Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Serious" Candidates...And Why Jerry Brown Isn't One of Them

“Why don’t you vote for a serious candidate?” people are always asking me, with the same patronizing tone they’d use on a three-year-old.  I have been, you understand, an unaffiliated voter for the last few years, and vote more often than not for the Green Party, occasionally the Democratic Party, and from time to time for the Peace and Freedom Party.
I understand that the candidates I support are unlikely to win the election in question, particularly so long as most people insist on voting for candidates based on habit and the ability of those candidates to buy their attention using advertisements and mailings.  This is particularly true in California, where only two candidates appear on the November ballot, ensuring that when most people actually turn out to vote they have only the narrowest of choices.
But that still doesn’t address what rankles most when people tell me to grow up and vote for a mass murderer like Obama, a defender of state terrorism like Dianne Feinstein, or a champion of crippling austerity like Jerry Brown.  It’s the “serious” part.
What makes a serious candidate?
I’d say a “serious” candidate is one who not only recognizes issues of great urgency, but has something both compelling and convincing to say about how to address those issues.  Ideally, the candidates ideas about how to address various, interlocking problems should be far more than a sound-bite or homily designed to reassure people that things will be okay.
A helpful way of proving their “seriousness” is to have a platform, outlining policy positions with some level of detail.  While it’s understandable that not every plank of a platform will necessarily be implemented, it at least provides voters with something “serious” to evaluate, as well as something against which to measure the candidate’s progress, and something against which to hold them accountable.
I think that these are reasonable ways of assessing political “seriousness”.
So who are the “serious” candidates if we turn to California’s gubernatorial race this year?
On the one hand we have Neel Kashkari, who uses a series of either misleading or ill-informed claims about education statistics and state governance to pretend that we can make life wonderful for everyone without anyone lifting a finger or spending any money.  It’s all happy thoughts in Kashkari-land, a place to which the candidate will have to repair after November given that some commentators have suggested that Jerry Brown could drop dead in October and still hand the Republican candidate a comprehensive defeat.
And then there’s Jerry Brown, the most serious of serious candidates according to the keepers of the convention wisdom in the state and national press.  Our previous governor communicated in only semi-intelligible grunts, but nobody—Democrat or Republican—really liked what they heard.  Jerry Brown, in contrast, can say “I’m going to trash the public sphere to save my political skin!” in Latin and Greek, and the press swoons. 
Brown refuses to talk about policy positions to reporters, hosts a bare-bones website that gives no hint as to what his agenda in the next four years might be, and confuses “ideas” with “problems” (maybe in Latin they’re the same word?). 
What makes Brown and Kashkari “serious” is that they have a lot of money to spend.  In the primary election, smaller parties put up detailed, thoughtful platforms.  The Green Party’s platform was no exception.  Sure, it might have been a little bit idealistic, and elements would take time to implement.  But there’s never been a political platform that hasn’t suffered from those defects.  But there was ideological and policy coherence.  There was recognition of serious environmental and ecological issues.  There was a refusal to sugar-coat problems around our prison population, spending priorities, and our public sphere.
Jerry Brown, in contrast, is probably going to win the election in November without putting together a platform, without addressing serious problems with our economy, society, and democracy, and without even having to articulate a coherent vision for our state.  In what way is he a “serious” candidate?
The good news is, he and Neel Kashkari will meet for one debate on 4 September.  Brown was originally considering skipping debates altogether.  I’m not happy about this because I think debates are hugely substantial affairs.  But given how un-serious Brown looks to me as a candidate, I’m at least pleased that he will be subjected to 60 minutes of scrutiny during which—if he doesn’t pull his trademark move of running rings around his questioners—he might have to say something about his plans for the state. 

Californians would be well-advised to take notice, given the un-enviable choice they face in November.  On the one hand, they could choose a man who ransacked our public sphere, abdicated responsibility for ethical budgeting, ignored our democratic deficit, and equated overburdened students with Wall Street Bankers.  On the other, they could choose a candidate who thinks he could do an even more thorough job of trashing our state.  Serious candidates indeed!


  1. Phew, I was beginning to worry for a bit, almost eight posts without a Jerry Brown dig. Maybe you'd gone soft in your cushy Ivy tower (rhinestone tower? what do they cover the towers with in Las Vegas?)

