How To Lose in Politics By Telling the Truth
By John Griffin Miller
Or how I tried to get either side (or any side) to accept reality
and work for their own (and everyone else’s) best interests.
I was a little surprised when a couple different reporters asked me where I would be on election night. I hadn’t given it much thought at all. Last time I ran, the first returns were the last returns, and I was eliminated a few seconds after the polls closed. It took me longer to take down the 20 signs in my front yard than to lose.
This time, I didn’t think it would be that close.
But in the age of cell phones I would always be on the end of the line, so please call me for my comments about the election results and I will be happy to give them.
I wasn’t even going to run. The Democratic Party had written off this Congressional district as unwinnable, a deal with the Republicans to avoid bringing up issues and governing, you know, the part after the election. We had discussed with local MoveOn.org people about running and after some initial enthusiasm, they seem to have decided that it was too much effort to support somebody who wasn’t interested in doing all the BS necessary to become another brick in the wall. I learned that there are only 2 brick walls, and neither one is interested in changing the current bricklayers system of wall building. Also, I was probably a pretty sucky candidate, although I am tall and have a full head of dark hair. Comes in a box. The color, not the hair.
The main reason I had decided to run was to do my share to bring attention to the corrupted system of representation we have developed and the mammoth hypocrisy that all the office holders have decided to ignore. I find it amazing how Americans look down their noses at developing countries whose governments are rife with corruption, while totally ignoring that our own lawmakers and officials are all bought and paid for by special interests with money. When rarely pressed about this, they distract the media and voters with stances on wedge issues, rhetoric about “American” (in my case “Hoosier”) values and trying to appeal to their sentiments with the old “I am one of you” bologna.
I watched the Secretary of State’s website to see if somebody, anybody, different from the usual suspects was interested in becoming the sacrificial lamb this time around. I even called several of the declared candidates that had declared, interviewing them as a prospective voter. The three guys who had filed were all very sincere about their candidacy, but nobody seemed to “get it” about how governing was different than running for office. They also were just barely this side of the GOP.
So, I took the day off, my girlfriend Carol and I got in my old car and drove up to Indianapolis and signed the simple form to become a candidate. Carol knew the ropes, she had run 2 years before--I was her ineffective campaign manager. We took pictures of me signing the forms and standing out in front of the office. No money, no signatures required.
Many of my friends continually ask about “residency requirements” for running for congress in Indiana. I guess, the best characterization would be, “there are none.” You don’t have to live in Indiana, though I had for over a year (in Carol’s house); I even have my Hoosier driver’s license, which was a little painful to get. You don’t have to plan to live in Indiana. Hell, you don’t even have to know where Indiana is! Just have a pulse and sign the form in Indianapolis. Dick Lugar has exploited that since 1976—though it caught up with him this year. (I’m pretty sure he knows where Indiana is, at least generally.)
This year, unlike two years ago, we were more serious. Last time Carol had spent some time going door to door, but she was running against a sitting Democratic Congressman, Baron Hill, and mostly running to get her point of view out there, and to expose Hill as a total douchebag. I was busy with my own campaign and a new job, so I was of little help. In hindsight, her campaign was much more important than mine, in that she really pushed her ideals, where as I was actually thinking about getting elected. What a fool!
I had gone door to door in my campaign for metro council of Louisville, but without any structure, running against a thirty-four-term incumbent*, I should have realized I had little chance. I knocked on 1,000 doors, got 1,200 votes, and was quickly and quietly dispatched. Carol got thousands of votes.
We stopped by a couple newspaper offices on the way back, did one interview and started off on a 3-month process whereby our learned electorate evaluated the various candidates and selected the one most qualified to represent them in the general election and hopefully, in Congress for the next two years.
Actually, the media and the electorate couldn’t have cared less about the election, preferring to wait until minutes before the election and allow a tiny fraction of the voters to make the decisions for them. As Paul Simon said in Mrs. Robinson, “any way you look at it you lose.”
