The Plain, ‘Popular’ Speaking Of Bernie Sanders And Jeremy Corbyn

One of the highlights of the recent Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns–one, a failed attempt to secure the nomination to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and the other a comparatively successful attempt by the Labour Party to derail the Tories in the United Kingdom–has been their plain speaking. Both Sanders and Corbyn relied on straightforward ‘messaging’; they spoke unapologetically about their political views and vision; they did not back down from supposedly ‘can’t-win’ electoral platforms; they did not waffle about or ‘triangulate. Wonder of wonders, they seemed perfectly cognizant of the fact that they would face political opposition, but that did not deter them from continuing to discuss and defend, in unvarnished terms, the democratic socialist and populist ‘agenda’ that was the centerpiece of their claim to become President or Prime Minister. If asked ‘Are you really saying that X?’–where X might be ‘taxing the rich’ or ‘supporting the Palestinian cause’ or ‘socialized healthcare’–the Sanders or Corbyn response, quite typically, was, “Why yes, that’s exactly what I meant, and here’s why.” (In sporting terms, Sanders and Corbyn decided to swing for the fences–rather than sitting on them. Perhaps they would lose; but they would only lose an election, not their integrity. They appeared prepared to pay that price.)

This plain-speaking, this directness, this unapologetic standing by and behind their political convictions, a rare species of political fearlessness, did not go unnoticed. Both Sanders and Corbyn attracted many young folk disenchanted–or just plain bored–by politics; they attracted many older folks turned off by the endlessly vacillating, weaselly language of conventional politics. By keeping their platforms simple, Sanders and Corbyn were not just comprehensible, they also managed to be inspiring. Years and years of being subjected to the inanity and indirection of political discourse has produced a diverse electorate that yearns for plain speaking and a kind of transparent, even if occasionally bumbling, sincerity. Sanders and Corbyn both ‘delivered’; neither are inspiring speakers; their prose is not lofty; they do not appear to have taken classes in oratory or rhetoric; but importantly, they did not appear ‘coached’ and bland and inoffensive either. They knew they would cause offense; they accepted such a cost as part of the price of doing politics, of trying to get a certain kind of message out and about. They also knew the rhetorical value of their manner of speaking.

It will remain an enduring scandal that the Democratic Party in the US could not quite see the wisdom of such plain speaking during the 2016 election season, and instead decided to throw its weight behind a candidate who could not bring herself to drop a language that appeared too cautious, too timid, too ready to compromise. Neither could the Labour Party in the United Kingdom; many of its members and leaders attacked Corbyn relentlessly in the lead-up to the election. In the US, we are left saddled with the dysfunctional presidency of Donald Trump; in the United Kingdom, a second election to resolve the uncertainty created by the unstable Tory-DUP coalition seems quite likely. One can only wonder what the political landscape would look like today if these candidates had not been sabotaged by their own parties.

There are lessons to be learned here; the politician who makes the effort to do so knows an attentive audience–and participants in political action–awaits.

Contra Paul Starr, Presidential Elections Are Not Just About Electing Presidents

Paul Starr kicks off the latest production from the ‘Bernie Sanders is not a real candidate, merely a symbolic one’ brigade with the following assertions:

I have a strange idea about presidential primaries and elections: The purpose is to elect a president. And I have a strange thought about primary voters: They have a choice between sending the country a message and sending it a president.

With that opening spoonful of snark out of the way, Starr moves on to full-bore patronizing:

The desire of many Democrats to send a message is understandable. As the co-editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect, I know that impulse. There’s a lot of anger and frustration among Democrats about entrenched institutions resistant to change.

So:

When Bernie Sanders calls for mobilizing millions of people to bring about a revolution, a lot of progressives cheer him on.

But:

As appealing as Sanders may be, he is not credible as president.

And then, Starr is off and running with the usual shtick: Sanders’ plans won’t fly; he is too old; he calls himself a socialist. Got it. What would Starr like Bernie and his supporters to do? My guess is: just stop running, retire to the sidelines, make way for the Clinton cavalcade, don’t pee on that parade. Whatever you do, don’t vote for the candidate you would like to see elected, vote for the one ‘political analysts’ have decided–for you–is the ‘best’ candidate.

