A few years ago, I went to see an NBA game for the first time. It was late in the season, on the same day that the New York Knicks got a new head coach by the name of Mike Woodson. Jeremy Lin, the playmaker from Taiwan, was now the new star of the team, playing his best basketball ever. After the Knicks’ superstar, Carmelo Anthony, got injured, the coach had been forced to change the team’s tactics. This change favored Lin. As a result, the Knicks started to play faster and more unified basketball. They were more fun to watch, and they were winning.
These, in brief, were the changes that brought me to the temple of NBA basketball. I was trying to see if I could become a Knicks fan. I was never really interested in baseball – you can only love it if you grew up with it, I am told. So after I moved to New York, where there’s no serious soccer competition to watch, basketball was a logical choice.
The moment I got under the dome of the magnificent Madison Square Garden, filled with thousands of people, I was surprised by the lack of tension and passion among the fans. It seemed to me that they were sitting and watching the game without much participation. They seemed to be busy with a myriad of things that distracted them from the game.
In Europe, if you go to a stadium, it’s to watch the game and to support your team – to suffer and celebrate with the players. It’s like going to church – it’s one dimensional, linear. But in Madison Square Garden – one of the temples that every NBA fan wants to visit – they weren’t just selling basketball. They were selling food, t-shirts and hats; they were playing music, showing videos, advertising… Even the cheering was orchestrated, sometimes blended with commercial messages. It was after this, my first live NBA game (I had only watched them on TV before then), that I got it: in the U.S., you don’t watch a game, you buy it. Similar to the popcorn you “must” buy when you go to the movies, only to understand later that movie is there to sell the popcorn.
So my first live Knicks game was revealing. It was an experience that went beyond general fascination with New York, beyond a cultural consumption and appreciation for the obvious verve of the city. It was perhaps my first step towards understanding what American exceptionalism represents in everyday life.
It also helped me to understand the way politics is conceived and consumed in America. While it is universally accepted that politicians have to “sell” themselves to the voters – political marketing was invented by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter in the mid-20th century – the U.S. has changed its political elections into an art unto their own.
Nowhere in the world does the election campaign last as long as it does in the U.S. This time in particular, the 2016 campaign started right after the previous elections ended and before President Obama could even swear in his second term. As if the media was bored with newly re-elected president, they started a guessing game about candidates for the next elections, while the presumed candidates acted accordingly, posturing and looking to improve their starting positions. In this way, right after the 2012 elections, Florida Senator Marco Rubio became the candidate frontrunner for the Republicans. Amongst Democrats, this role was assigned to Hillary Rodham Clinton, a presidential candidate in 2008 and a former secretary of state, senator and first lady.
Why so early? Is it because presidential elections are so profitable that the media needs to roll them as a permanent show, regardless to the political season? Was it because of a simple assumption that Marco Rubio, a man of Cuban origins, could be the next frontrunner due to a potential to attract the Latino vote, an area where Republicans have been lagging? Was this enough to start a snowball of speculations about the next Republican nominee?
But before they were put on display, the candidates got time enough to do some plastic surgery – to refresh their political looks in order to adapt to what public opinion (spun by polling results) predicted to be a successful mix. And the whole dynamic among the mediocre candidates (and some evident “losers”) called for even more political pandering. Niche candidates, with no political vision, but with a plain calculation of the number of electoral colleges, presented themselves just to consolidate their local political position. Not even looking for money – just a simple home run for more local power. Politicians played this game until the very last call from Donald Trump – that rude, arrogant, disruptive candidate who got sucked into the race because of the mediocrity of the other participants. So when we finally arrived at the start of the race, there were 17 Republican candidates. Two months later there are 15 left, and they still seem to be underestimating Trump, who is getting ready to swallow them one by one. Unless, according to some political speculations, based on recent polls, his candidacy will precipitate in few months from now. Why? Firstly, never in the history of the U.S. presidential elections has an outside candidate lasted for the whole period of the primaries. And secondly, as analyst Nate Silver predicted a month ago, none of this autumn fruits – the candidate frontrunners – will endure through the tough primaries during the next winter. This is what history and statistics are saying.
