Guest Post: “Where is My Half Glass?”

The brilliant Robert E. Prasch, an economist at Middlebury College, reflects on the Obama Presidency.

President Obama, Where Is My “Half Glass”?

By Robert E. Prasch

Since deftly managing the Congressional “debate” over health care to eliminate the public option, the White House has found itself criticized increasingly by voices from within the Democratic Party. President Obama and his spokespersons were irritated to discover the following: those Democrats who wrote the checks, pounded the pavement, and got out the vote for “Change You Can Believe In,” really wanted change.  Who knew?  Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod and the President himself have all made it clear that they view such critics as childish “purists” unsatisfied with a “glass half full.”  I have only one question.  “Where is my half glass”?

Let us briefly review the administration’s performance on four areas of great concern to those who supported Barak Obama in 2008.  These include the financial crisis & economy, the endless Bush wars, the shocking erosion of civil liberties, and increasing unaffordable health care.

Less than one month after the historic November 2008 election, we were informed that “Hope and Change” would include neither the financial sector nor the economy. This occurred on November 28th with the announcement of two critical appointments.  The first was that of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a chief architect of the policies that set the groundwork for the 2007-2009 financial crisis, to head President Obama’s National Economic Council.  The second was that of Timothy Geithner, former Clinton Undersecretary of the Treasury and then President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (NYFRB), as the new US. Treasury Secretary.  Geithner informed the US. House of Representatives –very truthfully– that he “had never been a regulator.”  The sad part is that the Federal Reserve and specifically the NYFRB has a substantial role in bank regulation and regulatory policy, a role in which he clearly and most publically failed. Several months after taking office, President Obama declared that he would reappoint Ben Bernanke to chair the Federal Reserve System.  With these three leading the way, can we be surprised that the Obama Administration never devised serious policies or took substantial action on financial reform, Too Big To Fail banks, rampant mortgage and bank fraud, high and persistent unemployment, or mortgage relief?.  Can we be surprised to learn that his idea of a jobs program was to push through President Bush’s “Free Trade” agreements?  Is anyone surprised to learn that he is now considering cuts to Social Security?

By contrast to the economy, candidate Obama frequently stated his commitment to Bush’s Middle East wars.  His attachment to the status quo was signaled the day after the Summers/Geithner announcement when it was revealed that he would reappoint Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates (This, of course, was the same Robert Gates who narrowly avoided indictment for lying to Congress over his role in the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra Affair).  Officially, the US war on Iraq ended this past summer, but that event occurred according to a timetable set up by Bush–and only because Obama could not negotiate blanket immunity for US soldiers in the wake of the Wikileaks revelations.   Before shifting to another topic, I would also advise readers to take a moment to review the size of the “training” and “security staff” that have been left behind in Iraq, along with the size of the forces stationed in Kuwait and the other Gulf States.  Do not think for a millisecond that anyone in the Middle East is unaware of the size and lethality of the army and naval armada the US has stationed in their midst.  (For those who may imagine that this is about “promoting democracy” in the region, I have a one-word refutation – Bahrain.  YouTube has numerous videos featuring Bahraini police, and their ally, the Saudi Arabian army, shooting peaceful protestors.  And let us refrain from discussing the almost daily atrocities occurring in Egypt, or the out-of-control predator drone program).

What of civil liberties?  Here the record is genuinely appalling.  The prisoners of Guantanamo Bay continue to languish without proper judicial hearings, and the extended pre-trial treatment of Bradley Manning is criminal by any standard of measure.  Obama’s vigorous attack on whistleblowers who shed light on the idiocy and mendacity of the bloated bureaucracies associated with the national security apparatus is an ongoing scandal.  In fairness, candidate Obama did “tip his hand” on these issues when he suspended his campaign so that he could fly to Washington to vote in favor of retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies that violated the law, and profited mightily from, working with Bush and Cheney on illegal wiretapping programs.  Moreover, he has never deviated from Nancy Pelosi’s early insistence on blanket immunity for all Bush administration officials who lied to Congress, promoted or engaged in torture, war crimes, etc. The record, apparently, is not sordid enough.  On December 23rd 2011 Obama signed a bill co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain granting the President, on his own whim, the ability to imprison anyone, anywhere — American citizen or not — for an indefinite period without an attorney, charge, jury trial, or any other kind or variety of review.  Goodbye 4th Amendment, you will be missed.