Starr is, I believe, a sociologist. The view of elections he offers here is curiously attenuated and impoverished for someone who claims the empirical study of society as his vocation. It is balanced, ironically enough, by an over-inflated sense of his ability to perceive the motives of those expressing their preference for Sanders (through the polls that indicate many Democrats prefer him over Hillary Clinton.)  Contra Starr, elections send messages all the time; in particular, by electing a particular candidate, voters inform the nation this is the person they want leading them. The electoral process–especially in its modern incarnation–allows for many signals to be sent as it proceeds: through the various polls that are conducted, voters inform their counterparts in other parts of the nation what their political inclinations are. For instance, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, if they vote for Sanders, might be informing other Sanders supporters that they have, so to speak, ‘got their back.’  These polls can be understood as a co-ordination mechanism; voters over the nation decide on their electoral strategy by reading the results of the poll and of the early primary votes. (I have, er, written a paper on precisely this topic.) If Sanders loses heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire perhaps support for him will falter, as Sanders supporters elsewhere realize their energies might be misspent.

Precisely because of this dynamic process of information exchange–through polls and primary elections–electoral dynamics can change. Indeed, the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are proof positive of this phenomenon: they both attracted more supporters as the election season wore on, as voters decided they could back a candidate who seemed to command support in other precincts of the nation. Moreover, the electoral process, as it progresses, may bring–precisely as a result of the enduring contest between two candidates–more information about the candidates to light, thus allowing voters to make a more informed choice.

In light of these considerations, it is bizarre that an academic analyst would suggest that this process be short-circuited because their analytical crystal ball has forecast an inevitable win for one of the candidates. Given what Starr writes, it is entirely plausible he would want to claim that the entire primary process be called off and Clinton be anointed the winning candidate.

Why have polls and elections–information elicitation processes, when oracles can do all the work for you?

A Day in Gaol, Part Deux: Notes on Police, Precincts, and Penality

Spending a day in jail has some social scientific value for the temporarily detained; it enables a closer, albeit short-lived, look at the systems of policing and criminal justice. And because I often expend much time on this blog railing against the excesses of the New York City Police Department, it makes especial sense for me to offer a few observations on my interactions with them on Tuesday last.

First, the arrest itself. The NYPD was scrupulous about providing warnings to those that lay down on Second Avenue; we were told that we were obstructing traffic and had to clear the intersection, failing which we would be arrested. We were not immediately bum-rushed. After the warning was repeated, and those who did not want to court arrest had moved out, the police moved in. I was hauled to my feet but I was not treated roughly. The handcuffs placed on my wrists–the plastic variety–were painful, and a couple of tightening tugs made them more so. The arresting officer then placed his fingers through their central loop, making them even more painful. I told him I had no intention of absconding, as I had deliberately courted arrest; he replied he had to follow arresting procedures. Fair enough. We were then bundled into the wagon, un-seatbelted, and  thus susceptible to being thrown around, forward and backwards, when the wagon braked or took corners. The driver of the wagon thankfully opened the doors when we arrived at the precinct, and assured us he had turned on the A/C, but it hadn’t worked, thus leaving us sweltering. I believe him; he sounded sincerely apologetic for any discomfort caused to us.

I had been a little nervous about the arrest because I did not want to get shoved around or slammed to the sidewalk, but none of that occurred. There was no animosity directed at the police by the protesters and the police seemed more bemused than anything else by our doings.

Second, my booking at the precinct. The central irony of the precinct–as Corey Robin and I both noted in our conversation after we had been released–is that while it is a zone of legal enforcement, it feels, and very often is, a lawless zone. You come face to face to unblinking, resolute bureaucracy, beholden to its procedures, and their utter rigidity, all the while knowing that the police can stretch and violate them with impunity. The incarcerated are always aware that they are powerless, that the police can exert all manner of power over them. You might seek redress later, but that will not, in any way, diminish the terrifying powerlessness when a policeman got in your face, or pushed you, or otherwise abused you in any other way. There is also the depressing empirical fact that the long arm of the law rarely reaches out to accost a policeman. You are at the policeman’s mercy. Questions may be treated with a blank stare or a noncommittal reply, and very little helpful clarification about procedure is offered. It is here that you most sense a figurative forcing of you to your knees. The swagger, the cockiness, the brusqueness of the cop; these are all external manifestations of the confidence they posses in their imperviousness to any forms of pleading or redressal.