For what it’s worth, let me add that the destiny of Donald Trump, and partly even Ben Carson, are the fruit of indecision and polarization within the Republican party. Once the GOP tightens their ranks, Trump should fall off the tree like an autumn leaf. But before that, he can continue to eliminate weaker standing candidates who are still in search of a more efficient strategy to seduce higher numbers of Republicans. On the Democratic side, the liberal media has spent endless words about Hillary Clinton’s “natural right” to become the first female president of the U.S. When she announced that she would not take part in Obama’s administration during his second term, Hillary, according the media pundits, confirmed that she was going to run in 2016.
Was she really? She did say it in her own way: she denied it, hoping to make herself more desirable. Her style and approach seems to match the rhythm of Len Deighton trilogy of spy novels, Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match. Hillary’s initial game of pretending that she may not run was perfect: she set up the the campaign’s monstrously efficient machine – similar to the one Obama had – and now she is ready to run for the final match. It is funny how nobody seems to notice that she has been trying to get back to the the White House since the day she and her husband, President Clinton, left it “financially broken,” as she loves to say. Perhaps, to be more polite, we can say that she actually was getting ready for the White House for almost as long as Mitt Romney, who was crushed by Obama in 2012. Why are none of us counting up the number of years when she was getting ready – with much audacity – to assault the White House? Or why does nobody calculate the wealth that the Clinton family possesses? Was Romney the only rich candidate to run for the White House? And since the game is set for Hillary, it is no wonder that the mainstream media in the U.S. bought it when Hillary Clinton was declared the winner of the first TV debate among the Democratic candidates. The winner of what? What did she prove? That she stood up? That, according to silent majority of Democrats, she will be able to defeat Donald Trump if the Republican Party nominates him? I can agree, but this has nothing to do with her overall capacity to run this country in the way it needs to be led.
But before I explain, let me say that in a normal country, a person like Donald Trump would not even be running at all. For me, the fact that America might get a Slovenian first lady isn’t exciting, either. I think this world is too complex to afford to be governed by an unpredictable, authoritarian and simple-minded person like Donald Trump. It is too expensive. America cannot have her own Silvio Berlusconi for the next four to eight years. Not even for a week!
Meanwhile, during the Democratic debate, we heard Bernie Sanders saying out loud, to the millions of Americans watching their TVs, that in order to save itself, America needs a political revolution. We have not heard the world “revolution” in political speeches during the last six years. It is as if it was banned from the country’s political vocabulary. Even I, who do not pass for a conservative, was alarmed when I heard Bernie Sanders say it. But then I thought, “He said it, and now ‘revolution’ is back in the American vocabulary.” That is to say, political revolution – the necessity to reform and unlock the stagnant, rigid and corrupt system that is becoming increasingly authoritarian, similar to any other country that we all consider non-democratic. I am convinced, like many others, that Bernie Sanders cannot make it to the White House. But I respect his human honesty and concern. The same way as I am glad that in journalism there are people like Nate Silver, who still wonder and doubt that the game is set for the final match for Hillary Clinton, saying that she won nothing in the debate.
I am not saying that Sanders and Silver are the only ones who think out of the box. Far from that.
Nevertheless, the presidential elections in the U.S. are a tough kind of game. But in the end, if you have some political experience, good looks and oral skills – and you manage to collect, let’s say, $1 billion – then you have pretty good chance to buy yourself a ticket to that house of power, where they fly you around in not one, but three choppers. But by the time an American president gets elected, after an excruciating two-year-long campaign, two and a half months of transition team work, during which the president elect has to select and nominate about 7,000 government officials and go through a very long inaugural ceremony… I guess by that time, every new president must already be tired. And while “the most powerful man on earth” is trying to do his job as the president – rubbing shoulders with Congress, receiving and shaking hands with foreign statesmen, or pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys – he also has to start a new campaign for the midterm elections. And he can never be careful enough about what he’s saying and doing if he (or she) wants to run for a second term. Being president of the U.S. must be an awful job, and I do not get why people want it.
Elections in Great Britain – or even France – seem to be much more simple. On the whole, European election campaigns last a few months at most. In Great Britain, they can form a new government within hours after the votes are counted. All other countries have no need to spend billions of dollars, pounds or euros in order to elect a new prime minister, chancellor or president. And during European elections, none of the money to finance the candidates can come out of rich citizens’ pockets or from corporations. Of course, that does not mean that European politics are corruption-free. But even if you look at a notoriously corrupt country like Italy, its politicians are still liable to the law, and sooner or later, they are likely end up in court. Not in America. Not even the Koch brothers or the unions that finance the candidates’ campaigns, for that matter. Or the president of U.S., who can thank generous donors by appointing them as U.S. ambassadors around the globe.