Finally, a word about “health care reform.”  This bill neither “gives” nor “provides” anyone with health care or health insurance.  On the contrary, it mandates that everyone purchase his or her own policy.  There is a some commitment to providing subsidies to those who cannot afford a policy – but anyone who has ever followed politics knows what will happen to it when budget cutting season returns (they also know that when the subsidies go, the mandate will surely stay).  The bill also embodies a vague commitment to reducing health care costs that is not worth the paper upon which it was written.  Elementary economics tells us that if health insurance policies are subsidized they will rise in price.  This tendency will be even more pronounced if people are forbidden from deploying their single greatest negotiating tool – the threat to leave the market altogether.  Obama’s “accomplishment,” if we can call it that, is to provide even more money and market power to the single largest obstacle to affordable health care – the private insurance companies.

Alarmed by trends in the then-new administration, columnist Bob Herbert called attention to them while identifying a core flaw in the thought processes of its apologists, “Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barak Obama is in the White House” (New York Times, June 22nd, 2009).  Two years have passed since Herbert wrote these words.  So I ask again, if Obama’s 2008 supporters have received a “half glass” on the four issues summarized above, then where is it?  At this point, I can’t even see the glass.

Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College where he teaches courses on Monetary Theory and Policy, Macroeconomics, the History of Economic Thought, and American Economic History.  His latest book is How Markets Work: Supply, Demand and the ‘Real World’ (Edward Elgar, 2008)

Voting Model #3: The “Lesser of Two Evils”

This one gets trotted out around March of every election year. And around March of election year, I stop reading, or even casually glancing, at the Nation and every other pseudo-liberal magazine whose writers stuff their critical perspectives deep into the back of their closets—you know—the perspectives that they used to criticize the incumbent for the prior three years—in order to jump on the “lesser of two evils” bandwagon. And the chorus goes something like this: “Who would you rather have? The Democratic candidate who’s pro-choice (see VM #2) or the Republican candidate who’s anti-abortion?” This refrain is usually followed up by, “He (the Democrat) is the lesser of two evils,” after all.

Here’s the translation on the chorus: “Who would you rather have? The good looking, charming, suave, well-dressed, ivy-leaguer with New England reserve and Northern accent? Or the ignorant fratboy with the menacing smile, crude manners, and vacuous personality who so reminds me of the bad guy in any James Bond movie that I’d rather jump off a bridge to my death than be forced to shake hands with him (again, see VM #2)?” And just in case y’all think I’m picking on Obama, go back and reread the Nation in 1992 (Bill Clinton v. George Bush I), 1996 (Bill Clinton v. Bob Dole), 2000 (Al Gore v. George Bush II), and 2004 (John Kerry v. George Bush II).

And here’s the translation on the “lesser of two evils” refrain: Sure, there isn’t much distinguishing them: they’re both neo-liberals on economic policy[1]; they both want to cut Social Security and Medicare; they’re both pro-war, pro-imperialist expansion, pro-warrantless surveillance, pro-rendition, pro-indefinite detention.

But still, we have to vote for the Democrat, because there are some IMPORTANT differences, after all: The Dem is pro-choice (see VM #2), he’s pro-environment (see VM #2)[1]; and the Democrat wants healthcare reform.

At bottom, the refrain really means: “Hey, Bill/Al/John/ is one of us (see VM #1). He talks like us; he went to school where we went/wanted to go (even though the Georges did also); he seems like someone I’d be friends with, and after all, I’d vote for my friend if he was running, so….” Huh? This is what counts as “the lesser of two evils”?

Evil is evil. Period. It can’t be quantified, unless you’re a Benthamite utilitarian and you’re ok with selling out black and brown folks overseas for some more time to rest nice and comfy in your own house. Black and brown folks—especially poor black and brown folks– at home have not been sold out; they’ve just never been allowed to buy in. The reproductive rights of black women have been taken away time and time again—through forced sterilization, through the absence of access to reproductive service and medication, and through the absence of access to affordable healthcare—and no, Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts’ mandatory purchase-healthcare (which was the model for national healthcare) does NOT solve that problem. What about the civil rights of black men, you ask? Wait, I’m don’t understand. What are those? Are those the ones that the Democrats signed away in the 1996 “3-strikes You’re out” bill, which managed to find a way to put away an even larger swath of black men and other men of color. As of 2002, over 2 million were imprisoned–remember, this is before the War on Terror was well underway. What about the civil liberties of brown and Muslim men? Umm, have you not been paying attention?

