Los Angeles is on the cusp of selecting a mayor: Karen Bass is a smart, qualified, compassionate, effective, progressive Black woman—someone who could, for the first time in decades, do this struggling city some good; Rick Caruso is a politically inexperienced, self-promoting, self-admiring, regressive, amoral, White man, a Mitch McConnell-donating, eminent-domain abusing, life-long supporter of right wing causes, a publicly proud anti-abortion, conservative Republican developer of luxury shopping malls and high-end apartments and condos.
Yet just three weeks before filing for his run, Caruso confessed that his whole life had been a sham, a pose: Secretly, deep down, where it really matters, he’d always been a bleeding-heart Democrat. All along he’d been undercover, a fellow traveler, a liberal mole among his unwitting, country-club cohort. I usually admire and sympathize with those who summon the courage to exit their walk-in closets, but admiration and sympathy are not what Caruso’s confession stirs. If the Republicans he’d hung with all his life couldn’t trust him, why should Democrats?
Recent polls show that, after trailing substantially—at one point Bass was nine points ahead—Caruso and Bass are now neck and neck. That a Caruso victory is even conceivable in this overwhelmingly Democratic city short-circuits one’s sense of reality (although inducing cognitive dissonance, a strategy devised by its Bannon Wing, has been adopted as a sacrament by the once-sane Republican Party).
Like many Democrats, I have CTSD (Clinton Traumatic Stress Disorder). CTSD’s main symptom is a political panic attack triggered by signs that a well-qualified candidate, clearly the better choice in a heavily Democratic city full of educated, seemingly sentient voters, could lose to a narcissistic, billionaire developer. OMG! Is it happening again?
The causes of some of the current contest’s confounding closeness are systemic, microcosmic, and obvious:
Caruso, a billionaire on track to spend $100,000,000.00 (my zero key just broke) of his own money to buy an American election, is using his overwhelming financial advantage to fund a shock-and-awe TV campaign comprising slick ads that are at best dishonest and misleading and at worst outright lies. Those ads have succeeded in swaying mostly—though not exclusively—disengaged and clueless voters, a cadre of credulous citizens willing to suspend their disbelief and accept that Caruso is a Democrat because he says he is. (It seems likely that these are the same people willing to suspend their disbelief and accept that Donald Trump is a human because he says he is.)
Some of Caruso’s polling gains result from his nearly Trumpian self-regard, a smug self-satisfaction that functionally negates his conscience: What I do can’t be wrong because I’m me. This allows him to suppress any pangs of guilt that might arise from a less self-thrilled candidate’s violations of basic human decency, integrity, and morality. Paradoxically and mind-numbingly, Caruso’s saturated self-adoration gains him votes among a subset of ignorami who believe that someone who thinks so highly of himself must have good reason: After all, who would know him better than he does? This takes a page from the Trump playbook: A disturbing truth about human nature is that if someone runs him—or herself—up a flagpole, some number of people will excitedly salute and obey. (Arrogance and ignorance have been going steady for years, but they picked Trump for their wedding.)
Some of Caruso’s gains come from a toxic coalition of White, male, and White-male-identifying supremacists, racists, misogynists, and deplorables (see above, Black woman), a significant chunk of whom are, depressingly, Hispanic. Undoubtedly, some of those people innocently and sincerely believe Caruso—who is Italian but who has lately been referring to himself as “Latin”—is Latino, a misapprehension he encourages. Whatever tribal logo adorns their caps, deplorables yearn for the good old days when men were men, women knew their place (settings), and White was right. These are people with DTSD (Diversity Traumatic Stress Disorder): They see Black people.
A great boon to Caruso’s polling has been his monuments to himself, an array of giant, throbbing (with music) erections that, like The Grove, are all-atwinkle with shiny eye candy—including, at The Grove, a pretty, Disney-like tram!—with his name slathered all over them.
I could go on parsing poll numbers, but this last item is particularly significant: LA’s fractured but generally tolerant community of Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Oaxacans, Filipinos, Jews, gays, Democrats, Republicans, Deplorables, Progressives, Communists, Democratic Socialists, Zoroastrians—all of us—are tired of endless rhetoric. We crave action. We seek someone—damned near anyone—who will stop promising to fix everything and actually fix something. Or at least start. We search for someone—damned near anyone—who will stop ‘splaining, stop asking for more money, and finally—dammit!—just get something done, get something built for the homeless that actually does some actual good that doesn’t cost nearly a million bucks a unit.
Please. Just. Stop.
People are tired of—nay, exhausted by—the endlessly expelling City Hall bullshit grinder. At some point, left wing bullshit and right wing bullshit lose distinction. It all begins to smell and sound like bullshit.
A whole bunch of people outside the choir—moderate Democrats, Independents, and even some of the few remaining sane Republicans—are waiting for someone, damned near anyone—to deliver some different news. The problem for Bass, vis a vis poll numbers, is that Caruso’s ads point to existing structures that, like The Grove, he’s actually built. Bass’s ads show her positioned next to other Democratic politicians while smiling and nodding like a Democratic bobble-head; extol her legislative successes; or are brittle, slightly shrill-sounding defenses against Caruso attack ads. Caruso’s ads resonate with voters primed to vote damned near anyone who might finally get something done, while Bass’s ads sound like politics as usual.
