18 May Optics
Elections are about votes but they are also very much about optics because it’s the optics that lead to votes. Optics are the reason that Hilary Clinton declared victory in Kentucky despite the fact that news organizations declared it too close to call. Sanders has a great deal of momentum and if he were to win all of the final contests it would be very difficult for Clinton to spin away the perception of his momentum. The math favors Clinton at this point but the optics of momentum are all Sanders.
I spent a good deal of time documenting the occupy movement. When Bernie began campaigning it was clear that he was echoing the concerns of that movement. I put together the short clip above to make the connection between Occupy and Bernie. While I wasn’t an occupy activist as much as I was simply a documenter of that movement, my views align much more solidly with those of Senator Sanders than Clinton. As such, I have been incredibly disappointed by my observation that those in the power structure of the party have done everything they can to keep it from being a fair fight. When I point this out to friends who support Clinton many have argued that this it simply isn’t true that the party has favored Clinton in unfair ways. Other Clinton supporters point out that while it is true that the party has favored her this only makes sense because Clinton is a much more solid democrat, and that Sanders is not even a “real democrat”. When I argue that this looks, and smells, like a corrupted process Clinton supporters have been roundly dismissive of the idea that the party is corrupted. For most people the idea of corruption involves money, or direct favors, exchanging hands solely for personal gain. I’m afraid that it is much more complex than that. In civil society we often put rules in place to protect people from even the perception of corruption. When these rules are not in place things often go a bit haywire.
If one were to take an outsiders view of the Democratic primary I think it would be very difficult to not see the corruption. Instead of using their names let’s call them candidate X and Y. Say you are reading about the election from abroad and before a vote is even cast you see a report that candidate X, who has a long history with the party, has sewn up approximately 15 percent of the votes that are doled out by party power brokers. This means that the candidate most likely to challenge party orthodoxy starts the race with a powerful deficit. However, this is not only a vote deficit but also one of party support. It is also a deficit in terms of optics. The clear message from the heads of the party on down is that there is a favored candidate, and that it makes sense to rally behind that figure. Those how opposes the dictates of power are often subject to both coercion and the loss of social capital. I have tried to explain to my friends that if we saw this taking place in another country we would be aghast. It would look like the fix is in.
As the process goes on candidate Y’s message begins to resonate with voters, and they become increasingly excited about his ideas. The party has two choices. It can embrace the voters who support candidate Y, or it can try to shut them out of the process. If one of the reasons that these voters are attracted to candidate Y’s message is that it points out how corrupted the system is, then it is likely that those voters will be very sensitive to actions that “appear” corrupt. As examples of this “corruption” begin to happen with greater force and frequency the agitation is likely to grow- especially when concerns about this process are dismissed out of hand. Given this logic, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that things have gotten more contentious within the primary process as candidate Y has gained momentum. Facebook has become a battleground and the partisan divisions within the parties has taken on an increasingly negative tone.
A couple of weeks ago I re-posted the above meme that focused on the super delegates. These indiviudals have supported Clinton since before the first vote was cast and they are also corporate lobbyists, as well as major donors to both the democratic party and Clinton. Most years the superdelegates go unnoticed, because they only matter in a close contest. In fact the whole super delegate system was set up to “protect” the party from a “bad choice” by the voters. It was meant to give the party the opportunity to push the more electable candidate into the big race. If the perception is that the people are supposed to choose the candidate, but the party puts systems in place to subvert that system, I would argue that this “corrupts” the process. When you add in super delegates who are lobbyists for corporations that have business interests with the government, things get a lot murkier.
When I posted the meme a friend quickly asked me if I had vetted the post. I was embarrassed to admit that I had not. I immediately did a search and found that it was based on an article in The Intercept. While the optics of the article are carefully crafted to look bad for Clinton, it turned out that everything in the meme was true. Then another friend of mine called me out for being unfair to, and contemptuous of the super delegates. I quickly admitted that the meme was clearly very partisan- and not very nice to these individuals. At the same time though, I pointed out that when we accept a position of power, like being a super delegate, that position comes with scrutiny. This friend was particularly piqued with me because a week earlier I had pointed out that his post about the primary in New York was contemptuous of those who felt disenfranchised by the process. He wanted to know why I thought it was ok to be contemptuous of these super delegates. Again, I agreed that the meme was not nice, but I explained that the difference was one of power. When those with greater power use that power to gain undue influence I think it is ok, and even necessary, to shine a light on that. I argued that it was fair to point out how those with undue power and influence should not have more say than the average voter. For me it was also a personal issue. For many years I had refused to declare a party affiliation in New York because I was frustrated by the democratic party and how corrupt it seemed. However, since all of the elections in New York are basically won by democrats, if one fails to vote in the primary then their vote doesn’t really even count. I declared myself a democrat so that my vote might count, but I held my nose as I did it because politics in New York are deeply corrupted. If you don’t believe me just ask Preet Bharara. As US attorney for the Southern District of NY he has gone after both Wall Street and the corruption in Albany. This kind of corruption coupled with a media that tends to trade coverage for access, breeds apathy. After spending 10 years working on Battle for Brooklyn, this could not have been more clear to me. We were often accused of being unfair to politicians because the movie made them look so bad. Unfortunately they looked bad because they were bad and the results of the process and the project only underscore that point. In fact the above mentioned States Attorney has put several of them in jail. The point that I was making to my friend was that Bernie Sanders and his message have inspired many people who have felt voiceless and powerless. When they get a voice they want to use it, and when it is taken away, the pain- and the response- are even more powerful.
The big kefuffle in the media before the primary this week was the behavior of some Sanders supporters after the Nevada Democratic convention. By all accounts many Bernie Sanders supporters got angry when the complex caucus system appeared to be subverted by those in power who favored Clinton. There have been allegations by Sanders supporters that the party chair person used her position of power in a way that made them feel silenced and disregarded. This seems to be quite evident in the video above. Many of them have reacted in ways that are unacceptable. They have called and texted her with threatening messages. This is a terrible problem and it should not be accepted. However the media hasn’t paid any attention to the issues that angered them. In fact this New York Times article focuses on the Democratic party’s displeasure with the situation without once mentioning why the voters were upset. This only leads those who were upset by what they saw as a subversion of democracy, to an even more powerful perception that their concerns and passions have been dismissed. Clinton is very good at understanding optics and the optics here favor her in the short term. I fear though that they won’t favor her in the long term and we are much more likely to end up with a President Trump.