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January 29, 2005

Finding Demigods

Digby's got a predictably terrific post on the need for more telegenic, effective, and conscientious media representation among the Dems. Like me, Digby has latched onto the heuristics of elections as the crucial component. Terrorism, the economy, social values -- these things matter substantively, but they generally manifest in predictably symbolic, superficial, ways. As Matt Yglesias rarely tires of noting, the Democratic policy elite -- both foreign and domestic -- are excessively capable, but the leaders they advise are rarely judged as favorably. That's because the game is appearance. If Kerry radiated military the way Clark did, terrorism would have been no problem; if he oozed empathy as Clinton could, he would have won on kitchen table issues; if he could project the longing for propriety that Buchanan perfected, social values wouldn't have been a problem.

Of course, the last thing I want the Dems doing is studying the Buchanan's playbook ("Screen left! Pick the Jew!"), but we consistently underrate the importance of appealing to "instant intelligence". Snap judgments, as Malcolm Gladwell will gladly tell you (and then try and sell you a book on), often predetermine the decisions we think emerge rationally. While I didn't support Kerry in the primary, I too easily relinquished my better instincts and assumed gravitas and competency would compensate for odd looks and marionette-like movements. And, in the final assessment, I still believe the conventional criticisms of the Kerry campaign -- no message clarity, too little focus on national security, poor consultants -- are intellectual band-aids wrapped around a decidedly unintellectual issue -- he didn't look the part. Or, if he did, Americans (at least 51% of them) didn't like the look.

Which brings me back to Digby's post and the need to better utilize Hollywood in our politics. Republicans laugh at partisan actors and Democrats chuckle at Schwarzenegger, but both sides are too busy guffawing to recognize the profound political power and sociological expertise these folks bring to bear. We condescend to popular media, but we do so because we view the products as simplistic crud rather than sophisticated creations fine-tuned to achieve entrance into the culture. More recognized, but less understood, are Reagan and Clinton, whose abilities have been given needless genetic, quasi-mystical explanations. Whenever Ronald or Bill enter in discussion, the standard trope is that these guys were once-in-a-century pols, demigods who manifested in the mortal plane in order to lead one or the other party to victory. But as anyone who's ever watched an episode of the West Wing, or pressed play on The American President, knows, that's bullshit. Sheen can make them look like backbenchers, and don't even start on the dome-shaking address Bridges used to climax The Contender; Moses on Mt. Sinai couldn't deliver his words with such thunder (actually, Moses had a severe speech impediment and used his brother Aaron to communicate, but that's beside the allegory).

What sets Bridges, Moore, Sheen, Reagan, and Clinton apart is, simply, Hollywood. And by that I mean the ethos and skills of Hollywood. Some, like Clinton, self-trained because of childhood circumstance, the others found their skills through guided effort. But crucially, these are skills. They are learned sets of behavior that allow ordinary people to connect on a superlative level, or imbue universal emotion with overwhelming depth. Too often, Democrats hope resume and life experience will allow our leaders to play the part. A background of poverty will make John Edwards appear empathic, or blood on his hands will let Kerry look the war hero. But true experience is a poor substitute for professional training, and so our politicians repeatedly fail to actualize the mysterious "connection" that marks the successful. Reagan, for his part, never failed to sell the pitch because he had spent a lifetime learning how to succeed at it. Clinton never lost his ability to impress, he learned it as a survival skill at about the time motor skills lost their mystery. Schwarzenegger, despite his penchant for ignoring deficits and delaying debts down for future generations, never stops projecting the action, determination, and grit that made him believable as an armed, robotic messiah.

In politics, the best actor -- or actress -- wins. Dull Davis could beat Stilted Simon, and Cowboy George could beat Upper Crust Kerry. But adjectives are assumed, and it's time we began recognizing that the primary skill in general elections is the ability to easily shrug in and out of predesigned parts, and the magical connection that excites us so is simply the mark of a natural, or at least well-trained, actor. So Democrats, you've got a culture-creating machine bursting with fans, one so packed with your partisans that it's become a standard Republican target. And if they're going to flail away (in between bouts of recruiting from Hollywood's ranks), we might as well let the talent get out and defend itself. Those scores of out-of-work actors begging for the part of a lifetime? Maybe they're our political demigods, just waiting to manifest.