I like to blame the media, since they are the gatekeepers of information, those with the time and wherewithal to present the important facts, although with less and less time and less and less freedom to do their jobs effectively. But voters who don’t demand more from the fourth estate share some of the blame, too. However, the deeper, underlying rationale for the problem is that all parties, and the corporate media, and the voters, and the elected officials themselves, like the system just the way it is. In my sermons to voters, the party functionaries, the media, I always got the same blank stare, which had a couple possible explanations.
First, and most cynical, is that ‘this guy doesn’t get it,’ that there is a way to do things, and this ain’t it. You have to do things in the long accepted manner, present yourself in the normal way, and, if you’re lucky, a couple percent more voters will color in your square than the others. Not that this has anything to do with governing or the common good, or important issues. In fact, it doesn’t even have anything to do with a particular ideology: Beyond the D or R next to a candidate’s name, both sides know that sticking to the superficial and mind-numbing platitudes will get you where you want to go. And the backroom deals that are most frightening aren’t the ones where party leaders decide who will get the nomination, but the ones where the two parties decide who will win.
A second possibility, which is scarier, is that they just don’t understand how they are being manipulated by those in power. The high school civics class that says the United States is a shining light on the hill, with democracy that puts the people in power and allows us to throw the bums out when they don’t do their jobs for us, is more a myth than a reality. Or maybe it’s propaganda to make people feel better about living in a banana republic. A rich banana republic.
So, the campaign manager candidates who called me up looking for a couple month’s work all said the same thing: “You have to raise a lot of money to win.” I think mostly they wanted me to raise a lot of money to pay them. One of my opponents in the primary spent perhaps $100,000 for the chance to spend even more going down in flames to the nominee from the GOP, a well-funded and tea party aligned fellow looking for a second term. I needed to call everyone I knew, and many, many people I didn’t know, and ask them to donate money to get me elected.
I was amazed that all the wannabe campaign managers said exactly the same thing.
I was also truly amazed that I was so clearly sure that this was exactly the wrong thing to do.
It was wrong because, should I win due to television commercials or radio ads or thousands of yard signs funded by wealthy donors, then I would be in their debt for the victory. You cannot accept this kind of money from people, and corporations, without them expecting something in return. These guys are rich, not stupid.
And spending all of my time on the phone begging for money was the opposite of the reason I was running. I wanted to talk issues, not politics.
I was interested in fixing government, not fitting in. I didn’t want to join the club with the guys who were, as it became clearer and clearer, unable to ever fix the problem. I didn't want to tell rich donors whatever it was they wanted to hear in order to send me a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. My heroes were the guys who, like Dennis Kucinich, were sometimes outvoted 434 to 1. They spoke truth to power, for real, and are eventually thrown out of government, mercilessly. Not sure how they got in, but they’re finally gone. Whew!
So, how was I going to win this thing if I wasn’t going to prostitute myself to buy a bunch of yard signs and hire some smarmy campaign manager who knew how to eek out a victory? I was already not the “anointed one,” as Carol and I liked to say, so there would be no interest from the Democratic Party. And the so-called liberal national organizations like MoveOn and Progressive Democrats, etc., would never be willing to put money into a campaign that was as much anti-Democratic as anti-Republican. Unions, who had been supportive before, weren’t going to spend their money for a long-shot primary candidate to get into a long-shot general election.
My first thought was to be a Kinky Friedman kind of candidate. Or the late Kentucky governor candidate Gatewood Galbraith. I would wear Hawaiian shirts, play my guitar and sing Occupy songs to the growing throngs of dissatisfied voters who would spread the word, across the district and across this great land that there was a new kind of Congressman, not based on money, but based on the ideals that this nation was built upon. We were going to transform the government, the nation and indeed the world with a kind of Hawkeye Pierce persona. I even imagined getting elected and forever being entombed on the House floor in flowered shirts and jeans, like Paul Simon in that dumb bow tie. (The other Paul Simon.)