It’s a truism that an electoral campaign has two main objectives: to explain and to motivate. A campaign tries to demonstrate to voters why their candidate is better and tries to make their voters feel it’s crucial to get off their asses, leave their houses, and cast their votes. But though those goals are obvious, implementing them is complicated, calling for experience, intuition, timing, judgment, and luck. Of myriad possible forks to navigate, only a few are correct while all the rest are wrong. A lot of electoral campaigning is just throwing shit against the wall and hoping some of it sticks.
One thing that is devastating to a campaign is mis-addressing the voter pool, an unforced error recent Democratic electoral campaigns have committed repeatedly. Despite a dearth of ideas, Republicans figured this out decades ago and have made great gains, while Democrats have continued to run 1950s-style campaigns that chant messages of high-minded rhetoric tuned to the choir, repeatedly failing to adjust their sermons to new members of the voting congregation who simply don’t respond to traditional calls. It’s often cringey to watch. (Think Dukakis, and since then, not much has changed.)
Over recent decades, Democratic rhetoric has opted for the intellectual while eschewing the visceral, has opted for the abstract—Transportation—while discounting the concrete—car. To be truly effective, any narrative must contain both: Democratic campaign ads must announce that they are pro-woman and show actual women whose lives they’ve improved; they must talk about legislation they’ve enacted, show people who’ve benefitted from that legislation, and show some of the specific ways that, thanks to Democratic policies, those people’s situations were bettered. That’s sometimes difficult to do, but taking the easy way is the path to losing.
Point me to ads that have shown a single individual who has benefitted from Obamacare. Point me to one. There aren’t any. We get numbers but no people.
Members of the choir, true believers, do get excited by and respond viscerally to ideas and ideals, but those not already committed, those outside the choir, require examples to help those ideas and ideals crystallize. Then they might get excited, but otherwise it just doesn’t work. Yet Democrats again and again fail to grasp and implement this simple, well-known principle of effective communication. The right has done a much better job of this, even granting that their simplistic solutions are easier to sell and that over-simplification is a strategy.
A major reason the Bass campaign has lost its polling lead is their stubbornly sticking to this Democratic tell-not-show pattern. The shame of it is that in Bass’s case, it easily could be—or at this juncture could have been—different. In a long career committed to regional activism, there is so much that Bass has done that has resulted in demonstrable, concrete, local benefits for regular people. As a result of her efforts, there are many who could and would be happy to appear in Bass campaign ads touting important ideas and ideals. But instead the campaign has repeatedly addressed the choir while effectively ignoring non-members who need to be, who want to be, and who could be convinced. They have repeatedly failed to address voters frustrated over their having time and again taxed themselves despite prior promises unkept. They have failed to recognize, understand, and feed voters’ hunger—nay, desperation—for practical accomplishments. At some point, you start to think you’re Charlie Brown and the pols are Lucy holding the football.
More’s the pity because Bass has concrete results and living people to point to. Two weeks ago, I attended a press event where the Bass campaign, in conjunction with the unions that are building them and the architectural firm that designed them, displayed small, permanent housing units already being built. Thousands of these one and two bedroom units, costing an estimated $150,000.00—not $800,000.00—per unit could be built in months—not years—on existing city property with ear-marked funds. Yet have you seen a single ad showing those existing houses? A few days later, at a rally featuring Senator Bernie Sanders, featured speakers included young women and men, individual beneficiaries of Bass’s long history of effective local activism, real young people who are now working in the community to bring others along. Yet have you seen a single ad showing those real people?
Lest anyone think it’s late in the day to be pointing this out, I pointed it out directly to the Bass campaign months ago. We often hear the old saw about those who are unaware of history being condemned to repeat it. In my experience, it is much more common that those who are aware of history are condemned to repeat it, if only because we are prone to getting ourselves tangled in webs of conventional wisdom (including old saws about history).
White man speaks with forked tongue
For thousands of years, we have drawn the wrong moral from the Garden of Eden myth. The traditional moral is that an angry Big Gardener expelled Adam and Eve because of Eve’s disobedience. There’s an alternative reading that we’ve missed (or maybe we’ve been misdirected): Satan poisons the relationship between Adam and Eve and the Gardener and manipulates them into fighting among themselves. An angry Gardener evicts Adam and Eve and abandons the Garden, leaving it empty and free for development. Then Satan, having successfully divided and conquered, uses eminent domain to grab the property at below market and builds Eden Gardens Luxury Estates, comprising thousands of high-end units inside and a luxury shopping mall outside the edenic grove, illustrating sales brochures with pictures of that iconic tree.
The correct takeaway from the Garden of Eden myth? It was a real-estate play, and Satan was the developer. The correct moral is “A house divided against itself can be converted to apartments and condos.”