Friday, February 12, 2016

Age Before Beauty

If you are of a vigorous disposition and enjoy the crisp New Hampshire air, you can try the “Presidential Traverse”, a 19-mile saunter across the Presidential Range.  Up and down you go, from North to South, Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce.

I said, “vigorous disposition” because this is no walk in the park.  “STOP” reads a sign from the Forest Service, “THE AREA AHEAD HAS THE WORST WEATHER IN AMERICA. MANY HAVE DIED THERE FROM EXPOSURE, EVEN IN THE SUMMER. TURN BACK NOW IF THE WEATHER IS BAD.”  

Eight potentially viable candidates (actually, eight hopefully potentially viable candidates) marched into the state to test their resilience.  Here is what we learned: Donald Trump has the vitality of a rhinoceros. Ted Cruz walked the entire distance without once stopping to look at the view.  John Kasich took so many pictures his Instamatic ran out of film.  Jeb Bush made it—Barbara commandeered a Right to Rise Helicopter and Jeb skydived, with his Dad, to the finish. Marco Rubio was so sure there would be a chorus celebrating his accomplishments that he wanted to do it twice. Chris Christie gave it a shot, for a peak or two, then channeled his inner Napoleon, and left the Grande Armée of his ambitions on the frozen tundra to return to Paris (or New Jersey).  Hillary surprised absolutely no one—she donned a high-tech pants suit, told Bill to stay out of trouble, and tweeted selfies.  She finished late, but she finished.  And Bernie—Bernie not only warmed up by shooting hoops, but led an entire posse of Millennials, Sound of Music style, over the Alps. 

How does Bernie do it? How does 74-year-old Democratic Socialist manage to attract not only blue collar New Hampshire workers but an astonishing 83% of voters aged 18-29.  The number is so unreal it looks like an election from an old Warsaw Pact nation.

Is it Hillary? Unquestionably, she can be uninspiring.  And, a lot of the press doesn’t particularly like her—even the mainstream and liberal press that is supposedly in the tank.  Hillary is the anti-Bill, a walking, talking command and control center for other’s schadenfreude. No margin is big enough, no explanation full enough, no speech emotive enough for her to escape criticism. 

But, for all that, in a lot of ways, their dislike of her obscures a larger issue—and it’s a larger issue for just about every conventional candidate, Democratic or Republican.  A 7/1 margin isn’t about Hillary Clinton.  It’s not even about Bernie Sanders.  It speaks to something that is not being addressed.

I got a small window into this last summer when I had the exquisite pleasure of stomping around Florence for a few hours with my teenaged daughter. In insane heat (100 degrees might look prettier when seeing the Arno as opposed to the East River, but it’s still insane) she wanted to talk about two things that really motivated her—the arts (she’s a musician) and politics (The Force is strong with this one.)  I’m not doing justice to her arguments by synthesizing them this way, but let me give it a shot.  Bernie Sanders interested her because he talked about things that were meaningful to her—economic inequality, a society built on mutual respect, education (and the cost of it) and public support for the arts. 

My daughter is very practical—she knows that the road ahead for her and her friends and future colleagues is a difficult one.  Classical music, and particularly opera, has a limited audience, growing older each year.  She knows it is largely supported by a comparatively few wealthy donors, and she appreciated what they were doing.  

But, the entire model struck her as fundamentally unreasonable—In Europe, cultural heritage—art, architecture, music, is cherished and prioritized.  In America it’s the first thing that’s cut from any budget, and often lampooned.  Tuition and associated fees are astronomical, and burden students with often-unsustainable debt payments that will drag on them for decades.  Conventional politics, and conventional politicians, were just offering more of the same.   

She had another point to make—that not only do different generations have different priorities, but when something like the arts are presented to a younger generation by people old enough to be their grandparents, they lose relevance.  The way to inspire participation is peer to peer.  

It was this last observation that has been rattling around in my head since then.   How does peer-to-peer translate to a 74-year-old who looks like he could have emerged from a Disney movie?  Perhaps because Bernie Sanders is personally empowering in a way that Hillary Clinton, or any of the other candidates, just isn’t.

There are basically three voting blocks in this election, and Bernie is speaking to each in his own way. 

The first are people of the status quo--not just the wealthy, but also a lot of middle-class people, who, in the post-World War II era, were part of an economy that generated stable jobs, pensions, and security. They also found relative stability and comfort in their neighborhoods, their cultures, and their beliefs. These folk have a tremendous interest in sustaining it.  Bernie's views, like his accent, grate on them.

The second is from working and middle class people who are on a downward slope. Their present job is not as good as the one their last one.  Their neighborhoods are in transition.  They are anxious about both the present and the future. They want to retrieve what was lost. These people are looking for help.  Some may hear in Bernie hope, others an attack on what they have left. 

The last is from the Millennials.  They have no memory of a brighter past because they never experienced it.  And little interest in sustaining the status quo, because what they see in front of them is an entirely different, and far less promising future where the economic elites continue to reap a disproportionate share, and they are paying to support entitlement programs that they never expect to be able to participate in.  And, all these decisions are being made by others, without input from them.  Bernie is not just speaking to them, he is listening. 

What the 2016 election is largely about is reconciling the stresses between these three tectonic blocks.  That means that the basic chemistry of conventional politics is starting to change, and the struggle is over which side gains the upper hand.  Trump obviously has a complex appeal to both some of the status quo voters, and the downward slope types.  He’s going to clean the stables, win the “ethnic” culture war, and “Make America Great.” But look at the rest of the candidates—Hillary, Jeb, Rubio, and Kasich, even Cruz, all are delivering essentially the same message—give them the keys, and they can drive the car better than Obama.  They differ on speed, on direction, on the relative awfulness of the President, but it’s still the same basic idea.  Put them in charge, they will manage the status quo, sprinkle a few extra favors in one direction or another, and things will improve.

That just doesn’t work for millennials.  They want a place at the table.  They want to be engaged.  Some of them, like my daughter, even want to be evangelists with their peers and those even younger.   Bernie isn’t just a warrior for them—he’s a warrior with them. 

I still don’t think Bernie is realistic, I don’t agree with many of his economic proposals, and I don’t think he is electable.  But I read David Brooks this morning, “Livin’ Bernie Sanders’s Danish Dream” and a few things came to mind: how (unintentionally) arrogant and condescending he comes off and how sure he is that what he attained is available to anyone with the desire, the effort, and the right moral framework. Brooks doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just the adult in the room, telling the kids how it’s going to be, what’s best for them.

David Brooks may be a man of the past—or even one of the present.  I think he, and the status quo, takes this round.

Bernie Sanders, all 74 cantankerous years of him, could be the man of the future.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, he may have gone to the mountaintop.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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