So to folks who buy into this model: please don’t pretend that you are voting for someone who will enable better possibilities for someone other than you–certainly not for migrants and U.S. indigent, poor, or working-class folks of color. You may be voting for someone who will maintain the status quo for yourself and others in your socio-economic class. That’s fine. But imperious self-righteousness is hardly a good argument. And don’t worry, you’re being sold out, too.

A vote for a “lesser” evil is still a vote for evil. And the 12th hour urge/guilt-trip/admonishment to vote for the Democrat is a bit like hurling a bucket of water at a house that’s going down in flames because you surrounded the fireplace with parched Christmas trees and then started a blazing fire. Yes, it’s an emergency, and supposedly some water may be better than none, and yes, I understand that we’re supposed to band together to put out the fire. But we let the damn fire happen in the first place. That election fire can’t be put out by a few buckets of water (aka, a last-minute capitulation to the “lesser of two evils” guilt-trip).

Look, the Democrats have been kicking liberal/progressive types in the teeth for at least the last twenty years. “Vote for us,” they say, “else this country will be sold out.” Vote for us, or else you’ll have a deregulated banking industry. Vote for us or else you’ll have spies everywhere, warrantless surveillance, bankers gone wild, payoffs to the rich, and your reproductive rights will be peeled back. Vote for us, or else you’ll lose your civil liberties. So, we’re supposed to vote for Democrats in order to be protected from the havoc that the Republicans could cause. Hm. But as I recall, Bill Clinton signed a series of bills into law— Immigration Reform, Anti-Terrorism, Welfare Reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Glass-Steagall Act–among others, that heralded much of the bleak world in which we now live. Al Gore, John Kerry, and even Hilary Clinton were on the same bandwagon (remember the “are you tough enough to push the button ads?)

Hand in hand with this argument, is the loyalty supposedly articulated by George Clooney, which has been righteously circulating around Facebook: “I’m a firm believer in sticking by and sticking up for the people whom you’ve elected.” (Is it too coy to point out that this quote comes from a man who just dumped his umpteenth lover?) Unconditional loyalty is for sports teams, your family/friends, and your pets.

Ah…if only the Democrats could heed the loyalty argument for their constituencies. Stick by us and we’ll stick by you. Anything else is nothing short of an abusive relationship: you kick your voters in the teeth and then insist you love us and that we can’t throw you out.

So, what to do? I’ll respond more in a future post, but in the meantime, let me just say this: the national elections don’t matter at this point. We need to work on local races, local elections, alternative institutions. And why do we need to accept the “two-party option” that grounds the “lesser of two evils” vote? In the short term, we have no options. But we need to retain a historical memory, and build with a view to the long-term future. Abusive relationships need to be abandoned.


[1] see NAFTA (1993), Glass-Steagall Act (1999), Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act (1994), Colombia, South Korea, Panama Free Trade Agreements (introduced by George II during his time in office, but remained unpassed. These free-trade agreements were passed recently in October 2011), the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (2000), among others.

Voting Model #2: The “pro-choice/environmentally friendly” vote

In this post, I continue down my list of problematic presidential election voting models. Today’s model, #2 on that list, seems to have become a very popular one over the last two decades.  Most people who consider themselves progressive think it’s a good idea to look for candidates who are pro-choice or environmentally friendly. I find it to be a fairly problematic one for several reasons.

1. It’s not clear that this category is an accurate or satisfactory litmus test of the political credentials of the candidate. I want to be clear: I am furiously, firmly, steadfastly, immovably in favor of reproductive rights and active protection of the environment. But a presidential candidate who claims to be pro-choice does not necessarily have a commitment to support legislation that protects reproductive rights.  In fact, the very language of “choice” is a regressive language, as Marlene Fried reminds us: it recalls a language of individualism. One can be pro-choice and against abortion (yes).  It allows a broad and ambiguous base of support for “reproductive rights.”

2. Being pro-choice or green can be a social stance without any structural teeth. One can be pro-choice and still not be an active advocate for the distribution of public monies to support reproductive rights for women who may not have funds or transportation easy access to the services.  It would be important/enlightening to scrutinize the candidate’s pro-choice platform with regard to her/his position on the following: social services; the allocation of government monies for social services; public aid; health insurance (and remember health insurance doesn’t guarantee access to reproductive services), the endorsement of better access to social services (like public transportation, location of clinic  in rural areas, the availability of advocates and medical personnel who can be comforting supports to women seeking reproductive services, etc.).

