If you had asked me as a freshman in high school, “What’s your favorite movie?”, I would have answered Frank Capra’s 1939 political drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In one of his first breakout film roles, Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart ’32 portrays the idealistic young Senator Jefferson Smith, who finds that our nation’s capital is not quite the beacon of light he has spent his whole life imagining it to be when he becomes embroiled in a corruption scandal. Despite the pushback from his legislative advisors, the young senator nonetheless remains determined to expose the graft and restore the United States to its institutional ideals.
Smith’s heart ultimately carries him through. The movie ends with an impassioned filibuster by Senator Smith, wherein he asserts that, spurred by his faith in the power of good government, he will continue to fight against the encroaching influences of corruption even when it seems to be a lost cause. When Jeff Smith collapses out of physical and moral exhaustion, a fellow Senator is moved to admit his corruption in shame. By the end, Smith’s resolve has vindicated both his character and the moral principles for which he has fought so steadfastly.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington adheres to a relatively simplistic premise: American politics rests solely in the hands of a small set of individuals. Sure, Smith’s enemies in the film play some nastily concerted tricks on him, including blasting a “fake news” campaign in his home state to discredit the young senator, but such chicanery is, in the film’s worldview, limited to the politicians who practice it. Meanwhile, the film never references any form of systemic failure. Instead, the shining institution of U.S. democracy has merely been hijacked by a couple of bad eggs. All it takes to win the day is one lone voice of principle to expose and thereby eliminate the rot.
It’s hard to imagine this movie being made today in its idealism. Instead of a dam building scheme, the gritty 21st century reboot might revolve around a particular Democratic caucus’s relationship with a group of oil and gas executives. Bright-eyed Jimmy Stewart would be replaced with a stubbled Christian Bale type, who by the film’s end starts taking bribes himself, so disillusioned has he become with normalized graft. One aspect that would not change, however, would be the outlook that politics can only occur as a series of conversations among a small number of individuals with undue power over the lives of the people they represent.
When the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries shifted into high gear, my friend and I started discussing the kind of attributes we wanted in a president. I wanted someone loud and raucous, someone who wouldn’t take Republican bullshit and wasn’t afraid to speak their mind, however politically inconvenient. She, on the other hand, preferred the notion of a President whose principal draws were their calm demeanor and reassuring rhetoric. We both firmly disliked Vice President Joe Biden, but for different reasons: I didn’t like how willingly he touted his friendship with segregationist Strom Thurmond, whereas she would let bygones be bygones as long as the seventy-seven-year-old could figure out how to utter a complete sentence. We both liked Senator Elizabeth Warren, but I also gravitated to her left with my admiration for Senator Bernie Sanders. My friend liked him too, but for a time she also wondered whether she might vote for Pete Buttigieg.
As she and I began to do our research, we found that neither of us ended up particularly liking the campaign of the former Mayor of South Bend. Though I think the leftists who cry, “Pete Buttigieg is a Republican!” exaggerate, I share their contempt for the politician’s moderate stances that he promoted throughout the primaries through a message of civilly achieved generational change, particularly since I am of the staunch opinion that we need radical change radically soon to deal with issues like the climate crisis. Furthermore, I suspect his calm, well-spoken demeanor masks a largely careerist, “gotta get ahead” attitude of which I am remarkably suspicious among young alums of elite institutions (he graduated Harvard, then Oxford, and this future public servant decided to work, of all places, at the mercenary consulting firm McKinsey?)
Pete’s ultimate draw for so many of his middle-aged base, it seemed, was his personal branding. In his article “The millennial left’s case against Pete Buttigieg, explained,” Vox journalist Roge Karma believes that the Buttigieg campaign “represents intra-generational warfare at its sharpest. At a moment when leftist millennials (and Gen Z-ers, for that matter) finally feel they have the chance to transform the political and economic systems they loathe, Buttigieg has co-opted their message while pursuing a more moderate, restorative agenda.”
It makes sense. Buttigieg supporters, who according to polls were largely white Baby Boomers, loved the idea of a candidate who can convince them that the generational change they seek for their children doesn’t involve dismantling or even really challenging the American institutions they have respected their whole lives. Instead, here comes a product of those very institutions attempting to toe the line between the Bernies and the Bidens of the race, promising with his well-measured elocution and confirmative intellectual, military, and professional credentials that he would lead the way to a generational cross-ticket in which, ultimately, nothing will fundamentally change.
In this sense, Pete’s policies are secondary to their packaging. This is not to say that Buttigieg had no plans; he proposed numerous concrete, if often quite tame, solutions to various problems facing our country. Such ideas, however, were not the crux of his campaign; instead, he was. I read more than one analysis that compared Buttigieg to Barack Obama, whose own campaign and subsequent presidency were similarly buoyed by his movie-star charisma.
This notion of politicians as public personalities first and lawmakers second is not new; it’s one of our most codified societal archetypes. The same attitude that informed the script of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington can be found in so many of our history texts’ appraisals of the Founding Fathers, who are frequently depicted as infallible geniuses rather than the regular human beings they surely were. In America, we often discuss history as though it were driven by the decisions and innovations of individual actors, instead of a confluence of many cultural, political, and geographical events and struggles only some of which were determined by the people making political decisions.