So, the next event was a chance to try this out. All five of us (yes, five!) showed up at a Democratic Club meeting in Bloomington. The other candidates talked about fighting for “Hoosier Values” and getting rid of the Republican. I played Makana’s great song “We Are The Many” and said both parties were bought and paid for. (Didn’t wear the Hawaiian shirt—this was Bloomington, home of Indiana University, so I adopted my alter-ego of the rumpled professor in a tie, sports coat and jeans.) I said that banks needed to be broken up, the Obama health care law was a cruel joke and that anyone who said Iran was a threat was just pimping for the military industrial complex.
And we were off to a good start. The paper covered me, and the ‘guitar guy’ stuck with me throughout the campaign. The other candidates seemed a little off-put, and since I barely agreed with them on anything, that was just fine.
The Bloomington paper, which turned out to be the only ally I would have throughout the campaign, didn’t report all that much on what I said, however, and that was a hint at things to come.
* * * * * *
The ninth district of Indiana, the last district of the nine, was surprisingly Democratic over the years. Despite consisting of small towns, rural counties and suburbs of Louisville, the district elected Lee Hamilton for almost a century*, and then his replacement for most of another 10 years. However, the kind of Democrat they elected was significant. Baron Hill actually became the leader of the Blue Dog Democrats, which, in another era, were known as Republicans. In the south, they were called Dixiecrats, until they were actually called Republicans. Ol’ Baron, who isn’t that old, spent his pre-congressional days as an investment banker of some sort, and has now gone back to that life, I hear.
The district is known for its conservative family values on God, Guns, Gays and Abortion. Or GGG&A.
I decided, in my infinite wisdom, to avoid GGG&A. Totally. I’m as liberal, or progressive, or whatever you are calling it these days, as anyone, but as soon as you start talking GGG&A, you quit talking about the real stuff, the stuff that actually has an effect on people’s lives. So while I could talk about GGG&A with the best of ’em, I didn’t. Not at all. And I tried to explain this to several groups, with the same amount of success I had in the rest of the campaign.
Over the course of the campaign, I tried to tell pro-choice people that they should be worried about economics, Medicare For All, and ending the wars. I tried to tell pro-Affordable Care Act Democrats that I hoped the Supreme Court would rule the ACA unconstitutional, even though it wasn’t, so we could actually fix the system instead of propping up the lousy delivery system for the insurance companies. I tried to tell Tea Party right-to-lifers that this issue was a distraction, and that they should be worried instead about the Too-Big-To-Exist Banks that were stealing their equity and pensions.
And, as I walked off the stage after telling the crowd of greenies that we were never going to fix global warming, and that its effects were 50 years off, and that maybe, just maybe, we should be worried about the two thousand six hundred children under five who would die today from preventable causes like diarrhea and malnutrition and malaria, I told Carol that I think I had just dropped from 2% of the vote to 1%. She nodded.
The district, which was never going to elect someone to rock the boat, was recently safely redrawn to make it even safer. This is the two-party system. A system that ensures that one of the two parties will win, hopefully the one that the two parties decided was going to win when they redrew the districts. “You take this one, I’ll take that one.” This is the scariest part of our political system.
* * * * * *
Carol is a supporter of Lyndon LaRouche, and has been trying to get others to join her for years. She is such a bright and well-informed person, that it makes me, and a few others, read what she sends out. I have come to the opinion that LaRouche has a lot to say, despite a tendency to say it a little harshly.
So, a few of her friends have become our friends, and being a bunch of commies and left-wingers, I figured they would be at least moderately helpful in the campaign.
Didn’t really work out. I don’t know if they suffered from liberal burnout, disappointment in Obama, life, overwhelmed by the conservative tide, the LaRouche connection, or just suffering from an accurate appraisal of this particular candidate. But with occasional exceptions, little groundswell of volunteer effort came from this or any other quarter. Again, I could never be sure if it was the message or the messenger, but I found lots of liberals staring at their shoes and failing to return phone calls or emails.
2% was looking optimistic.
One great volunteer, Mike, a former professional photographer, did spend an afternoon making hundreds of pictures of me in many comical poses, playing the guitar and pointing in demonstrative directions, wearing suits and jeans and Hawaiian shirts. Mike then laid out flyers with way too many words (according to some other interested advisers) that we copied on our own copier and passed out to households in low-income neighborhoods. More about that later.
