10 Zen Monkeys, August 2007
They call it retail politics. It’s a politic that has to appeal to an awful lot of people, but it doesn’t have to appeal to them all that much.
The successful presidential candidate wants to establish just enough passion for their political stances that voters will waddle down to the polling place on the first Tuesday of November and vote for them (or send in the appropriate form). Too much passion could be a dangerous thing, because it probably indicates that the candidate has moved off of the acceptable boilerplate messages of the retail campaign and has introduced ideas and possible political solutions that are both novel and challenging. Winning presidential candidates don’t want to be any more challenging than blockbuster movies.
Establishing an adequate but bland affinity with voters around their politics is, of course, not the main job of the blockbuster prez candidate. The main job is to create a comfort level with the candidate’s personality and backstory. They have to live up to a fantasy of mainstream family life. Sure, we’ve gotten used to Republican divorcees, but if Ronnie had left Jane for Johnny instead of Nancy, he would have ended his career as a fluffer for Joey Stefano.
What’s sort of weird about all this is that a lot of people actually seem to agree with the “fringe” candidates – those who confront some of the taboo topics on my list. Ron Paul has had some luck pressing forward with ideas and positions that are considered taboo. He’s the breakout “fringe” candidate this year, but fringe nevertheless. And substantial numbers — maybe even a majority — of Democratic primary voters like Dennis Kucinich’s positions on the issues better than those of Clinton or Obama. But Kucinich’s campaign has never even caught a light breeze.
Obviously, perception trumps content. Voters may agree with nearly everything a fringe candidate says, but when the media echo chamber dismisses that candidate as “fringe,” they are drawing a big “L” for Loser across the candidate’s face. And while voters will eventually develop some measure of contempt for the actual President, loser candidates are beneath contempt, and can’t really be taken seriously.
Of course, some topics or lifestyle choices are truly taboo for presidential candidates because very few potential voters are ready or willing to deal with them. In deciding on this list of taboo topics for Presidential campaigns, I used several criteria. First of all, the issues had to deserve discussion. That would exclude stuff like: “Hitler was awesome!”; “Let’s make seven-years-old the age of consent!”; or “Let’s force all blondes to dance naked in public squares every Tuesday at noon!”
There are also some topics, like the loss of civil liberties; the usurious policies of credit card companies; or the undemocratic methods used to prevent “third” political parties from challenging the duopoly, that candidates could popularly confront, but won’t. I have not included those either. I am only choosing topics that candidates both won’t and can’t reason about if they hope to have a chance of being elected President. It’s also worth noting that candidates can confront a few of these issues and get elected to lower offices, but they can’t go for the big kahuna.
Also, in deciding how to assign different topics their place on this Top 20 List, I had to decide whether to emphasize the issues of importance to the health of the nation or just those with the most totally awesome taboo-ness. I decided to put the most taboo topics at the top, rather than the most important ones. I believe this is an accurate reflection of the triviality of our political culture.
#1: Sexual Non-Conformism (Personal)
Presidential candidates can’t be openly gay or transsexual. They can’t have open marriages and relationships or practice polyfidelity or polyamory. They can’t openly enjoy orgies, consensual gangbangs, or pornography. They can’t even be real swingin’ bachelors or bachelorettes. During the ’90s, we made it to: “I don’t care if he got a blow job, as long as he does a good job.” Now we need to get to: “I don’t care if he’s going to move his pet sheep Sweetiecakes into the White House and post videos of their long nights of passion on YouTube. If his policies could save millions of lives, what’s more important?”
#2: Sex Positivism (Socio-Political)
No presidential candidate can advocate sex-positive attitudes including open marriages and relationships; they can’t be pro-porn, positive about teen sexuality, or generally advocate the sophisticated notion that eroticism is life’s greatest gift.
#3: Open Borders
Who are we kidding? They’re not going to pay a big fine, touch down in the home country and then come back again. And we’ll never round up 12 million people and kick them out of the country or keep out the next few million. For all intents and purposes, we have open borders and it can’t be stopped any more than drugs can. But no Presidential candidate can say so.
4: “I Dig Pot and Shrooms”
Many adults know that some mind drugs – particularly marijuana and psychedelics – can be quite kind, enlightening, and creatively stimulating. There has also been a mountain of good news about the therapeutic and medical potentials of these substances over the last several years, thanks to legal testing allowed in the US, Europe, and Israel. But no Presidential candidate could ever say anything positive about the experiences these drugs induce, even though several of them have known better. (Hello, Bill and Al.)
5: No Atheists, Agnostics, or Pagans
Candidates must pay lip service to the prevailing native superstitions and they’d better be able to back it up with some evidence of genuine piety (or at least church attendance).
6: U.S. Militarism
“Americans are a peace-loving people.” Not so much, actually. In my lifetime (b.1952), we sent (substantive numbers of) troops into Korea, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Cambodia, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq again. We’ve dropped bombs on Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Libya, Iraq, Iraq again, Sudan, Bosnia, Yemen, and of course more Iraq. (Listing all the conflicts where we’ve tried to overthrow states through less direct but nevertheless violent means, or that we’ve been involved in peripherally, or through “client states” could probably fill a book.)
7: Weird With a Beard
Remember when Al Gore grew himself an existential beard after being ripped off for the presidency? Oh my, what a snarkfest! Of course, pretty much all the 19th Century presidents had furry faces, but nobody had to look at them much. If you display any non-conformity in dress or appearance, you’re a damned hippie and won’t be allowed anywhere near the White House.
8: Daddy, Where Does Money Come From?
