there is less accepted common ground.  We are also used to mediating our world through digital devices rather than direct personal contact.  All of this makes it more likely that the attitudes of our neighbors may make them seem like strangers.