The question of populism and radical change has re-emerged in American politics, first with Obama and now with the tea party movement. However, it was another story that recently caught my eye. The New York Times carried a story about Republican ‘agents’ (or ‘operatives’) encouraging homeless people to stand unopposed in the Green Party primaries. Because the green party do not have sufficient coverage to stand centrally selected candidates for all ballots, homeless people have gained the nomination to stand for local government. Beyond the curiosity of the story, I want to argue that it is more significant and revealing than it might initially seem.
The Democratic party have claimed that this is a dirty tricks campaign by the Republicans who want to split the democratic vote. They suggest that these are not real candidates but rather toys of the Republican party, designed to direct a small number of Democratic voters to the Greens. The Republicans involved reject the idea that these are ‘fake’ candidates:
‘Did I recruit candidates? Yes,’ said Mr. May, who is himself a candidate for the State Legislature, on the Republican ticket. ‘Are they fake candidates? No way.’ To make his point, Mr. May went by Starbucks, the gathering spot of the Mill Rats, as the frequenters of Mill Avenue are known. ‘Are you fake, Benjamin?’ he yelled out to Mr. Pearcy, who cried out ‘No,’ with an expletive attached. ‘Are you fake, Thomas?’ Mr. May shouted in the direction of Thomas Meadows, 27, a tarot card reader with less than a dollar to his name who is running for state treasurer. He similarly disagreed. ‘Are you fake, Grandpa?’ he said to Anthony Goshorn, 53, a candidate for the State Senate whose bushy white beard and paternal manner have earned him that nickname on the streets. ‘I’m real,’ he replied.
With this confirmation of their actual existence, May, apparently, rested his case.
The problem, of course, for the Democratic party is that the Republican move has snookered them. Traditionally of the political ‘left’, the Democrats should therefore be the defenders of access for all to the political sphere. They have claimed to be the party for the excluded at least since the great civil rights shift in the mid-twentieth century. To denounce the inclusion of these homeless people in the political process would seem to reveal a certain hypocrisy. They are stuck between the attempt to defend themselves from what they see as base ‘dirty tricks’ and the need to appear to include the excluded. The unfortunate words of Jackie Thrasher reveal the response:
‘It’s unbelievable. It’s not right. It’s deceitful,’ said Jackie Thrasher, a former Democratic legislator in northwest Phoenix who lost re-election in 2008 after a Green Party candidate with possible links to the Republicans joined the race. ‘If these candidates were interested in the democratic process, they should connect with the party they are interested in. What’s happening here just doesn’t wash. It doesn’t pass the smell test.’
Aside from the problematic choice of words, the political problem is apparent: The homeless candidates ‘naturally belong’ in the democratic party (the party they ‘are most interested in’), yet there they would ‘belong’ to the rank and file, not to its elite – the elected representatives. Their status as included and excluded is thus revealed.
In the New York Times article the homeless people have a twofold character. Firstly, they are discursively produced as tools of Republican manipulation and therefore without any political subjectivity of their own. However, at the same time it suggests that they are also beyond control, and therefore beyond the pale of politics. Both the sense that they are extensions of the Republican party and that politically uncontrollable demand that the reader dismiss the events.
However, there is something else going on here. The New York Times article couches the most important element in dismissive language:
Reading tarot cards has taught Mr. Meadows, who is known for his purple and green jester hat, to talk a good game. “This is not the land of the free,” he told the loungers on the sidewalk, pitching himself for treasurer. “It’s the land of what’s for sale.”
The off the cuff mention of Tarot cards positions Mr Meadows beyond the pale of political reason. The ideal university educated liberal NY Times reader can scoff at the ridiculousness of it all. Yet the two lines attributed to Meadows are perhaps the most cutting critique of the American public sphere. What is more these words mirror the impetus behind the various new American populisms emerging over the last ten years, mobilised (with sometimes quite different constituencies) variously in the Obama election and in the ‘Tea Party’ movement.
The inclusion of outsiders into the traditionally closed political sphere is attractive precisely because it holds the possibility of rupturing the current state of the situation. We can see this in the attempt by most Republicans (think of the Sarah Palin and John McCain ticket) to paint themselves as outsiders to the political system (as ‘mavericks’). The truth, of course, is that these figures are just as implicated in the political establishment as other, more traditional, politicians. The interesting thing about Meadows and his fellow candidates is that they actually are from beyond the political spectrum. However, the power of the ‘outsider’ should not be reduced simply to implication in the everyday politics of Washington. The figure of the outsider is also crucial in political theory. Rousseau, as Bonnie Honig beautifully mapped, gave the foreigner (the paradigmatic outsider) the crucial role of establishing the polity.
Rousseau’s mention of famous foreign-founders at this crucial point in [the Social Contract]… suggests that he sees foreignness as a way to manage some of the challenges that face a founder: who besides a god or a godlike man would be able to discover the best rules for a society, see all of men’s passions yet experience none of them; have no relationship at all to our nature yet know it thoroughly and, perhaps most important of all, have a happiness that is independent of us? These characteristics might be found only in a man of perfect virtue. But they – or something enough like them – might just as well attach themselves to a foreigner. (Honig, B, Democracy and the Foreigner, p21)
Rousseau’s foreigner enters the polity, establishing the just-ness of the new laws. The problem is that the people cannot institute its own laws precisely because it has lived under the corruption of the old laws for so long, therefore the people itself has been corrupted.
From Marx’s proletariat (not a ‘working class’ but a group of people politically-economically excluded from the control of their own productive capacities) through most critical theory of the last century (Derrida, Rancière, Lyotard, Levinas, Agamben, Rose, etc.), the outsider is of crucial political, ethical or economic importance. Culturally too (in America at least) the outsider has a hidden power, a certain ‘cultural capital’ (although I hate this phrase). Just in terms of films; think of the various cowboys who appear in the town, defeat the bad guys, only to leave the town once more; or the maverick cops who don’t ‘play by the rules’ but get things done. This is the significance of the opening sentence of the NY Times article: ‘Benjamin Pearcy, a candidate for state-wide office in Arizona, lists his campaign office as a Starbucks. The small business he refers to in his campaign statement is him strumming his guitar on the street.’ Pearcy is at once an utter outsider, but also not ‘un-American’, an outsider from politics, but not too much of an outsider.
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