23 August 2012

Obama: an American Coriolanus?

CORIOLANUS: Well, then, I pray, your price o' the consulship?
FIRST CITIZEN: The price is to ask it kindly.

-William Shakespeare, Coriolanus

Yesterday I rented Ralph Fiennes's film version of Coriolanus from the library. The same day, I read Jane Mayer's report, "Schmooze or Lose," in the current New Yorker. The Shakespeare play tells of an old Roman soldier at odds with democracy, resentful of the necessity of flattering the undeserving in order to get their votes in a consular election. He resents the flattery more than the democracy, though the two concepts may be inseparable in his mind and a contempt for civilians, if not for common people as a whole, is constant with him. Throughout the history of Western civilization, part of the case against democracy has been its supposed dependence upon such flattery of the rabble. The demagogue, product of democracy's decadence who sometimes became a tyrant, was one who didn't scruple, having no principles, at flattering the mob. He did it eagerly to get power for himself. Consistently, it is the mob, the masses, the poor, the presumably ignorant and ill-informed, who are presumed to want flattery. That craving inspires disgust in Coriolanus. "He that will give good words to thee will flatter/beneath abhorring," he tells a crowd protesting grain shortages. At his most benign, he is almost apologetic about having to curry favor with such people. "No sir, 'twas never my own desire yet to trouble the poor with begging," he says during a campaign appearance in the Roman Forum. There's the shame of it for him: campaigning is flattery and begging at the same time. You have to flatter those people because you need their votes. Why that requires flattery, or seems to, raises more questions about the Roman Republic than its historians or future dramatists cared to ask or answer.

"Schmooze or Lose" is a warning signal that President Obama may lose the fundraising race with Mitt Romney because he has gradually alienated many of his past donors, not because of his policies in office, but because of his attitude toward the donors. Mayer quotes an anonymous attendee at an Obama fundraiser at the Four Seasons Hotel, where the rate was $30,000 a plate.

“Obama is very meticulous—they have clockwork timing,” one of the attendees says. “After a few minutes at each table, a staffer would come and tap him on the shoulder, and he’d get up. But when people pay thirty thousand they want to talk to you, and take a picture with you. He was trying to be fair, and that’s great, but every time he started to have a real conversation he got tapped.”

The attendee appreciates that such events must get tiresome for Obama. “Each person, at each table, says to the President, ‘Here’s what you have to do . . .’ At the next table, it’s the same.” Even so, he noted that Bill Clinton—who set the gold standard for the art form known as “donor maintenance”—would have presided over the same event with more enthusiasm: “He would have stayed an extra hour.” After that Four Seasons dinner, the attendee adds, “people were a little mad.”
Mayer notes that Obama is conscientiously constrained from pursuing donors with the same ardor that Clinton did because he has so often spoken out against the influence of large campaign donations in politics and against the Citizens United decision in particular. She also reports the observations of donors and supporters who notes that Obama is simply a different personality type from Clinton (or Romney). One big donor observes: "Obama is not a lover by nature. He is so private, and so emotionally and intellectually honest. He doesn't like to stroke people." Yet he must.

Here's the risk Obama runs: that too many otherwise likely Democratic donors will echo the attitude of this one.

“There’s been no thanks for anyone!” the major Democratic donor says. He adds that in 2008 he gave “multiple millions” to groups working to elect Obama. But, he notes, although he has attended various White House functions, and has met Obama on several occasions, “I don’t think they have a clue who I am. I don’t think they even know how much I gave.” He says that he has been introduced twice to Jarrett, “and neither time did she remember who I am.” Instead, he says, “she seemed to think she was blessing me by breathing in the same space.” Despite repeated pitches, he has not yet given money to Priorities USA. In his view, the Obama White House has not followed the fundamental rule of donor maintenance, which he himself has practiced while fund-raising for other causes: “You have to suck up!” With Obama, he says, “I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, an ego thing, or an intellectual thing. I just don’t get it. But people want to be kissed. They want to be thanked.” Obama, he says, is “so interested in doing the right thing that he thought other people would be interested in him for doing the right thing, and he thinks that’s all that’s needed.”

The President's unconventional background and unusually rapid political rise may have made him less conscious of his presumed dependence upon big donors and less reverential toward wealth than his fellow pols of our time. His much-noted choice to become a community organizer rather than chase the big bucks may be telling in this respect, if not in the ways Republicans have claimed. He may not see that the rich are people, too, with the same yearning for recognition, for flattery. Even as supposedly principled a liberal as George Soros has not given this year as Democrats feel he should, and some observers feel (whether Soros himself does or not) that Obama "pissed on him" in some way or another by failing to show the proper courtesy. "He didn't want a fucking thing!" a Soros confidant says, "He just wanted to be taken seriously." Whether it's granting someone like Soros a private audience or posing for a photograph that someone can flaunt at home, Obama can't satisfy what so many seem to demand. But the demands, no matter how petty or emotional, just as completely belie the whole idea of campaign donations as acts of disinterested benevolence as would any proof that a politician had fixed policy to benefit a major fundraiser. If you donate to a candidate, a party or a PAC out of disinterested benevolence you should expect nothing in return but good government. Any greater expectation, or any expectation for yourself, is corrupt -- not necessarily in a criminal sense, but still corrupt in terms that the Founders would have understood. They worried that democracy was susceptible to corruption through flattery of the poor, as political thinkers in the West have always worried. But now the rich -- even the liberal rich and the progressive rich -- must be flattered, and the ambitious politician must play the demagogue even in the Four Seasons Hotel. They demand that Obama listen to their notions and think of them as his friends, and without crediting any sense of superiority the President might feel I could understand if he rankles as much under this necessity as Coriolanus did during the consular election. The Roman would have been wrong if he felt he didn't need to give any account of himself to the people, but he probably would recognize "schmooze or lose" as an opposite extreme, whether he had to beg for votes or money. The happy medium would be an informed public, none of whom felt a need for a personal relationship with elected officials or candidates for office, and all of whom could be reached through reason without resort to flattery. But if we accept democracy as a moral imperative and agree that every adult has a voice in how his or her country is run, there'll always be a danger that voters will prefer being flattered over being informed. Recent history seems sadly to refute the ancient assumption that only the poor crave flattery. But if the rich crave flattery still more, can any politician afford to flatter everyone? And can the country itself afford the flattery?

1 comment:

Aaron Christiansen said...

“I don’t think they have a clue who I am. I don’t think they even know how much I gave.”

So the underlying question that must be asked is: "Why did you donate in the first place? Was it because you hoped to effect political change consistinent with your ideology or was it to "schmooze" with the political affluent"? If these people can't see past themselves, they ought not be donating money to a political campaign in the first place.

I think to sum it up, I must paraphrase:
"This nation needs a political enema."