In his seminal work Understanding Power, revolutionary linguist and famed political dissident Noam Chomsky contends that people in power strive “to distort history and make it look as if Great Men did everything—that’s part of how you teach people they can’t do anything.” Further down the page, he gives an extensive appraisal of how he sees Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in the Civil Rights Movement:
“[He] was able to appear and give public speeches because S.N.C.C. workers and Freedom Riders and others had prepared the ground—and taken a brutal beating for it…They’re the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King was important because he could stand up there and get the cameras, but these other people were the real Civil Rights Movement. I’m sure he would have said the same thing too, incidentally.”
Chomsky would argue that politics is not abstract, that it necessarily involves people. He takes issue, however, with the political actors that history tends to leave out. Historical narratives focus on the Martin Luther Kings and Lyndon Johnsons of the world without giving enough credit to the lower-level organizers who made their work possible. Focusing on the character and presentation of a few higher profile actors gives a picture of history that is at best incomplete and at worst revisionist. A real Senator Smith would most likely have needed a small army of well-informed, sympathetic protestors to weed out the corruption on the Senate floor.
By the time primary voting began, I had come to reject the idea of a politics of personality, ultimately deciding to vote for Bernie Sanders on the strength of his ideas, despite his overall grumpiness. Sure, I want a calm, well-spoken President as much as anyone, but with so much at stake in our current moment, a strong political vision should overcome professional demeanor every time. With the lead up to primaries, I was afraid people disagreed, though I briefly sighed with relief when Sanders won New Hampshire and Nevada.
At first, the gravitation towards and ultimate nomination of Joe Biden was an absolute mystery to me. How could we, the country whose politics are grounded in spectacle, have chosen someone so bland yet whose policy vision for a post-Trump America rests solely in restoring decency to the White House?
The more I’ve thought about it, however, the more it made sense: people voted for Biden en masse not because of his charisma, like they might have for Buttigieg, or his social democratic vision, like they might have Sanders. Instead, they saw him as the anti-personality cult candidate, whose blandness was an asset rather than a liability, a placeholder for the widespread hope that we return to a state of somewhat normalcy in American presidential politics. In that sense, opting for Joe Biden makes a great deal of sense, particularly in our current political climate. When each day on the news we are subjected to seemingly endless buffoonery from the man holding the most powerful office in the world, all you can really ask for is someone whose quietude might bring down the temperature a little.
To settle in such a way, however, would be to ignore the true threat Trump and his party pose. All told, Trump’s lack of decorum should be the least of our worries, with the twin threats of the climate crisis and the growing nuclear stockpile, all of which have put the already precarious experiment that is human civilization into its short history’s most delicate balance. When these threats are kept at the forefront of our mind, it becomes clear that the primary stakes of the 2020 Presidential Election have less to do with “a battle for the soul of a nation” or any other political sloganeering, and more to do with curtailing the continuing onslaught of decisively needless human suffering. But in the end, enough Democrats were distracted by Trump’s personality cult that they let their chief political opponent’s indecorous charisma set the terms for the match up. Even when the Democratic candidate was not an example of one, personality cults had ultimately still dominated the discourse around the election more than substantive political issues.
Now is probably an opportune time to admit that I am currently wearing a pair of colorful socks that prominently display the face of Bernie Sanders. Though I myself did not purchase them—my mom got them for me for my twenty-second birthday—that hardly matters. If I had seen these socks in a store, I am confident that I would have bought a pair on my own.
For political heroes, Bernie Sanders might seem to many like an odd choice by our society’s usual standards. First off, he does not come off as particularly likeable. To some, me included, he can exude a kind of grumpy charm, and his Brooklyn accent certainly gives his speeches an undeniably distinct flavor. But at the end of the day, no caricature of a stereotypical political hero would ever look like Bernie Sanders. Instead, he (it would definitely be a he) would be a smoother, more measured figure, thirty years younger with a calming presence and a slew of compelling anecdotes about how his grandmother taught him the twin values of dignity and hard work.
I’m tempted to write-off my devotion to one presidential candidate by identifying him primarily by his espoused policy positions. This self-evaluation is far from disingenuous. I don’t come from a background of precarity or any identity-based oppression myself, so I do not have a personal story, like so many Sanders supporters do, about how listening to him wax about income inequality or healthcare awoke me into political consciousness. Politically unengaged during Sanders’ first presidential campaign in 2016, I started coming to socialist and social-democratic conclusions on my own after I had already graduated high school through the work of Naomi Klein and Michael Moore, to name two examples. As anti-capitalist as I was, I did not declare my unequivocal support for Sanders until deep into the presidential primary season, during which I was also captivated by the intelligence of Senator Elizabeth Warren and the candor of Andrew Yang. Only after I had done considerable research did I come to the retroactively forgone conclusion that I, an avowed socialist, would be casting my vote for the candidate who adopted the same moniker.
