By James A. Kidney
Pundits and political consultants are bemoaning the (temporary) rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as a sign that “the center cannot hold.” Post columnist E.J. Dionne even quotes Yeats twice as his political guru for the proposition. But his column and others make me think that today’s politicians are like grocery store tomatoes.
Those of my generation (kinda’ old), can vaguely recall when grocery store tomatoes were tasty, like those grown on the vine in the backyard of our 1950s suburbs. It was not unusual to just eat one like an apple, perhaps with a salt shaker handy. But over the years, as corporate growers and middle-men replaced the farm-to-table small business neighborhood markets, tomatoes were developed for corporate purposes – longer lasting, less easily bruised, brighter reds – and less for consumer approval. Keeping the taste was not a business worry. I think that something of the same has happened to retail politics, with the consequence that our candidates are focused on the things that satisfy their corporate consultants. What is TV-tested? What is poll-tested? How can a candidate seem “genuine” without actually having to BE genuine. Pundits are part of this process. Most rely on campaign consultants for information, ideas, horse-race tallies, and predictions of candidate success.
You can say one thing for old time political party control: The pols kept the pulse of their constituents personally and looked for candidates that would get those votes. The anointed candidate, if elected, would not be allowed to forget where his or her votes came from. If he did, she would be a one-termer.
Of course, TV, among many other things, changed this situation beginning years ago. And no doubt there were bad things about boss control. But just as TV helped create national grocery chains, remote from local customers, so, too, did the tools of the modern political era (including overnight polling, detailed computerized voter tracking, etc.) promote the corporate-run candidate over the truly “genuine.” Candidate consultancy became a multi-billion dollar business, with major firms sprouting in D.C., most major cities and state capitals. A direct result is not only candidates for whom polish is more important than ideas, but a giant need for major campaign contributions from demanding benefactors.
It is unlikely that these negative changes in politics will be reversed. But there is a counter-reaction, though one likely to have little impact soon. Just as many supermarkets now have “locally grown” or “organic” vegetable tables, usually at a higher price than the corporate fare, voters are desperately seeking more “genuine” candidates – less glossy, less balanced, better tasting. Trump and Sanders reflect this demand. Political consultants and the pundits are aghast, just as the executives at Kroger, Walmart and Safeway, that consumers demand something besides what they are offering. What is happening to Americans! We need more TV ads!
But the money and power is on the side of the consultants and the big contributors. They should welcome this endless nominating process. Like the shopper who finally tires of the limited selection of unattractive looking (but tastier) tomatoes at higher prices and returns to the colorful, fully rounded store fruit that their kids like, voters will take what they are given. The urge to burn down the supermarket passes quickly. There are kids to raise, TV to watch, work to do, vacations to plan. At the end of the day, both voters and shoppers say, “I’ll take what you are offering that is easy to get.” These months with lots of faux political “news” – all opinions and speeches, no voting, perfect for modern media — will get the rebelliousness out of the voters’ system. Things will return to “normal”. Maybe the nominees won’t be Bush and Clinton, but they definitely won’t be Trump and Sanders. The center will return, if only because the market for change requires too much money, time and work from people who are pressed on all three.