PULP Politics

10 Jan

Bush, then Clinton. Rinse. Repeat.

As probably the most-qualified candidate to be running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Richardson should have been the frontrunner for Democratic nominee by now. But as his own recent campaign ads suggested (they featured Richardson applying for a job and citing his qualifications to an uninterested interviewer), he was perhaps too qualified: a former ambassador to the UN, energy secretary in Bill Clinton’s cabinet and a freelance diplomat who negotiated the release of US hostages, he nonetheless was forced to drop out of the race today after poor performances in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

Within the next year, I will be living in the US, and despite the fact that—barring my relinquishing both my European passports—I shall never be able to vote in an American general election, it seems nevertheless important to parse exactly why the road to both presidential nominees has run like it has, if I am going to be an expatriate living in a country run by one of those two people. And on all ‘media’ fronts, the US is a dominant force, its movies, television shows, and its politicians internationally recognised. As I mentioned last time, the mass production and distribution of ‘culture‘ began to blur the high/low line from the late 19th into the 20th century, and the United States was instrumental in the development of the mass media.

A pulp entertainment sensibility eventually shifted into the world of mass media. Perhaps one way of preserving a sense of coherence in such a huge (and subsequently ungovernable) country came through this mass media, and presidential elections were no doubt a part of this. What better way to celebrate the new world but by watching coverage of an election—a reminder of the country’s history—distributed via television, an invention which would become a major part of its cultural future.

It seems to have become increasingly difficult with time (and with freer exchange of information and news—like this blog—exacerbating the situation) to separate the two halves of ‘political entertainment’. It is a highly ‘pulp’ dichotomy—what is real and what is affected; is it just style or is there some substance; should I be enjoying this or should I be pensively considering it? Of course these aren’t really separable, and don’t need to be, but, coming back to the presidential primaries, it is now a double-edged sword. Candidates ‘play’ the media as much as the news networks exploit their every act and word.

Media branding for candidates—the ‘low’ exploitation on the campaign trail of the press corps which promotes the ‘high’ political message of the politicians—is how the public consciousness is determined. A quick example:

Hillary Clinton a Clinton & a woman
Barack Obama – a newbie & a black man
John McCain – a ‘straight-talker’ & a war hero
Mike Huckabee – a Baptist minister & a Nice Guy

If we accept that the qualifications aren’t paramount (Richardson out, Biden out, Huckabee in, Giuliani in), then clearly the key factors become a) how well-funded is s/he and b) how well does s/he play that intersection between high and low, between style and substance. It is Pulp Politics. The modern media brand is as important as their message. And the brand costs money.

Who wouldn’t want to elect a black man (even if, semantic discussions of the term “black” aside, he is of mixed-race) or a woman to the White House for the first time. So these points aside, Clinton and Obama have focused on the experience Vs. innovation argument. Clinton’s name essentially equates to ‘experience’ via association (with a touch of ‘Rodham’ thrown in for good measure); but a mixed race Senator with an odd name such as Barack Hussein Obama automatically conveys the new.

The Democrat nomination process is basically a two-horse race now. Personally, Obama is certainly an inspiring orator, and he has often evaded attacks from opponents simply based on rhetorical skill, coupled with his evident intellect. Hillary Clinton’s comment suggesting that he was a talker providing “false hope”, for example, was parsed very carefully by Obama in his response. After all, it is true that you cannot have ‘false’ hope—you either hope or you do not. But at the same time, the argument stands. We all know what Clinton means, and a relatively inexperienced senator with no foreign experience—no matter how well he speaks—could prove a bad long-term choice.

On the Republican side, as the critics love to say, the field is still wide open. Huckabee’s win in Iowa was certainly buoyed by his ground support and evangelical communities, but his resemblance to Obama in his ability to connect with voters and to demonstrate a warmth of character unlike the other GOP candidates may be all hot air. After all, in 2000 people chose the candidate whom they would most like to have a beer with—the Nice Guy—and it’s fair to say that George W Bush has not much endeared himself to the world. Other candidates stick to their media message too closely, such as Giuliani (his sentences, as Joe Biden said, consisting of “a noun, a verb, and 9/11”) as the world’s terrorism-expert mayor, Romney, who sticks so much on media-message that his Spiel changes every time, or McCain, whose dogged second outing for his “straight-talk express” only garners more support than the others because he seems believable and genuine.

And therein lies the key. It’s all well and good to play the pulp politician, but we need some substance, some cultural worth, and some honesty filtered through the low-brow mass media image in order to retain faith in the candidate, and to overlook their self-aggrandising. Hence Huckabee’s and Obama’s success, and Romney’s failure. As Hillary’s tears showed this week, whether the honesty is honest or not is not the main issue, so long as it is convincing.

What the US has been so proficient at creating, through the advent of pulp culture, is exactly what they need right now—an icon. As one political writer put it, imagine that you were in a country where your only contact with US politics was television news. After eight years and two wars under the previous President, on the screen comes an image of the new American President, an icon standing not only for the US, but also as the leader of the western world.

That image has iconic status globally, and I think that in choosing whom it should be, that this iconography of the USA is just as important as any other consideration. And who would I vote for, if I could? Well, Bill Richardson—but he wasn’t playing the low- and high-brow at the right ratio and couldn’t quite catapult himself to front running star status. Hopefully we can get some quality pulp out of those remaining contenders who manage to convey a genuineness about their campaigns. I for one would be a happy enough expat under a President McCain or President Obama.

Some references: Thanks to and thoughts from various news sources, including the Guardian, Slate, the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and other bloggers, including Andrew Sullivan and Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic, various people at the New York Times Caucus blog, Mickey Kaus and others at Slate.


3 Responses to “PULP Politics”

  1. Indy January 11, 2008 at 4:21 am #

    Well. I don’t agree with everything, and particularly not with your lack of fear about McCain… he’s an old man and has been largely a puppet for the last couple of years, and I, for one, am very very unhappy with the thought of him – or any of the Republican candidates – as president. Just look, sweetie, at their stances on immigration! They don’t like the furners! But yes, well argued. And I’m glad you care about our piddly little politics.

  2. DLR January 11, 2008 at 8:27 am #

    True – his immigration policy seems to have changed often, though it’s never really appealing. I still think, though, that he’s the best of a bad bunch (of possible Republican nominees). Romney changes every 5 seconds (though may have been less alienating if he stuck to his centrist technocrat stances as governor of MA), Giuliani is (the official term) batshit crazy, and Huckabee is ignorant on foreign policy and running on religion.

    Trust me, though – I’d prefer any of the remaining Democrats… especially if they’re making immigration policy.


  3. Indy January 11, 2008 at 9:28 pm #

    We just have to get you here before the new pres comes into office. (Unless they’re going to make it easier, but since you’re not Mexican and not trying to steal some job in a factory in southern Tennessee, for instance, I doubt the fiance stuff will change much anyway.) Further thoughts about bad Republicans: Huckabee, Romney, McCain all dedicated pro-lifers. Oy. Guiliani? He changes on that front all the time, but I think in the light of his “Conservative Revolution,” he’ll probably come down on the anti-choice side. ‘Course, not all the Dems are fantastic on that front either. We should just move to Holland.

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