3. A pro-choice candidate is not automatically a progressive candidate; it’s possible to be pro-choice and environmentally friendly and be a libertarian or liberal (without ever naming him/herself as such). A libertarian pro-choice candidate might say that the state needs neither to interfere  nor prohibit nor support a woman’s reproductive decisions (as reflected by the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits monies for abortion services to be extended through Medicaid). By extension, the liberartarian also need not endorse legislation that distributes monies or services that enable access to reproductive decisions.  A liberal pro-choice candidate might articulate a “strong” commitment to reproductive rights, again, without endorsing legislation to enables women to make use of those rights.  A liberal pro-choice candidate can still subscribe to conservative family ideologies that limit access to reproductive rights.  Similarly, a self-described “pro-environment/green” candidate need not be progressive; they can be libertarian or liberal –or downright conservative, endorsing anti-immigration policies on the dubious grounds that immigrants that destroy our environment (and if they do so, it’s in order to provide services to wealthy Americans). One also wonders how immigrants become the villains, while DuPont, Dow, and BP are seen as real environmental heroes.

4. Pro-choice/green candidates typically don’t describe themselves as liberal or libertarian. This is a no-brainer: they/their handlers are trying to cast as wide a net for voters as possible, and it’s easier to insinuate one’s pro-choice/green politics in order to attract a wide constituency. I mean, really: can any one ever seriously “be against” the environment? In many ways, a “green” (and often, a pro-choice) stance is more of rhetorically appealing than it is informative.

Rather than be taken in by a candidate’s “pro-choice” stance, it’s probably more effective to explore whether a pro-choice candidate iis also pro-social services, pro-civil liberties or whether they are pro-corporation, pro-banks, against progressive taxation for the upper 1%, might give us a better sense of how substantial or facile their pro-choice/green stance really is.

By the way, there are women in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan (countries formerly or currently under assault by the United States). I’m betting those women also care about reproductive rights.  When considering a pro-choice candidate, it might be important to ask what their position on invading those countries is. It might also be informative to ask what 10 years of cluster bombs and depleted uranium deposits have done to the reproductive systems of women in Iraq? It might be equally as informative to find out how 10 years of bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, oil fires in Kuwait and Iraq, and other chemical assaults have affected women.

This issue brings up the additional question of “which constituencies” one aligns oneself with when one votes.  It may not be a conscious alignment, but it forms the contours of our voting preferences.  Voting for a candidate on a single (seemingly uncomplicated) issue such as reproductive rights or the environment, when his/her stance on issues such as war, invasions, and empire is credibly supportive tells us that the voter (that’s you) has chosen certain constituencies to favor (e.g., “women” qua women in the United States) to protect over others such as international civilian population (who include women of color, non-wealthy women, children) who will be innocently subjected to drone attacks, bombs, covert wars. These international civilian populations will surely also include black and brown men, and if the last decade is any indication, often Muslim men and women.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a cost-benefit vote. One calculates the cost of voting for a president who has promised to be pro-“choice”/”pro”-environment while also promising to invade other countries with the anticipation of large casualties. If this is your model, then okay. But keep in mind that you are trading hostages in the process, and the casualties will still be casualties as the result of your political choices.

Can these casualties be mitigated? Hard to say. It’s not clear whether a presidential candidate who puts forth pro-choice/environmentally friendly in lieu of/without committing to progressive stances on structural and foreign policy issues will actually support pro-choice or environmental issues. Over the last few decades, we have become all too familiar with this trade-off.

A more effective approach would be to explore whether a presidential candidate who claims to be in favor of protecting reproductive rights is also in favor of protecting social services, access to health care, and civil liberties or whether s/he is aligned with protecting corporations, banks, health insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies.  This might give us a better sense of whether a pro-choice/green stance is really substantial or merely facile.

Voting Model #1 cont’d: “They’re so interesting…I would love to have dinner with them” vote

A friend told me the other night that her mother voted for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential elections because she thought Roslyn Carter looked uptight, whereas Nancy Reagan seemed much more appealing. I think that many folks find this voting model appealing, even if not consciously, and I wonder why. A similar logic has become the basis of a popular college-application question: Who would you most like to have dinner with, and why? Eager college applicants (myself included) choose unusual famous figures who will somehow reflect how impressive the essay-writer really is. Applicant gets accepted to her favorite college and somehow internalizes the logic: namely that the famous figure with whom she wants to have dinner reflects something admirable about herself.

