[9 March 2008]
The 2008 Primary season has offered a fresh take on the quadrennial process of promoting yet another pair of aging white males to be their respective party’s nominee, this year’s debate stages are cluttered with a diversity of candidates unseen in US presidential elections past: To paraphrase the politically incorrect former Secretary of the Interior James Watt, we’ve been able to choose between a woman, a black, two Catholics and a vegan, to name just a few.” Yet despite the modernization of the candidates, voters are subjected to the same hackneyed campaign farces that make the process less like vibrant politics and more like tired theater.
My favorite of these rituals is the diner drop-in, that random interruption of breakfast at mom-and-pop diners nationwide. As each state has its primary, little coffee shops get overrun with press and politicians when candidates display an eagerness to “connect with the voters” while they plumb for anecdotes that can be dropped into that evening’s stump speech, thus demonstrating to the local audience that the presidential hopeful really listens to the people of insert-your-state-here.
“This campaign is about the people,” candidates insist. (Insert that phrase into a search engine and see how many names pop up from this and previous elections.) Each candidate purports to have a unique vantage point for seeing the real America, a perspective that has allowed them to more fully understand what makes the heart of America tick. Of course, this so-called unique vantage point is common to all of the candidates, acquired by jetting to the same cities, visiting the same cafes, and meeting the same people as the candidate who made the journey two hours prior, each campaign boasting of its individuality while playing a constant game of keeping up with the Joneses.
The claim that these small town visitations reveal how Americans really feel is further flawed: Birds of a proverbial feather tend to flock together, so compiling opinions at any one business will skew the data one way or another, biased toward the demographic that frequents the establishment. It’s not that the Denver-omelet-eating man at the local greasy spoon isn’t a genuine American voice, but it’s only one voice from the massive chorus of voters, and since most coffee shops tend to be fairly homogeneous in their clientele, that makes for a chorus of people all singing the same notes.
The continuation of the staged coffee shop drop-in ritual indicates to me that candidates don’t really want to “meet the people” in the broad sense, they want to meet the people who will vote for them, so they concentrate their efforts on crowds of politically active people, not on the non-voters. (Certainly a logical tack: If you are marketing a product, it’s wise to appeal to people who buy products, not people who think shopping is a waste of time.) But considering that the President is the president of all the country’s citizens, not just those who vote for presidents, it would be refreshing if a candidate sought opinions from genuinely diverse groups, from citizens who represent all facets of the American electorate.
Where to find such a gathering of unlike minds? Campaign planners ought to consider bypassing the coffee shop, walking to the bench at the street corner, and hopping on the city bus or commuter train.
Once upon a time, prior to the proliferation of personal vehicles (before there was a car in every driveway, let alone two or three), public transportation was aptly named: Neighbors waited together on street corners, walked together from the trolleys to their homes, and consequently got to know each other. As automobiles overpopulated the landscape, ensconced in a portable living room that literally keeps them walled away from the world, drivers began to insulate themselves from their neighbors. Today, a person can get into the car in their garage, drive to work, drive home and slip unseen into the garage again, never coming into contact with anyone in their neighborhood. Cars offered the opportunity to opt out of participation in your local community, which in turn contributed to a mutation of the very word “community” from a geographical concept to a more ideological construct.
Yet public transportation still offers the truest example of a genuine melting pot in modern America, “melting pot” being an anachronistic phrase that has faded from use in recent decades as politicians have endeavored to faction the populace for easier manipulation, subdividing citizens by race, gender, affluence, religion, and any other category that allows for oversimplified compare/contrast scenarios. While the average day on public transit isn’t as improbably diverse as the crowd of bus riders in the movie Speed (which looked like an expanded version of The Village People), it’s rare that I ride the local bus without seeing at least one representative of each of the city’s major demographics: African Americans, Asian Americans, Caucasian Americans, Latino Americans and Middle Eastern Americans. The essential common denominator of these sub-groups is American, so a downtown train would be a perfect spot for a candidate’s photo opportunity: While it may be noisy, cramped, and crowded with voices that sound nothing like the candidates’ own, every train car is a microcosm of America.
I have a friend who insists that traveling by mass transit should be a once-weekly requirement for all citizens, not just presidential contenders. His motive is not to get a few extra cars off the roads, but to remind us all that people are not the oversimplified voting blocks they are often made out to be (even if our actions sometimes meet those expectations.)
Commuter buses are cluttered with white collars, blue collars, suits, stoners, hippies, teenage parents, college kids and just about every other personality a casting agent could envision, and while it’s one thing to say, “I know there are other people in this city”, it’s quite another to sit thigh-to-thigh with them on a molded plastic seat. In our private lives we all tend to congregate with like-minded friends, which can cause us to forget that there are other types of people in the world, people whose values and manners are vastly different than our own: The bus is crowded with such reminders every day.
Most candidates spend too much time talking to the people who will already vote for them, particularly at their motivational pep rallies. Attendees at those rallies are in many ways as homogeneous as the diners at the coffee shops: They all possess some degree of political curiosity, and feel positive enough about the system that they expect a vote for one candidate or another can make a difference in their lives.
Yet outside the rally, much of America doesn’t share that sense of positivity: John Edwards’ assertion that there are “two Americas” contains a kernel (or a bushel) of truth, and the division between the two can be made on a variety of axises, perhaps most distinctly between people who participate in the system with the expectation of benefit for their efforts, and those who choose not to participate because they expect their efforts will result in someone else’s benefit.
The city bus campaign proposed here offers a candidate the opportunity to reach the latter, an audience that hasn’t been converted to the message, who might even be motivated to action if they see a future president taking the time to listen to travelers on the 4:15 out of downtown. To return to the above analogy; if you are marketing a product, yes, you should appeal to people who buy products; but it may also prove worthwhile to spend a little time convincing people who think shopping is a waste of time that your product is different than your competitor’s brand.
In addition, the bus-ride campaign would promote and publicize America’s public transportation systems, and it would lend some credibility to the “this campaign is about the people” claim, since it seems unlikely that any candidate is going to get an exclusive insight into American life by traveling in a black Suburban with tinted windows and stopping only at prearranged, photogenically effective landmarks. (Heck, they even get green-points with the voters for saving gas by riding the bus.)
True, there are security concerns and time constraints involved with a presidential candidate traveling by a city bus; but then, there are security concerns and time constraints involved with citizens traveling by city bus, too; for the daily riders, it’s called life. What’s the old adage about walking a mile in another’s shoes? How about riding a mile in a bus with the rest of us for a change?