Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Political Crowds and Me

President Obama will be visiting UW Madison this afternoon--the first president since Truman to visit. That makes it "historic" in the loose sense newspapers use the term.

I'm not bothering to go.

It would be inconvenient, though not overwhelmingly so, but even if it was a snap to show up and get a reserved front row spot, the spot would stand empty.

It's not just because I consider the man a misguided empty suit. I'd offer the same somnolent enthusiasm to a similar visit by President Bush, a man I came to respect.

Does anybody remember John Anderson? Back in 1980 he came to the University of Illinois as part of his presidential campaign. I'd heard the buzz about him, and I went to hear him. He unburdened himself of his standard stump speech, tailored for UI, and left.

If the purpose of the effort was communication, it utterly failed. I'd heard it all before. I concluded that day that if I wanted to find out what a candidate thought, going to campaign rallies was inefficient, and also probably the most boring method available. The script was going to always be the same, with fill-in-the-blanks for the football team and the local pols. There'd be no "Churchill at Westminster College" moments.

I've not attended a campaign rally since. I've talked with a candidate or two running for local office--that's much more interesting and perhaps even useful. But for President, or Senator, or Congresscritter? The speech has nothing much to do with the candidate's real goals--it's been polished by spin doctors and PR people to sound as nice as possible without saying anything substantive. Possible dissenters in the crowd are cordoned far away so that no hint of disagreement taints the love fest. What's there to learn?

But of course that's just me. I'm an Apollonian sort in a rather Dionysian culture; one who just gets a headache from football cheers and just can't seem to care much whether the Cubs win the championship this year. I assume they will sooner or later--Dante told us the lowest circle of Hell was frozen over.

Which leads me to wonder what purposes rallies have. Maybe there's something I'm leaving out.

First and foremost, the rally is an opportunity for the faithful to commit darsan with the illustrious visitor. Laugh, but we all do it--I'd go see Neil Armstrong, even if I knew I'd not get to meet him.

Second, the rally gets everyone together to hear the message. As I said this is terribly inefficient, which makes me think this really isn't a major function anymore.

Third, it is an opportunity to be part of a community enthusiastic about a cause. You come blase, and leave excited ("Oh whip me, whip me into a frenzy with your cries and cheers and freighted words!"). I'm not a huge fan of manufactured enthusiasm, but I can imagine that connecting with other people is good even when shaped like this. The key for me is not the community, but the cause. Is it worthy of my enthusiasm and devotion? Getting pol A elected instead of pol B generally isn't. Defeating slavery or abortion, or championing safe working conditions--yes.

Fourth, it is an opportunity to encourage others in the cause--to make them feel as though the support is great and the victory inevitable. Once again, the cause makes it or breaks it for me.

Now meeting somebody in person; sitting down for an hour or two over dinner--that's a whole other ball game. I'd be happy for the chance to have an unscripted chat with any of the presidents, provided the talk wasn't about politics. (I really don't want to hear kvetching about how X couldn't get along with Tip O'Neill, who famously got along great with political opponents) For most of them I think we'd find something to talk about.

But "historic" visits? Eh. The tea party rallies are a historic movement also, and I've not been to any of those either--and they, being more local, would be more interesting.

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