Today, money is issued in the form of bank credit. In the past, it was related to “the gold standard.” Throughout history, these exchange signals have had different forms and significances. Money isn’t a physical commodity; it’s a signifier of value. It’s the dominant social force in our world and the specifics of how it functions at its root are pretty much completely occult, even in the business world. “Social Security is going to run out of money in thirty years.” You can’t run out of money, in the way that you can run out of oil, potable water, or spotted owls. Any presidential candidate worth his or her stripes should talk about how money works and ask whether we couldn’t make it work better, but he or she would be labeled a “fringe crazy.”
9: No Muslims!
Maybe, just maybe, we can elect someone named Barack Obama. But he better not get caught bowing toward Mecca.
10: Stop The Drug War
Most sophisticated commentators admitted a dozen or so years ago that the drug war is unwinnable, unfair and a corrupting influence on American culture, creating the types of criminal gangs and violence that we saw with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. But no Presidential candidate dares to suggest that this nightmare be ended.
11: Bloated Military Budget
Home of the brave, my ass. What kind of a country needs to spend more money on “defense” than all the other nations on earth combined and is still as collectively paranoid as a cuckolded husband in the throes of an amphetamine psychosis? A huge Military-Industrial complex overcharges taxpayers on a scale that makes the pharmaceutical industry look like Robin Hood. It’s the biggest financial scam in human history, but no serious candidate dares to say peep, less he or she be seen as unpatriotic. (In a less trivial time, this would be the #1 taboo issue.)
12: Question Israel’s Authority
Dear candidate. You may not seriously question or challenge Israel’s military policies or actions. My fellow Jews in Israel can, and they do it all the time, but you can’t. (Nyah nyah!) I guess it’s sort of like with black folks and the “N Word.” Except this is kinda like about war and peace in the Middle East and the future survival of humankind and stuff. Mazel Tov! Signed R.U. Sirius, a Jew.
13: Vote for me — I’m smart!
When we give someone an important job that engages a lot of complex problems, we usually want the smartest cookie we can find. But heck, Americans like Presidents that are just like them — simple-minded and borderline literate. Is this you?
Favorite book: A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
Favorite film: The Marriage of Maria Braun by Rainer Warner Fassbinder.
Favorite Album: Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass.
Favorite Job: Definitely not President.
14: Let’s Have More Democracy!
Representative democracy was a fine idea back when people were riding around in a horse-and-buggy and we didn’t have airplanes, phones, and portable devices connected to the internet – a series of tubes that does magical things! Now I can apparently register a signal about every issue I care about over an encrypted secure line that is more likely to be accurately registered than the vote I make on election day. Maybe we should think about direct democracy, rather than leaving policy to our elected representatives and the elites that gather around them. Now, direct democracy scares the crap out of me unless the power of the people is mitigated by a robust, libertarian system of rights protecting us all from the majority. Still, the tools for giving citizens agency are at hand and we may as well talk about it.
Of course, the only candidate talking about this is way out on the fringes – Mike Gravel. And he’s treated like a total lunatic. Oh, wait a second. He is a total lunatic.
15: The Nanny State
How coercive should the Federal government be? And do they have to stick their nose into everything? It’s a common discourse among libertarians and it’s a valid question. Do we really need the federal government to investigate television, movies, and video games? Should “This is bad for people” automatically translate into government action or even bluster? If you are what you eat, is it your personal right to be a ton of lard? Well, if you’re running for President, you’ve got to pay some lip service to taking on bad choices people make that might best be private.
16: “Think of the Children!”
All candidates must dance to the tune of “family values.” Nobody can suggest that remaining childfree could be one way of doing this overburdened planet a service. Should people get special privileges for having kids? And if we love kids so much, why do we let approximately 20% of them live in poverty? In American, the best family values can be found at Costco.
17: The Great Gun Debate? Irrelevant!
It’s all a bunch of populist hype. Nobody who is taken seriously is proposing to entirely ban guns or to even make it difficult for most citizens to get them. And nobody who is taken seriously is seriously proposing to completely deregulate guns. It’s all a lot of hand waving, so stick ’em up. Unless you’re running for President, in which case you better be televised hunting (Hillary?) while also waxing responsible.
18: Are Our Leaders Accountable?
Two administrations got something like 2 million people killed in Viet Nam. Another administration completely scammed all American laws during Iran-Contra and completely got away with it. And those guys in the White House now? Don’t get me started. But if you suggest that Henry or Ollie or George, Dick, and Donald should like maybe spend a few more days in jail than Paris Hilton, you will be portrayed as “way outside the mainstream” (unless you can find some sex tapes.)
19: The Prison-Industrial Complex
We’re warehousing a greater percentage of our people in iron cages than all the nations in the economically advanced and even semi-advanced world. (We’re kicking Russia and China’s ass!) It’s turning into a substantive form of slave labor with prisoners receiving anywhere from 8 cents to 15 cents per hour. It’s also a massive, partly privatized industry that will defend its vested economic interest in human incarceration. The prison industry is central to the economy of several counties in America. But don’t talk about it if you want to be elected President. For one thing, it’s too depressing.
20: I Shouted Out Who Killed The Kennedys
And they shouted back, “Who cares!” Some conspiracy theories are true and some are false. Congressional hearings in the 1970s concluded that the murders of JFK and Martin Luther King remained unsolved. You’d think that when we celebrate these men’s birthdays, we’d like to know who killed them, and if some of those people might still be alive and in positions of power. The majority of Americans believe in pretty much all the conspiracy theories, but they will also believe it when the media repeats over and over again that you’re too far outside the mainstream to be President if you bring up even the most plausible ones.