I ended my previous post by pointing out that people will believe whatever you tell them you are, even if that self-representation is, let’s say, less than completely precise. That’s not such a bad thing in most areas of our lives. We all have certain versions of ourselves that we’d prefer that people see. When folks do see our preferred versions of ourselves, we make them our friends and lovers. When they see us differently from our preferred self-representations, we fight, reconcile, forgive or break up with those friends. And we also have tendencies to change or want to change our self-representations. This is why it was so popular to “go west, young man.” If you wanted to “remake” yourself, you moved to a new place with a new version of yourself and made new friends (it’s also why totalized surveillance in the form of FBI databases and CIA fusion centers are problematic—but that’s for another post).

I take away several things from this:

1. We tend to be friends with folks because we like their self-representations. But we’re not necessarily harmed when they change their self-representations, in large part because their actions probably don’t have an immediate impact on us. So, if I have a friend who was pro-union in college but becomes a union-busting lobbyist afterward, I may not respect her for it, but I can probably live with it–as long as we never discuss her work. Depending upon the nature of our friendship, I might take up the option of calling her out on it, discussing, reconciling, disagreeing, or ultimately ending the friendship because I am so troubled by her vocation (Yes, I know that Aristotle wrote about different types of friendship). But the consequences can be managed, at least at a personal level.

2. We think well of our friends, and can even imagine supporting them for office because we like and support who (we think) they are. But in most cases, we’re not called upon to do so, because for most of us, our friends don’t run for office. And we may like/deal with friends whose principles are odds for us, but we don’t have support them financially, work on their campaigns, or vote for them. We can even withdraw our support for family members whose politics we disagree with. See for example, Candace Gingrich-Jones on her brother, Newt.

3. The opposite conclusion is more problematic: voting for someone because we like their self-representations, or because we can imagine them being our friends. The image that they project may not (usually is not) accurate (more on this below). The effects of voting for someone whose self-representation is inaccurate/misleading/deceptive could lead to widespread and disastrous results for many more folks than just myself. Of course, it could have a happy opposite effect, but I can’t think of any examples.

On the accuracy of public self-representations: Walter Benjamin has a brilliant essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There are many insights to be gleaned from this piece, written in 1936. Benjamin points out how the invention of the camera enables a forum that influences, even prescribes, how a true emotion is reflected publicly. The “authenticity” of the emotion, which we might otherwise ascribe through our myriad interactions with a person, can now be extracted through the trust of the camera. At the end of Casablanca, we get a 3 second screen shot of Ingrid Bergman’s eyes filled with tears as Humphrey Bogart assures her that they’ll always have Paris. We know that this means their love was true, their love was lost, and Bergman’s heart is broken. As Benjamin notes so wisely, “This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” (Benjamin 1936, VIII). Can Ingrid really be sad if her eyes aren’t filled with tears? Can Bogey really be heartbroken if he’s not drowning his sorrows in whiskey?

Judgments about the moral stature of a person (in the public eye) are suspect to begin with, especially if they’re based on physical features, fashion sense, or weight (think about the snarky comments about New Jersey governor Chris Christie when he was reported to consider running for president). But he’s also one of the few politicos who nominated (AND defended) the appointment of a South Asian Muslim lawyer to the New Jersey Superior Court.

(I know that Benjamin has a much deeper critique about the convergence of capitalism and technology, aesthetics, and the evacuation of authenticity through the vehicle of mass reproduction, about which much more can be said. Really, I do. I already mentioned that his essay was brilliant.)

On political judgments based on public persona: What does a charming smile, gentle temperament, or well-modulated voice tell us about a person’s political convictions? President Lyndon B. Johnson managed to push through some pretty decent civil rights and affirmative action legislation, rough redneck though he was. On the other hand, his foreign policy decisions left much to be desired. But his personality didn’t necessarily reveal that much except he was an interesting character to quote in newspaper articles.

On the political character of a candidate based on their spouse: Yes, I too was enamored of Michelle Obama. I love (what I think) I see of her character, her accomplishments, her ideas (those that were publicly aired), her beauty. But her public persona tells us very little about her spouse’s political judgments and capacities. It doesn’t even tell us that much about the caliber of the White House dinners that (in a classic patriarchal holdover) as First Lady, she is supposed to be overseeing.

On the romantic, heroic, character of a political candidate, based on his and his public-relations firm’s stories about his upbringing, see Saturday’s post.

Conclusion:

A public figure with charm, good-storytelling skills, and heroic background (i.e. someone I’d like to have as a dinner guest) ≠ good political commitments, political sense, conviction, or administrative skills. Our judgments about a candidate based on video clips, numerous though they be, are fairly undependable.

NB: Perhaps this post is ridiculously obvious. But before November 2008, how many times did you think that Obama’s polished, charming, cosmopolitan self would guarantee us much more progressive politics than Bush’s crude, fratboyish presence?