Recounting my political journey, however, would not explain the countless times I have watched and re-watched the video “Keep Fighting, Bernie Sanders,” a kind of supercut of many of the Brooklyn native’s most iconic moments as a politician and as a presidential candidate. I have watched that video enough times that its key points are by this point probably burned into my memory forever, though I still have yet to hold back tears any time the video ends.
It’s clear to me that by the end of his presidential campaign, I had begun to idolize Bernie, thinking him the lone bulwark against an increasingly ineffectual and hostile Republican administration. Perhaps I had even subconsciously cast him as a kind of real-life Brooklyn Jewish incarnation of my favorite childhood movie character. Indeed, a speech Sanders made on the House floor in 1992 bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Smith’s famous cinematic filibuster, particularly since then-Congressman Sanders, like Mr. Smith, decisively declared, “No, I won’t yield!”
I realized slowly but surely that in so many ways I had fallen into the exact same trap of which I had been so critical in others, thinking of political action and power through the lens of exalted individuals rather than societal consciousness or collective action. In some ways, perhaps this trap was unavoidable: the United States President exerts undue influence on both the nation and the world. To install Sanders in such a position where his social-democratic agenda could have done enormous good for so many people is thereby a worthy goal. I’m starting to wonder, however, whether that’s the only way to achieve such power.
I have been considering this question of personality cults even more since the tragic death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg was an equal rights hero, who both in her actions as a lawyer and judge and through her status as a feminist symbol has done uncountable good for the American community. I’m wondering how much longer abortion will remain relatively accessible if the GOP manages to ram through one of Trump’s appointees before the November election.
What I’ve been wondering even more, though, is why we ever had to place such faith and hope in the continued life of the ‘Notorious R.B.G.’ in the first place. How democratic is a system whose entire functioning apparently comes down to the whims of a few individuals? How effective is a government in which millions of women are in danger of losing their bodily autonomy after the passing of one elderly jurist? I’m wondering whether the problem was the untimely death of a hero, the Republican ghouls determined to override her judicial legacy, or maybe just our inability to challenge a flawed system of supposedly democratic accountability that allows so few individuals to have so much sway over so many human lives.
From all the Vox articles I’ve read about potential proposals to expand the Supreme Court under a Biden presidency, I know I’m not alone in my interrogation of a potentially inefficient institution. But perhaps we were already beginning to see the tide shift towards a greater tendency to elect politicians on issues over brand, on substance over style. For the most recent evidence, look at September’s Massachusetts Senatorial primary, where Senator Ed Markey, an original co-sponsor of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, won a decisive victory against Representative Joe Kennedy, whose place within a bona fide American political dynasty was insufficient to make up for what Li Zhou of Vox deemed in the race’s aftermath “a limited ideological case.”
Though there were clearly numerous factors that allowed Markey to keep his seat—incumbency advantage, tenure, endorsements from high-profile progressives like Senator Elizabeth Warren, AOC, and the climate activist group the Sunrise Movement—it’s undeniable that the seventy-four-year old, four-decade veteran of D.C. did not coast to victory against his charismatic thirty-nine-year old incumbent through his charm alone. Instead, he won with the tireless support of the Sunrise Movement, who backed the septuagenarian because of his hard stance on climate change. In his victory speech, Markey credited the importance of the young activists, citing their work as the ultimate key to his victory. Whether or not Ed Markey is a principled environmentalist in the vein of a Bill McKibben or John Muir, I can hardly venture to guess. What I can say with certainty is that he won not because of some kind of persona, but through the ordinary people who came together to champion his policy promises.
After the catastrophic upset that was the 2016 Presidential election, former Nass writer Sarah Barnette bemoaned how, “We don’t have the privilege of electing Jefferson Smiths into office. We just have the privilege of sitting and watching our country burn in the hands of cookie-cutter candidates.” I agree, we don’t seem to have the privilege of electing Jefferson Smiths, but as Smith-like as Bernie may have seemed to me or Barnette, he was never going to be the only answer anyway. Instead, we need to double down and give ourselves permission to get engaged in politics, and not just by registering to vote or writing letters to swing-state residents. We need to follow the example of organizations like Black Lives Matter and the Sunrise Movement and allow ourselves to realize that politics is work, hard work, but work that we are all nonetheless capable of if we allow ourselves to be.
When Bernie was still in the presidential race, I had a dream on more than one occasion in which I watched him beat Donald Trump in the general election. I reveled in the notion that then, with the changing of the guard from a neo-fascist hooligan to a principled Scandinavian-style social democrat, all of America’s problems would be solved. But Senator Sanders himself never saw his own campaign as just one person’s project. In fact, he said it better than I ever could myself: “To bring about real change, you need the mass mobilization of millions of people at the grassroots level to stand up for justice.” This organized pursuit of justice, however, does not come from waiting for modern Jefferson Smiths to begin speaking truth to power. Instead, it begins with an articulation of clear political goals, then by being unwavering in our collective support.
“It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. It’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” said Pete Buttigieg at the second Democratic presidential debate. “If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. Let’s stand up for the right policy, go up there, and defend it.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mayor Pete. Let’s get to work.