Herman Cain–the Politician as Entertainer

I enjoyed T.A. Franks’ article about Cain in the New York Times Magazine. He takes note of Cain’s “unrelenting self-absorption, even by the standards of a politician” and his “zero interest in policy.” He explains that Cain learned most of what he learned about politics “from heated right-wing callers on talk radio. ‘Epistemic closure’ is probably too mild a term for such conditions.” And he makes the point that Cain’s appeal isn’t a matter of cynical calculation–of Tea Partiers’ wielding an anti-Obama to cancel out the real one, while proving to the world that they’re not prejudiced. “People, for the most part, believe what they say they believe,” Franks says. “You don’t get 80-year-olds traveling to Oklahoma to support a candidate to prove that they’re unprejudiced. You get that because when they say they love Herman Cain, they mean that they love Herman Cain.” People like Cain so much because he glows with confidence, self-love, and certainty–because he looks and sounds like a winner–and not to put too find a point on it, a savior.

If epistemic closure has hurt Herman Cain, it has also helped him.

Cain…likes to tell his audience that callers to his show went from “concerned” to “frightened” for the nation’s future. This, too, is true. More than any other candidate, Cain has managed to connect to those Americans — yet, unlike Sarah Palin, he has done it by unleashing optimism rather than bitterness. He can articulate a crowd’s worst fears — America is falling apart, weakening in the world, suffering economic carnage — and then reassure everyone that, no worries, we can fix it. If any candidate were able to relate to voters in this way and have a clue what he or she was talking about (there, in Cain’s case, is the rub), that person would be unstoppable.

Desperate people tend to latch onto sudden redeemers, but those sudden redeemers usually fade away pretty fast. (Even Rick Perry, with all his strength on the ground, may suffer that fate.) For all his mistakes, for all the many preposterous flubs, Herman Cain has stuck around for a remarkably long time.

It’s the Reagan thing again and it’s the Obama thing too. If we on the left are going to be honest with ourselves we have to recognize that part of the reason Obama is in so much trouble today is because too many of us really did believe, as McCain accused us doing, that Obama was “the One.” But there’s an extra-political dimension to Cain’s ascendance too, and it’s so shallow that we tend to overlook it. The same dynamic that explains why, say, the Kardashians are so popular, or Snookie, or Sarah Palin, or (momentarily) Donald Trump also helps explain Cain. He reads well on TV–he is a reality star. Some people love reality stars as larger, better-looking versions of themselves, as the people they aspire to be, or as exasperating frenemies who are as irresistible as they are annoying. But that’s too abstract, too psychological. What reality stars all have in common is that they’re entertainers whose great talent is seeming to be themselves. And so, more and more, are our politicians. Decades ago, in the early years of television, Richard Hofstadter recognized that “the growth of the mass media of communication” has “made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved.”

Hofstadter also wrote about the phenomenon of “status politics,” which he defined as “the effort of Americans of diverse cultural and moral persuasions to win reassurance that their values are respected by the community at large…Status politics seeks not to advance perceived material interests but to express grievances and resentments about such matters, to press claims upon society to give deference to non-economic values.”

As prejudiced as Tea Partiers in the aggregate may or may not be, Cain isn’t an African American politician to them so much as he is an African American entertainer who makes them feel good about themselves. It doesn’t matter that his 999 tax program would raise most of their taxes, because his appeal has nothing to do with taxes. It doesn’t matter if he’s pro-Choice, any more than it matters that the Kardashians are sluttish. It doesn’t matter if he hits on the women he works with either, any more than it matters that Sarah Palin’s daughter got knocked up–it just makes him (as Bristol’s peccadilloes made her mother) seem that much more authentic–although it will be interesting to see what happens to Cain’s positives if it turns out that one or more of his accusers are white. The point is that Cain reflects their status aspirations and/or resentments. He’s Christian, he’s Southern, he’s optimistic, and he’s anti-intellectual. He pays lip service to an ideal of America–the land where everyone can get ahead and where common sense and entrepreneurialism count for more than education–that they feel they have lost. And on top of that, he sings and tells jokes.

All of this crop of Republicans is basically selling hate–hatred of foreigners, of educated elitists, of non-Christians, of secularists, of feminists and gays. But the ones who can sell it the most effectively are the ones who know how to wrap it up in love. Cain’s self love has been so overflowing that it’s like annointing oil. When he starts to show his anger more clearly–which he will as things go less and less his way–a lot of his charisma is going to go away.



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