Indefinite detention: Business as usual. What now?

Yesterday marked a new low in the history of the lows of the Obama administration. After months of threatening to veto S. 1867, the Military Authorization and Detention Act that enables the federal government and any enforcement branch to stop, arrest, intercept and detain indefinitely any American citizen on suspicion of terrorism, President Obama declared his intention to sign it.

Now before anyone gets too upset about Obama changing his mind, let’s remember that the President didn’t threaten to veto it because of its mind-numbing expansion of federal powers. As Glenn Greenwald points out, Obama was concerned that it would bite into his executive powers too much, restricting him from completely and unabashedly deciding who could be detained indefinitely, who would be prevented from having a trial, or who could be picked up for interrogation by the CIA and the FBI. So, in other words, Obama didn’t object to S. 1867 on civil liberties grounds.

In other words, it’s business as usual for the Obama Administration. As a friend of mine asked: What now?

As I’ve gloated on Facebook, I warned folks about this precise moment in 2008: if we voted for Obama hoping that he would be our heroic knight riding in to rescue us from the evils of President Bush, we were going to be really disappointed. I didn’t suggest that John McCain would be any better, but I was fairly confident that Barack Obama had promised us to continue the incursion into other countries as well as into our civil liberties and protections. And I was worried about the ground upon which friends (and the rest of the country were voting).

I will forgo a long list of all the things that the Obama Administration has done that violate the principles that I hold dear (principles such as protecting vulnerable folks; not targeting and outcasting minority groups and migrants; personal and cyber- privacy; protection from warrantless search and seizure; giving criminal suspects fair trials and due process; allowing folks to feel protected from undue foreclosures and forced evictions; protecting state and union pension funds; etc.). If you want such a list, I’d suggest reading the last three years of posts by Glenn Greenwald, who has done a remarkably effective job of chronicling those violations.

Instead, I thought it might be a good idea to explore different models of voting during presidential elections that seem to have been popular in the past, and to examine the pros and cons of each in the hopes of avoiding those mistakes that brought us openly neoliberal presidents and now threaten, by dissatisfaction and default, to bring us some pretty Neanderthal candidates as viable options. Note that none of these models are mutually exclusive, and can be used in conjunction with any of the others. I’ll post one model per day (though probably not every day). There are at least four models so far, and I’ll list them to whet your appetites, and talk about one of them today.

1. The “They’re so interesting/cool/intellectual/charming, I would love to have dinner with him and his wife” vote.

2. The “At least they’re pro-choice/environmentally-friendly” vote.

3. The “Lesser of Two Evils” vote.

4. The “With this vote, racism is a thing of the past” vote.

Today, I’ll offer a couple thoughts on model #1:

The “They’re so interesting/cool/intellectual/charming, I would love to have dinner with him and his wife” vote.

This was a model that seemed to have been very popular in the 1992, 2004, and 2008 elections. It was used to vote in successfully our (neo-liberal) 41st president (Bill Clinton), unsuccessfully the candidate for the 42nd president (John Kerry), and again successfully our current president Barack Obama.

This, as troubling as it seemed to me (not least of which because there was no world in which I wanted to have dinner with Bill or Hillary Clinton), was a popular refrain on an East Coast liberal arts campus where I lived. “It would be so cool to have dinner with him/her. Wow, they’re such interesting people,” I heard colleagues say in 1992.

We all know of folks who are charming, entertaining, worldly dinner guests. They tell great stories about their childhoods, like having been in the middle of world-historic moments where they interviewed Che Guevara for the high school newspaper and he shared his stash of cigars and rum with them, or how they were in the middle of integration in their St. Louis high school, or how they grew up poor with a single mother. They’re (much smarter) versions of Forrest Gump (no offense intended here). But we also know that charming folks aren’t necessarily good administrators, and in fact, good story-tellers are…good story-tellers. Good story-tellers, whose stories have some semblance of truth, offer visions of a beautiful world that can burnish a fairly ordinary moment in time.

Focusing on someone’s charm also distracts us from some of the less than charming things that s/he may have done or is in the midst of—like having pushed through a mean little welfare reform bill (“workfare”–Clinton’s cute little innovation) in Arkansas when governor in 1980, that required women to list the names of the fathers of their children in order to be eligible for state aid. Um, the same bill that prefigured the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA). Oh, yeah. That. But he is charming.

As a friend says, “People will believe whatever you tell them you are, even when you tell them a bald-faced lie.”