Third, my time in the holding cell. This is a continuation of the previous state; you are imprisoned; it can be a terrifying feeling.. The police are taciturn and reticent; they do not offer helpful responses to questions put to them, and requests for the lessening of personal discomfort are responded to with visible reluctance; you do not get straight answers on when you may expect to be booked and released. (One Bangladeshi cop was kind enough to tell us we would be released soon; in an effort to reach out to him, I told him my father had fought in the war of liberation for his erstwhile home; he offered me a tight smile and walked away, telling me his wife was from Mumbai.) You sense the police bound by procedures of due process but you also sense that they may at any time, at their own whim, decide not to follow them.  (The refusal–and then later, grudging agreement–to provide water despite our constant requests seemed one instance of this.) The irony of the co-existence of the arbitrary with the rules of law is reinforced. You draw companionship from your fellow prisoners if you can. I was lucky to be with my partners in civil disobedience; their companionship sustains you; it is far more uncomfortable to be with those who are strangers. (Note: at one point late in the afternoon, a middle-aged Cuban gentleman was brought into our cell; he had been arrested for panhandling. He claimed he had merely been asking a friend for some money. His English was not as good as his Spanish, and he seemed a little discombobulated. The police had a field day with him, cracking several jokes at his expense as he was led out and in and otherwise subjected to other procedures. I presume the police code of conduct includes no strictures on gratuitous mocking of the incarcerated.)

My imprisonment was exceedingly brief; I only suffered minimal discomfort (one of my fingers is still slightly numb). I am privileged and lucky. Many others who deal with the police and the penal system are not.

 

Why Get Arrested? Why Perform Civil Disobedience?

A Facebook friend of mine asked in response to my posts and photos about yesterday’s protest at the Israeli mission to the UN:

It seems as though you all knew you were going to get arrested and almost seem proud of that? Isn’t there a way to protest without being arrested?

This is a very good question. Let me attempt to answer it, building upon a response I initially wrote in the comments space of my Facebook page.

My friend is right. There are ways to protest without being arrested. I have taken many political actions, participated in many rallies and protests, all without being arrested. I have written blog posts, held up banners, shouted slogans, and marched through city streets in sub-zero temperatures. These forms of protest suffer from one disadvantage: they are often not as politically effective, or as rhetorically and substantively powerful as civil disobedience actions, which culminate in protesters getting arrested.

Consider yesterday’s action for instance. If some hundred or so protesters had shown up, shouted some slogans, all the while confined to the pen the NYPD had put up for us, and then finally dispersed, their energies dissipated, the associated political message would have all too quickly been lost. Yet, precisely because twenty-six folks were arrested and put into jail, we have had a day and perhaps more of social media buzz. Some folks already know what is happening in Gaza, yet others will learn about it for the first time. More conversations will be sparked, and perhaps some might be inspired to take action as well–of whatever form they choose.

Civil disobedience actions are thus more effective in raising political consciousness. Moreover, they are more disruptive of the social order; they send the message–to those watching, to those on their way to work–that business cannot proceed as usual. They impose costs, and thus send a message that political stances, strategies and tactics, such as the US’s support of Israel with a seemingly blank check, lead to domestic costs. Getting arrested shows you are willing to incur a cost yourself – like spending time in jail. It shows your commitment to the cause, which is an expression of solidarity for those who are far more viscerally involved in the political struggle. Getting arrested, and undergoing all the discomforts it entails, sends a message that the cause at hand is not a trivial one, that it has somehow evoked people to step forth and expend time and energy in this fashion. It is not a pleasant experience, and thus provokes the question: Why would people be willing to undergo handcuffing, being pushed around by cops, and being confined in a holding cell?

Imagine millions of American citizens doing the same thing, shutting down traffic, clogging up the jails, bringing all work to a halt. Could the US government really continue with its policies if that was the case? They could, if all they had to deal with was large, vocal rallies. (As they perhaps did at the time  of the Iraq War.)

Politics, political action, and rhetoric go together. Getting arrested is a form of speech; it speaks loudly to the cause it represents. It is another arrow in the quiver of the political activist, one which if used well, can be singularly effective.