The Democratic primary in Indiana is an open primary, where Democrats, Republican, Independents and certain farm animals (with a photo ID) can request a Democratic or Republican primary ballot. On the Republican side in 2012, the only contested race had the Tea Party mounting an effort to unseat Founding Father and occasional Indiana tourist, Richard Lugar, with somebody who actually was just like Lugar not too long ago. On the Democratic side, there was well, us. Five hopefuls who had trouble remembering each other’s names, and sometimes, our own. More than one newspaper got quotes wrong, but except for when they had one of the others saying one of my outrageous statements, it was probably ok.
But that told me that most of the voters on the Democratic side, except for the actual sheep (see above), were going to be, well, sheep. Faithful, year-in, year-out Democrats who would have voted for Strom Thurman or George Wallace or anybody else with a D after their name. They were not your typical Dennis Kucinich Democrats or anyone else on the progressive wing of the party. They elected Lee Hamilton and Baron Hill, repeatedly, remember. Low turnout, high orthodoxy.
So, in order to be taken seriously, or even listened to, I went down to the Goodwill store and bought a couple jackets that made me look pretty congressional, and checked out the calendar for the Jefferson-Jackson dinners in a bunch of the counties across the district.
Another way to be taken seriously was to have a video. And for Mr. Guitar Candidate, a music video. After my initial guitar playing performance, another couple of great volunteers offered to help and spent a long Sunday afternoon taping me playing that song and babbling my contentions, and then Tom stayed up a couple nights and made it into a very slick 2½ minute video that was seen by literally hundreds of people. It’s an excellent video and lots of people have told me it looks like something done for a big-time campaign. Chaim, another great volunteer, really took an interest in the campaign and was the one who hooked me up with the video guys. He knew how to win and got me thinking that anything was possible.
We were off and running. I even had the occasional nightmare that I was watching the television and saw my name go by with a little checkmark in front. Whoa! This is getting out of hand!
But actually not. The traditional local Democratic parties, called Jefferson-Jackson dinners, named after a sometime Unitarian and a mass-murderer (hell of a combination!), were coming up across the district. The first one turned out to be the last for me. It was in a town that I was very familiar with, and knew lots of the attendees. Lots of shoe staring going on with that group. It was also not the type of crowd that wanted to hear anything bad about Democrats, even Democrats that acted like Republicans.
Halfway through the evening, sitting in the last table to be served dinner, I had a revelation. It was like Winnie the Pooh, suddenly realizing that these were the wrong sorts of bees. These guys weren’t going to vote for me. They weren’t even going to listen to me. All I was likely to do with these kinds of party functionaries was get them to work harder for the anointed one, whoever the hell that was.
Which finally brings up my fellow candidates. It was a little like Gilligan’s Island, without the water. The first to declare was a one-star Air Force General who moved back to the district, apparently to run for Congress. The second was a former aid to Lee Hamilton (we used to time how long it took him to mention Lee in his speeches) who, wait for it, moved back to the district, apparently to run for Congress. The first to actually file was a former Marine Colonel, who had worked for military intelligence and the IRS, but was very passionate about helping veterans. These were the candidates I had researched prior to deciding to run. After I filed, a very pretty lady, former Miss Indiana and runner up to Miss America, filed. She was passionate about some stuff, kind of progressive, and really knew how to address an audience. These guys were all well educated, well spoken and really, really thought they wanted to win.
For the most part, they knew the object was to avoid saying anything that might make them lose.
Carol helped me, with no small input from her vast LaRouche knowledge, to understand better and distill the real issues down to three core solutions, to which I decided to strictly limit myself, no matter what.
But in the short time that some people were actually listening, I didn’t want to omit any part of the important issues: Economics (rein in and jail some banksters, reinstate Glass-Steagall and other repealed regulations, start some massive FDR-type programs like NAWAPA to get the economy moving again), Medicare for All and End the Wars (today if possible). I really thought that candidates should spend their time outlining their governing philosophy, and let the voters choose which one they think will help the country move forward. (NAWAPA—look it up. It’s really cool!)