    But 'seriously', your post brings up a 'serious' question? Namely how many times can you use 'serious' in scare-quotes in one post. (The Chrome finder tells me 17)

    In all seriousness, I feel like you are addressing your strongest argument to the weakest of the 'serious' crowd. You dismiss in one sentence the 'serious' crowd as being bought off by money and advertisements, as if that's what wins elections ("most people insist on voting for candidates based on habit and the ability of those candidates to buy their attention using advertisements and mailings") ignoring the volunteers, local committees, history, loyalty and other party apparatus that has been built up over time. Then switching on to a discussion about policy platforms. I'll even grant you that maybe the Greens and the Peace and Freedom's (Peacers and Freedomers?) have a better policy positions, but its a policy positions which can be crafted without having to bear the crucible of compromise, or yes even convincing enough people to vote for them.

    And, it's not policy positions which get elected, it's people. The candidates your parties put forward...dare I say it...don't seem so serious. Cindy Sheenan and Louis Rodriguez may have admirable biographies, and positive ideas, but it doesn't seem like they have had to run anything more complicated then a protest march, or a book tour. I suspect most voters take this into account more then TV ads, and on some level realize that even if these guys could make it to office they would have to face a state legislature controlled by other parties. Are these politicians in the legislature going to make life easier on Cindy Sheehan because she has great policy ideas?

    In truth there is probably something of a vicious cycle going on. Third parties keep nominating 'unserious' people to promote their 'great' policy ideas, so 'serious' people keep not standing for these parties. But whose responsibility is it to change this? The voters? Despite grousing in polls, I suspect most are happy with the two party system, at least they keep voting for it. Third parties and independents do perform better in other states, (Vermont, Maine), but these parties have a history of accomplishments in the state and nominate people who have demonstrated successful service and yes, competency.

    If your third parties want to be taken as more then a joke, and have their policy positions given 'serious' consideration...then, to be blunt, they need to stop being the butt of jokes... comedian Roseanne Barr was the presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom party last election.

    You could have the greatest policies and solutions to all our states problems, but if the star of 'She Devil' is delivering it, I'm gonna have trouble taking it....yes seriously.

    And finally, in my own defense, I use the same patronizing tone on people of all ages :-)

    1. I can only go so long without getting exasperated with our dear governor. I mean, your dear governor.

      I think you misunderstood my point about money. I don’t think it’s so much that certain people are “bought off” by money. Rather, it requires money for candidates to get the attention of voters. I don’t deny that volunteers, local committees, history (this was “habit”), loyalty, apparatuses—except in the case of Jerry Brown who refuses to campaign at all—play some role. But most of those require money to maintain, and mean that in a lot of places candidates from one party or another are coasting on structures and relationships that were built a long time ago and have nothing to do with their party’s current behavior or engagement with a community’s needs.

      That brief statement was mean to make the point that candidates are not really evaluated according to their platforms, which you don’t contest.

      Platforms are generally not crafted with compromise in mind. They are statements of a worldview, and most of us take it for granted that—unless the voters like a platform enough to grant a supermajority or something along those lines—there will be compromises and modifications after an election. If the Green and Libertarian Party platforms got the same level of attention and scrutiny and exposure as the platforms—such as they are—of Democrats and Republicans, and nobody voted for them, I’d be fine with that.

      But instead, the media treats them as a joke when they mention them at all. Without media attention, the benefit of a fair election system, or masses of donors (who want to keep the number of parties they have to give funds to as small as possible), you could hardly expect the Green Party to grab masses of voters.

      Your point about the candidates, though, is extremely well taken.

      After all, imagine how laughable it would be if a major party had a gubernatorial candidate in California who was a B actor known for playing second fiddle to a chimpanzee, and whose primary qualification was his willingness to be the FBI’s shill in their illegal activities in California after stabbing his fellow B actors in the back?
      Or if a major party had a gubernatorial candidate in California who was a B actor whose film lines run to so many grunts and blasts of high caliber weapons?

      Or imagine a presidential election where two candidates are in office primarily because of their parents’ achievements. One of them never ran anything at all—although he did invent the internet, so perhaps there was a start-up there and he was the CTO? The other was known primarily for running various companies his daddy gave him—into the ground, and did so frequently enough that the family figured he could do less damage as the governor of Texas—except to the 152 people he executed—than running anything.

      And the third candidate would be someone who didn’t come from the same sort of privilege and spent his life in another, more thankless form of public service that nonetheless won plenty of safety and regulatory victories for the public.

      Clearly, the public would have voted for the third guy, right?

      More “seriously”, while I accept that small parties could do better in terms of candidates, I don’t accept that they are any less serious than those of the big parties. Jerry Brown would have been elected Secretary of State if it were not for his name. Is the “She Devil” worse than the “Kindergarten cop”?

