Finding Demigods

Digby's got a predictably terrific post on the need for more telegenic, effective, and conscientious media representation among the Dems. Like me, Digby has latched onto the heuristics of elections as the crucial component. Terrorism, the economy, social values -- these things matter substantively, but they generally manifest in predictably symbolic, superficial, ways. As Matt Yglesias rarely tires of noting, the Democratic policy elite -- both foreign and domestic -- are excessively capable, but the leaders they advise are rarely judged as favorably. That's because the game is appearance. If Kerry radiated military the way Clark did, terrorism would have been no problem; if he oozed empathy as Clinton could, he would have won on kitchen table issues; if he could project the longing for propriety that Buchanan perfected, social values wouldn't have been a problem.

Of course, the last thing I want the Dems doing is studying the Buchanan's playbook ("Screen left! Pick the Jew!"), but we consistently underrate the importance of appealing to "instant intelligence". Snap judgments, as Malcolm Gladwell will gladly tell you (and then try and sell you a book on), often predetermine the decisions we think emerge rationally. While I didn't support Kerry in the primary, I too easily relinquished my better instincts and assumed gravitas and competency would compensate for odd looks and marionette-like movements. And, in the final assessment, I still believe the conventional criticisms of the Kerry campaign -- no message clarity, too little focus on national security, poor consultants -- are intellectual band-aids wrapped around a decidedly unintellectual issue -- he didn't look the part. Or, if he did, Americans (at least 51% of them) didn't like the look.

Which brings me back to Digby's post and the need to better utilize Hollywood in our politics. Republicans laugh at partisan actors and Democrats chuckle at Schwarzenegger, but both sides are too busy guffawing to recognize the profound political power and sociological expertise these folks bring to bear. We condescend to popular media, but we do so because we view the products as simplistic crud rather than sophisticated creations fine-tuned to achieve entrance into the culture. More recognized, but less understood, are Reagan and Clinton, whose abilities have been given needless genetic, quasi-mystical explanations. Whenever Ronald or Bill enter in discussion, the standard trope is that these guys were once-in-a-century pols, demigods who manifested in the mortal plane in order to lead one or the other party to victory. But as anyone who's ever watched an episode of the West Wing, or pressed play on The American President, knows, that's bullshit. Sheen can make them look like backbenchers, and don't even start on the dome-shaking address Bridges used to climax The Contender; Moses on Mt. Sinai couldn't deliver his words with such thunder (actually, Moses had a severe speech impediment and used his brother Aaron to communicate, but that's beside the allegory).

What sets Bridges, Moore, Sheen, Reagan, and Clinton apart is, simply, Hollywood. And by that I mean the ethos and skills of Hollywood. Some, like Clinton, self-trained because of childhood circumstance, the others found their skills through guided effort. But crucially, these are skills. They are learned sets of behavior that allow ordinary people to connect on a superlative level, or imbue universal emotion with overwhelming depth. Too often, Democrats hope resume and life experience will allow our leaders to play the part. A background of poverty will make John Edwards appear empathic, or blood on his hands will let Kerry look the war hero. But true experience is a poor substitute for professional training, and so our politicians repeatedly fail to actualize the mysterious "connection" that marks the successful. Reagan, for his part, never failed to sell the pitch because he had spent a lifetime learning how to succeed at it. Clinton never lost his ability to impress, he learned it as a survival skill at about the time motor skills lost their mystery. Schwarzenegger, despite his penchant for ignoring deficits and delaying debts down for future generations, never stops projecting the action, determination, and grit that made him believable as an armed, robotic messiah.

In politics, the best actor -- or actress -- wins. Dull Davis could beat Stilted Simon, and Cowboy George could beat Upper Crust Kerry. But adjectives are assumed, and it's time we began recognizing that the primary skill in general elections is the ability to easily shrug in and out of predesigned parts, and the magical connection that excites us so is simply the mark of a natural, or at least well-trained, actor. So Democrats, you've got a culture-creating machine bursting with fans, one so packed with your partisans that it's become a standard Republican target. And if they're going to flail away (in between bouts of recruiting from Hollywood's ranks), we might as well let the talent get out and defend itself. Those scores of out-of-work actors begging for the part of a lifetime? Maybe they're our political demigods, just waiting to manifest.