But why is it that after two long years of election campaigns, with endless discussions and debates before the vote, the country is still undecided, the Congress bickering and in permanent stalemate, and the government in shutdown? Where is this dysfunctionality coming from?
We could hope to change the basic nature of our democracy, so it fits the times as our other institutions do. But this is about as likely as an enlightened coup. For a few hours on Election Day 2004, it seemed that America had a chance to correct the anachronism of its Electoral College. When exit polls showed John Kerry ahead in Ohio, there was a chance that for the second election in a row, a candidate might lose the popular vote but still become president. (A swing of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have put George W. Bush in Al Gore’s position from four years earlier, as the popular-vote winner who had to go home.) With each party burned, in sequence, we might have agreed on a reform.
Fallows wrote this five years ago, after he returned from China, where he sojourned for four years. As a very attentive social writer, he observed and compared the differences between China and America. In his article, he discusses at length the possibility of constitutional and political reform and comes up with an interesting observation, which is clearly not part of the American mindset.
“I have seen enough of the world outside America to be sure that eventually a collapsing public life brings the private sector down with it,” Fallows writes. “If we want to maintain the virtues of private America, we must at least try on the public front too.”
Fallows’ observation is radical compared to mainstream American politics. Or let’s put it this way: Fallows did not care about being politically correct. He simply said what he thought when he saw his home country after a few years’ absence. America needs to change its thinking, he said. Similar to Sanders, but coming from a completely different background.
How did America come to this point? Perhaps now that the U.S. is facing elections again, it would be good to reread George Packer. In his book, The Unwinding: An Inner Story Of The New America, he describes the undercurrents of American life in last few decades. Packer is not easy to follow – his thoughts are complex and subtle.But he can be very concrete and precise in capturing moments that profoundly change American social life. In “Coming Apart,” an essay for the New Yorker, Packer analyzes the impact that 9/11 had on American society.
And he starts with then-President George Bush:
No one appeared more surprised on September 11th, more caught off guard, than President Bush. The look of startled fear on his face neither reflected nor inspired the quiet strength and resolve that he kept asserting as the country’s response. In reaction to his own unreadiness, Bush immediately overreached for an answer. In his memoir, “Decision Points,” Bush describes his thinking as he absorbed the news in the Presidential limousine, on Route 41 in Florida: “The first plane could have been an accident. The second was definitely an attack. The third was a declaration of war.” In the President’s mind, 9/11 was elevated to an act of war by the number of planes. Later that day, at Offutt Air Force Base, in Nebraska, he further refined his interpretation, telling his National Security Council by videoconference, “We are at war against terror.”
Those were fateful words. Defining the enemy by its tactic was a strange conceptual diversion that immediately made the focus too narrow (what about the ideology behind the terror?) and too broad (were we at war with all terrorists and their supporters everywhere?). The President could have said, “We are at war against Al Qaeda,” but he didn’t.
Later on, Packer quotes Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who, in 2004, wrote – quite mistakenly – that the post-9/11 period and Bush’s war on terror was an opportunity for revival, for another American golden age: “Much of the background noise of the next generation will be the keen and eloquent wailing of the educated classes in the United States. Mead writes that America’s future belongs to the “Jacksonians”: lower-middle-class white Americans who are patriotic, religious, insular, self-reliant, ready to take the fight ruthlessly to the enemy abroad, and hostile to élites at home, their passions best articulated by George W. Bush in his “dead or alive” mode.”
Lower-middle-class white Americans sound so much like the Tea Party, which no doubt will once again have the decisive role in choosing the Republican candidate. Which means that America will remain polarized and stagnant.
This is where America stands today. President Obama’s eight years of war against his own shadows were not enough to change anything on the long to-do list, if the U.S. still wants to lead the world. The only person who is talking about these kind of changes is Bernie Sanders, a white senator from Vermont, a 73 years old man. He has nothing to win nor lose.
An my Knicks? They at least have a complete new team this year. Everyone but Carmelo Anthony, who is still the king of the past and the man of the old game. But if nothing else, the most paid and powerful king of the declining Knicks is surrounded by young talent, and he will have to play for the team.