January 29, 2005 in Democrats | Permalink

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Comments

It's an interesting question: Why do Democratic entertainers NOT go into politics as candidates, prefering to do fundraisers and the occasional ad?

All of the high profile actors-turned-politicians I can think of offhand are GOP: George Murray, Fred Thompson, Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, and now Arnie.

But I don't think just any old Democratic-activist actor should run for office. Please let's put forward something better than well-rehearsed empty suits. There are a lot of Democratic entertainers who've taken the time and trouble to get educated on national and international issues. I'd love to see Jeff Bridges run for something. He's not only successful/telegenic; he's damn smart and well-informed.

BTW: It's barely a rumor in the wind, but I hear Paul Newman might be interested in a primary challenge against Joe Lieberman. (Yes, Newman is 80; yes, that could be a problem. But....ooh!)

Posted by: CaseyL | Jan 29, 2005 6:03:08 PM

I think this is the appeal of Obama. You watch him and you like him. It doesn't matter what he says--he says it in a compelling way. For now, I think the Republicans are better able to use this tactic because they they have such a consistent message. They let the party take care of the policies and the candidate just has to do the selling. Democratic candidates have to reinvent the wheel each time and define where they stand on each issue. It makes it harder for a Democratic pretty face to succeed. Clinton was both a policy wiz and a great communicator. That is rare. We need to work on our elevator pitch to be in a better position to run the most charismatic candidate.

Posted by: TJonBergman | Jan 29, 2005 6:20:13 PM

I don't know about this. If it's true, then how do you explain Shrub?

Posted by: tex | Jan 29, 2005 7:13:35 PM

He walks, acts and looks like a cowboy. I think he's a perfect example of this -- from his ranch to his speech patterns to his build, he looks like a tough, take-no-shit neighbor. That was more than enough to beat the public dullard Gore or the aristocratic Kerry -- but Bush would've been mauled by a Clinton or Reagan.

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 29, 2005 7:27:45 PM

OK, look. Clinton had an IQ well in excess of 150. How many people do you, personally, know with that kind of firepower?

Now, how many of those people can function in a crowded party, much less exude the kind of charisma the Big Dawg did?

You can mock the demigod mentality all you want; but Bill Clinton was a demigod of politics. Just because Woody Harrelson is charismatic we have people waiting in the wings to become the new demigods? Puhleeze...

Posted by: bobo brooks | Jan 29, 2005 10:30:34 PM

What was Reagan's IQ? Do you really think it was Clinton's wonk power that propelled him to the presidency?

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 29, 2005 11:53:24 PM

I must respectfully disagree with your major premise, Ezra. The fetishization of actors, athletes, and other "personalities" is a symptom of the disease we're trying to conquer, not a tactic we necessarily want to embrace. It's essentially the old ipse dixit fallacy in modern dress. The fact that someone is very good at throwing an oblate spheroid down the field, or at standing in front of a camera and delivering lines that someone else wrote, does not necessarily mean that s/he has any competence whatsoever in other arenas. I will respectfully listen to what Brett Hull has to say about the game of hockey, or what Sean Connery has to say about acting. But that doesn't mean I should treat either of their opinions about politics as having more weight than those of people like John Kerry who actually know the game of politics because it's what they do.

If we try to sex up the Democratic Party by trotting out attractive and presumably eloquent spokespeople simply because they're attractive and presumed to be eloquent, we'll only trivialize the process further than it already has been. Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon are in a category by themselves. Yes, they're both actors: but they've also earned their political props. They don't get listened to because they're actors, they get listened to because they put their money where their mouths are.

We've had an actor as president. He was an unmitigated disaster. Whether that was because he was an actor, or whether it was because he was a senile old man the first time he was elected, and allowed his subordinates more or less to run the country while he napped and hammed for the camera is an open question. But I don't really want to go down that road again, lest it turn out exactly the way it did the first time.

Posted by: Musing Michael | Jan 30, 2005 12:08:46 AM

What was Reagan's IQ? Do you really think it was Clinton's wonk power that propelled him to the presidency?

Do YOU really think that Dem positions lend themselves to charismatic demagoguery, if we ignore our clear advantage on the "we actually make sense" front?