Of course the correct answer is to say as little as possible, tell people you’ll fight for them in Washington, you feel their pain, and try to look like the last guy or some other guy that actually got elected.
I told people that unless you want more of the same sell-out, bought and paid for, politician that was going to do the bidding of his/her corporate backers, you needed to vote ‘out of the box.’ I even said to more than one assembled group, that if you’re not going to make a real change in the system, what’s the point? Why go to all the work and trouble and emotion to elect a Democrat who was so much like the Republican incumbent anyway? In fact, if you were mostly interested in what your congressperson could do for your district, we would be better off re-electing the Republican who had a better chance of ‘bringing home the bacon’ than any of us.
I was not making friends fast. Would have been even faster if anyone was listening.
The media in the district, with an exception or two, was covering the NCAA tournament, local sports, the endless GOP campaign/debates, the Kentucky Derby, local sports and the occasional murder. Covering campaigns was complicated, and involved asking intuitive questions, and took space away from local sports and the occasional murder. The dwindling Louisville Courier Journal, after running a well-written but formulaic piece about the ‘bloody ninth,’ sent out their online survey 4 days before the election, and gave us a week to respond!
All this would have mattered more if I wanted to win, but I really just wanted people to think about what was going on. (Easy to say now, Mr. Sour Grapes!) The parties were only interested in winning, regardless. The media was only interested if one of the candidates had murdered someone, preferably another candidate.
The voters weren’t interested at all.
At this point we were 62 weeks* into a 3-month campaign, and living past Election Day was all I dreamed about, though I actually did enjoy knocking on doors. Carol kept telling me early on that it was cool, and I finally listened. I got very nice comments and people would come out from the back room and one time had a group picture taken with me holding the baby. I didn’t have the heart to tell them what was likely to happen on May 8th.
* * * * * *
From the very first I thought that it would be very important to have as many debates as possible. Real debates where we were quizzed about the nuances of our ideas and our understanding of the best way to govern. I sent out letters to organization, party officials, county leaders, etc. I made phone calls. I wasted my time.
We had one debate, sort of. It was put together by a lawyer who (I think) really thought it was important to talk about ideas and stuff. We lined up on a stage and answered the same questions. They all thought Iran was a worry. I said it was another attempt to sell bombs to both sides. They all thought Obamacare was a good first step. I said it was a huge step in the wrong direction. They all said they were going to bring jobs to the district. I said any jobs brought were just stolen from somewhere else unless you changed the environment, and the congressperson’s job isn’t to bring jobs, anyhow. They all thought global warming was a high priority. I pooped on their inconvenient truth.
It was a nice little tango. I should have brought my guitar.
I told them that anyone, anyone at all, who was elected in the current system, is thoroughly unable to change the system. Their campaigns had been financed by (you guessed it) people with money, and so our officials are constitutionally (get it?) unable to vote against the rich guys who pay their bills. Plus, if you were elected by a system, why would you want to change it? It must be working just fine!
* * * * *
I learned a lot from this little effort. Not much of it good.
I learned that while the “special interests” control everything and money is king at all levels, the Occupy movement’s “1%” can be applied to both who is interested in governing as well as who is paying for political campaigns. There is so little real interest in actual issues that 99% of the electorate is at a huge disadvantage at both understanding and effecting the direction of the nation. They mostly have to work and survive.
I learned that rather than be part of the solution, most active members of “the people’s party” (Democrats these days) are really just all about the horse race, not about effecting real change in society.
And I learned that I have neither the drive, personality nor the skills required to be a glad-handing, great-communicating, supremely focused person who might succeed in politics.
* * * * *
On election night, Carol and I went out for a great bike ride. The pretty woman who won (Go Shelli!) now has another 78 weeks* to try and not say anything. The Republican got 5 times as many votes as she did, and has a million dollars in the bank prior to doing any fundraising. He’s already calling her a socialist.
*All numbers should be checked for accuracy.
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