Anthropology and the Banality of Presidential Politics

BROOKLYN, NY, UNITED STATES - 2016/04/14: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at CNN during  the democratic presidential debat
BROOKLYN, NY, UNITED STATES - 2016/04/14: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at CNN during the democratic presidential debate. at the democratic presidential debate. (Photo by Louise Wateridge/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Am I alone, or is there an exponentially expanding audience of people who have grown tired of our fight club presidential politics? In this 2016 political season, which has now reached the all-important New York primary, there have been endless exchanges during which the various candidates have unabashedly teased, cajoled and insulted one another.

"If you hit me," as Donald Trump has famously said again and again and again, "I'm going to hit you back."

Indeed, we have witnessed Republican candidates talking about the size of their various public and private parts. There's "Lying Ted Cruz" and "Little Marco Rubio," who in his last Republican debate said that Mr.Trump's small hands suggested something about the diminished size of another Trump body part. Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz have in no uncertain terms insulted their respective spouses, treating them like objects rather than sentient beings. More recently, the give and take between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders has also been reduced to mutual name calling -- about qualifications, judgment, naivete and ethics. In terms quite similar to the Republican discourse, Senator Sanders recently said that if someone attacked him, he'd defend himself. Just because he's from a small state, he stated, doesn't mean that he can be pushed around.

If Hillary hits Bernie, Bernie will hit back. If Bernie attacks Hillary, she will counter-attack.

Politics has devolved into a war fought on a playground where we now refer to our presidential combatants by their first names.

This never-ending battle of punch and counter-punch is an embarrassment, a pathetic example of our political dysfunction. It is a dysfunction fueled by a ratings-savvy media that profits from the banality of presidential politics, a politics, as I suggested in a previous blog post, that is dramatically contoured by low-brow, highly-rated reality television.

In exchange for good ratings, profits and the soap opera politics of attack and counter-attack, the public has been rewarded again and again with systemic political gridlock, which, in turn, has fostered widespread cynicism and produced a group of presidential aspirants most of whom no one likes or trusts.

How can anyone cut through so many layers of such meaningless dribble? Why bother to vote?

Even in an extremely cynical political climate, elections are profoundly consequential. We should all make strong efforts to vote in primaries and in local, state and national elections. And yet, given the pitiable quality of our candidates for elected office, how is it possible to evaluate a given contender?

There is a fundamental anthropological principle that may well be useful. Anthropologists have long engaged in fieldwork. We spend lengthy periods of time living among the people we seek to understand and describe -- all in an effort to better understand the human condition. During fieldwork we talk formally and informally to a wide variety of people -- men, women, farmers, fishermen, craftspeople, chiefs,civil servants, even politicians. How do we take measure of these people, all of whom have a variety of motives for talking with a visiting researcher?

Most field anthropologists follow a cardinal rule: Listen to what people say, but pay careful attention to what they do. Is there consistency between a person's words and actions? If a person's words and attitudes are consistent with her or his behavior, we find that person trustworthy. If there is incongruity between a person's words and behavior, we don't trust what that person's says.

We can easily apply this principal to presidential politics.

Among the Republican presidential candidates, no one seems to fit a pattern of consistency. It's hard to make sense of the bizarre political behavior of Mr. Trump, the untrustworthy antics of Senator Cruz, or the disconnect between Governor John Kasich's talk of moderation and his extremely conservative decisions--especially with regard to women's issues.

Among the Democrats, our anthropological principle exposes Hillary Clinton's greatest weakness -- her perceived lack of trustworthiness. Secretary Clinton has deep political experience. She knows how the game is played in a dysfunctional political system. Even so, does her rhetoric match her action? She talks about fighting to make life better for the middle class, and yet, she takes money from wealthy donors and has a Super PAC. She has criticized Wall Street greed, and yet, knowing full well that she would make a run for the presidency, she accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from firms like Goldman Sachs. When pressed to release transcripts of these speeches, which could well be harmless, Secretary Clinton has so far refused, which begs the question (rightly or wrongly): what is she hiding?

Senator Sanders, by contrast, has nothing to hide. Although Senator Sanders sometimes seems a bit impatient or too rigid in his positions, he is completely consistent. There is no incongruity between his words and his deeds. He has no Super PAC and doesn't appear at high profile fundraisers to accept large sums of money from wealthy donors. Like Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders has railed against Wall Street, but has not taken speaking fees or donations from Wall Street firms.

Whether you like his policy positions are not, Senator Sanders has emerged as the only presidential aspirant who is authentic and trustworthy. Given the realities of contemporary presidential politics, it's not likely that Senator Sanders will become the nominee of the Democratic Party or President of the United States. Even so, his candidacy provides a glimpse of a future politics in which our authentically transparent officials will have developed the moral capacity to address with vigor and honesty the issues that will decide our social future: racism, bigotry, terrorism, income inequality and, most importantly, climate change.

Although the scent of stale debate is still present in the political air, the winds have nonetheless brought us a refreshing whiff of future change.