Didn't think so.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Jan 30, 2005 1:01:49 AM

"but both sides are too busy guffawing to recognize the profound political power and sociological expertise these folks bring to bear."

Exactly right. No matter how many times Arnold backs away from a promise or wrings his hands over a tough call, the headlines will never portray him as indecisive or weak-willed.

I don't hear Ezra talking about fetishes or eloquence. He's talking about skilled communicators that have learned how to connect with their audience on an emotional level. Dems need more of that (esp in CA).

Maybe Sheen will throw his hat in the ring & Ezra will get to tease out his theory.

Posted by: Kevin | Jan 30, 2005 1:43:01 AM

I don't think we need to use an actor or a current celebrity.

What we need to do, starting now, is to create a celebrity from a likely politician. Or rather, we need to create celebrities. Hilary's a celeb. What in god's name was her book about, anyway? I don't know. But it sold madly: that's a mark of a celebrity. But how many pols do we have that can do that? Just the Clintons.

The right has pundit camps, politician training institutes to make sure those bastards all say the right thing on TV (and it's a mark of how stupid those people are that, despite that training, they so often fuck up). We need something similar, but we also need to train the charisma of what pols we can, and roll as many of them out as products starting now.

We don't need Martin Sheen for that; we just need a good ad agency and some wonks who are game to be sold.

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Jan 30, 2005 11:13:46 AM


I agree with Karl the non-Idiot. Unless you can think of an actor who gots the wonk and is ready to embrace the calling, what's the point? Meathead has been mentioned, but he doesn't seem to have the fire in the belly. Most of them don't have the passion or the skillz to do more than pump up a pet cause (which is fine).

The other problem is that the liberals tend to be more critical of their own than the conservatives. So, even though a lot of tighty righties probably didn't like Arnold's pro-life, swingin' nature, they kept their mouths shut because they knew he was the juggernaught that would give them the mansion back. What actor can pass the progressive ideology test?

Posted by: loser | Jan 30, 2005 1:15:12 PM

If you can get whatever Dem some acting lessons, and Aaron Sorkin writing their speeches you'd get them elected, but after the election the right wing nuts still control the debate just like they did under Clinton.

Getting good looking actors to run is all well and good, but if they are entering hostile waters after the election they won’t be able to lead. We had 8 years of Clinton and the country just kept getting shifted to the right.

The left needs to build an infrastructure that is equal to the one the right wing has built. Where is the left's heritage foundation, AEI, Cato Institute? Why is no one on the left holding a weekly war room meeting like Grover Norquist does for the right? The New Republic's editors are the ones the news channels call when they want someone from the left on TV, the New Republic isn't exactly left wing, and is definitely not the equivalent of the Heritage Foundation when it comes to ideology or influence.

What we need is a CEO type to bring the left's message together and sell it to the masses.

Posted by: jbou | Jan 30, 2005 3:10:15 PM

Loser has a point, as does Karl. Plus, what is it that makes a person a great actor, or a great athlete, or a great musician? It's the passion and the desire to excel at acting, or a sport, or making music. Last time I checked, those were pretty much full-time occupations. I'm thrilled that folks like Martin Sheen and Barenaked Ladies have some time they're willing to devote to political causes, but that's not really what gets them out of bed in the morning. If we're talking about revamping and revitalizing the Democratic Party and turning America back into the kind of republic the Framers envisaged it could be, I want somebody doing that job for whom it's the only thing s/he ever wanted to do: not somebody who's taking a vacation from his/her real job.

Ultimately, that's where I see the failures of a Jesse Ventura or a Steve Largent or an Ah-nold. They were (are) just killing time doing something that looked like fun, but which wasn't really what they wanted to do every day. Or worse, trying to pump up or resurrect a failed career at doing what they really loved by doing something that would get them back in the media eye.

Posted by: Musing Michael | Jan 30, 2005 3:58:33 PM

Steve Largent - barf!

Hey, Ezra, how about you?

Posted by: Ms. Not Together | Jan 30, 2005 6:44:07 PM

I think Fred Smoot, a noted Democrat, should run for Congress from Washington D.C. He's 25, he does not lack charisma, and he's won an award for courage, just like Kerry.

Unless he leaves the Redskins this free-agent season. It'll be tight, but I think we might have our political superstar!

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