Point Austin: Primary Afterthoughts
As the days dwindle to March 3, your campaign correspondent assesses the damage
"I am not a politician."
That's a common refrain on the primary campaign trail – generally from a first-time challenger against an incumbent, although I've occasionally heard it even from folks who have been public officials for a while. The declaration is intended to signal amateur bona fides and independent authenticity, an indicator that the speaker has not been dirtied by the sort of best-face-forward, half-a-loaf compromises that are inevitable in any public office. I suppose that since candidates keep saying it, it must work much of the time, as a reflection of the common cultural belief in amateurism as the cure for every ailment (including, now, measles).
Nevertheless, having covered politics and campaigns for decades (and voted regularly), when I hear, "I'm not a politician," I cringe. I react in much the same way I would react if a person I called to fix my circuit-breaker box announced on arrival, "I'm not an electrician ... but how hard could it be?" Do these candidates not understand that if you're appealing to voters for election to a political office, by definition you're a politician? And that if you're telling me you're "not a politician," it means that the best I can hope for if you happen to get elected is that you'll try to learn on the job?
Despite decades of conservative propaganda intended to make "politician" (like "liberal") a dirty word – while "businessman" (i.e., "boss") is supposed to inspire Trumpian confidence – when I vote for a candidate, I'm hoping she is an effective (even experienced) politician. Beginners should at least apprentice first.
Consider Saint Bernie
In the presidential campaign, another current rhetorical pattern is to sneer "Establishment" at any Democrat who expresses the slightest doubt that candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders will, if elected, personally heal the sick and raise the dead. ("Centrist" is yet another reflexive left-epithet that similarly evokes meaninglessness.) Bernie is the real deal, we're told, and every other Democratic candidate is an Establishment charlatan or "neoliberal" shill.
One might even set aside the speculation whether a candidate's modest legislative achievements, as the junior senator from a very small state, merit outsize confidence that this time, if elected to the highest office in the land, he will learn how to work with hundreds of legislators he has previously dismissed as unworthy of productive collaboration. But in any case, how can it be asserted that a professional politician who has held various public offices since the 1980s, has been a congressman since the early 1990s, and a senator since 2007, is not a Member in Very Good Standing of the U.S. Establishment?
On the other hand, the unfair media (and social media) beatdown Sanders is currently enduring for calling himself a "democratic socialist" reflects the same sort of unthinking rhetorical nonsense. Sanders advocates a broadly progressive agenda common in various successful forms to most industrialized nations. (So do several of his Democratic competitors.) Only in this one is it greeted with such hysterical fearmongering.
Choosing a Future
Readers might well sense a subtext of campaign weariness, and I confess, if one more candidate (or consultant) confidentially assures me of the sinister calculations of his or her opponent, I might have to schedule a personal March 4 bender. Worse than the rhetorical shenanigans recounted above have been the misinformation, slander, or outright lies promoted by a few people who – outside of campaign season – are capable of being reasonably honest adults, or who at least know better than they're behaving at the moment. I've reported about them, too – even relished the reporting in the moment – but that sort of campaigning leaves a bad taste in the mind, further degrading an already thoroughly cheapened public discourse.
I deeply want to be optimistic about this year's political culture, and I hope to be pleasantly surprised by the outcomes of these local and national primaries as well as by the subsequent tenor of the fall campaigns. That's too much to expect from Trumpism, which has aggressively thrived on hatred, racism, and polarization. But certainly, it is something we should expect to demand from the Democrats. We must recapture the positive ground for "our politics" – another way of saying "our community" – if we hope to build a future based on democracy, equity, and fair opportunity for all.