      When was the last time we voted for the “two party” system? If we had an election in which we had the opportunity to vote on the two party system and people opted for it, that’s one thing. But unless I missed a critical election cycle at some point, I don’t think that’s happened, no less repeatedly, as you suggest.

      I do agree that there’s a cycle. Absent the introduction of PR, we’re stuck with two parties for the time being.

      And just so you don’t feel singled out, the post more directed at people of a more advanced generation who like to think that their version of realpolitik has done the world a good turn!

  2. It is so hard to infer tone on the internet, but I fear you are casting dispersions on our dearly depart St. Reagan, vanquisher of communism, defender of the faith, and most importantly: cutter of the top marginal tax rate. Blessed Be.

    Though I’m not sure what your point was in bring up the unconventional biographies of candidates from the major parties (all Republicans btw). Something along the lines that since the major parties do it, it’s ok for us? That being a B movie actor (and to be fair Kindergarten Cop is an American classic), shouldn’t be an impediment to being governor? You want more Reagans and Arnolds?

    Anyway, you did shame me into looking at the party platforms of the Democrats for California though not enough shame to actually read it, I’m busying being the CTO of a startup (hey wait a minute….) :

    but that’s kind of the point I want to bring up. It is at least as involved and fleshed out as the Peace and Freedom one:

    [I assume the Republican one is more concise: 1) cut top marginal tax rate, 2) reanimate Ronald Reagan]

    You keep implying that the major parties don’t bother with a platform, or don’t have one. But they do. You may, and certainly don’t, like it as much as promises of free ponies and universal good will through focused singing in the (I assume, again didn’t read it) Peace and Freedom platform. But you not favoring it is not as it not being there, or that it isn’t serious.

    Two final thoughts:

    When I said that people keep voting for the two party system, I meant they keep voting for the two parties. You complain about the election system, but when you mark your ballot all the other parties had an equal chance.

    Al Gore…never claimed to have invented the Internet. He, correctly, said that when he was in congress (incidentally having a long political career before running for president), he sat on a committee and supported expanded funding for high speed communications equipment, and ARPA. Exactly the sort of thing you would want a representative to do. Though far be it for me to complain the truth is not represented in a clever quip.

    Incidentally, I am old enough to remember with 2000 election. I was even in Florida at the time. I remember having conversations similar to this one, when your hero 4 time vanity candidate and car seat belt installer, Ralph Nader, was running. “Both Parties are the same”, “They are both corrupt” , “Look how much better the Green’s Ideas are.” Ralph Nader got 90,000 votes in 2000. Al Gore lost by 537.

    Please don’t try to tell me that more than 538 of those dedicated liberal voters would have stayed home or voted for Bush. And please don’t try to convince me that Gore would have been the same or worse then Bush.

    I believe it was Bismark who said “politics is the art of the possible, and in a two party system if you 50% vote for the Republicans you are gonna end up with daddy issue inspired wars of choice, unaffordable tax cuts, and Samuel Alito on the supreme court” (and 14 years latter we are still no closer to taking the Green party…yes… seriously)

    Really very insightful for an imperialist Prussian…

    1. My point in bringing up those cases is to question why only the small parties are held to a certain standard. I don't want more Arnies and Ronnies and Jerries... Some of the candidates from the small parties over the years have been more credible than these yokels. But the fact that they are representing a small party seems to be a case in and of itself for their absurdity, which just doesn't make much sense to me.
      As for the platforms, the difference between the large and small parties--or some of them at least--is that they tend to be more democratic in their structures, meaning that there candidates are more likely to campaign according to the party platform, whereas Jerry Brown is not bound by what the CaDems write, and marches to the beat of a drum only he can hear...making him pretty darn unaccountable during the election cycle.
      Ralph Nader is not a personal hero, I just don't think he's any more ridiculous than these other folks, and since there are good voting systems which exist and work in other countries, I don't think we should resign ourself to a system wherein people should be afraid that if they vote for a Nader they will automatically end up with a Bush. I've never said that both parties are the same (although I would argue that they are both corrupted by monied influence, albeit not to the same degree), but I do think that people should have choices. It would also be nice if the candidate with the most votes won the election...
      It's absurd that when we have the knowledge and the tools to create a more representative, fairer system, we persist in trying to scare people into accepting that we must continue with a system so obviously broken.
      And as someone invested in compromise, you should appreciate the fact that coalition governments in countries with more than two parties perhaps do an even better job of encouraging compromise.
      I think you've made my case quite well!