Monday, February 28, 2011

Totem Polls

The Oscar for best picture has become over the years our collective totem pole. Year after year these cinematic creations carve new identities into our American psyche.

Last year The Hurt Locker won for Best Picture. It began with the notion that war is like an addiction. Kathryn Bigelow who directed began the film by quoting Times war correspondent Chris Hedges, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” For a generation of Baby Boomers who fought the Cold War, we still await the promised peace dividend. War is no longer a variable it is a constant. We all seem to be trapped in our own “hurt locker.”

Last night the 83rd Academy Awards honored a new collection of films. This year’s nominees for Best Picture again seemed to resonate with our current national condition.

The Social Network, based on the rise of Facebook, is about more than founder Mark Zuckerberg. This home to over 500 million users has helped to spur revolutions across the Middle East. Social networking is fast changing the way we organize our lives.

Black Swan directed by Darren Aronofsky is a haunting film. Like his earlier film The Wrestler, Aronofsky takes on the performing arts. What you see is not what you get. Appearances are deceiving. These plot lines are not unlike Nassim Taleb’s best selling book The Black Swan. Taleb has written extensively about randomness. As much as we want to control the circumstances of our life using empirical analysis, certainty is allusive. No single word best encapsulates our times like the word uncertainty.

The remaining Best Picture nominees all have something to say about our current condition - The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone, and Inception.

Of these Inception stands out.

Inception is a film about a team of experts, led by Leonardo Dicaprio, who infiltrate dreams in order to alter realities. Often traveling through layers of dreams the participants use personalized objects or totems to determine if they are awake or still asleep. Living in one’s dreams often provides a better place than when faced with stark reality.

The Dicaprio character is case in point. Throughout the film his subconscious memories obstruct his mission. Nevertheless he cannot seem to avoid being haunted by his memories that are alive and well in his dreams. Throughout the film Dicaprio spins a top, his totem, to determine whether or not he is dreaming.

If the top stops spinning he knows he is awake and the dreams are over.

Artist Grant Wood had something to say about dreaming. “Almost all of us have some dream power in our childhood but without encouragement it leaves us and then we become bored and tired and ordinary...We are carefully coached in the most modern and efficient ways of making our bodies comfortable and we become so busy about getting ourselves all nicely placed that we are apt to forget the dream spirit that is born in all of us.”

Pollsters tell us today that so many of our dreams have vanished. Americans no longer look to the future with bright eyes. Austerity rules. The true test for our leaders is can they keep our tops spinning?

Still waiting for answers. Still waiting our king's speech.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rahm: Yeltsin or Putin?

Our students recently asked what difference it makes if Rahm Emanuel wins the Chicago mayoral election in tomorrow’s first round of voting or in April’s second round.

We tried to answer with a rhetorical question invoking Russian politics: Does Emanuel want to be known as Yeltsin or Putin?

On the surface, the politics of Russia and Chicago would seem to have little in common beyond the importance of efficient snow removal. But the electoral system for Chicago’s mayor holds the distinction as being the same type of system used to elect Russian presidents and many other international chief executives.

Voters in France and Iran also elect their presidents through this two round, non-partisan system where multiple candidates from a variety of political factions battle in the first round. Any candidate who wins a majority (50% plus 1 vote) in this first round automatically captures the executive title. But if no candidate secures an electoral majority in Round 1, the top two vote getters square off in a second round of balloting. The winner of this final match up is guaranteed a majority of the vote.

Some have suggested this type of electoral system as the best replacement for our Electoral College. Instead of indirectly electing our president through the electors of the 50 states, citizens could directly elect a Presidential winner with a majority of the voters’ support. Swing states would become a forgotten buzzword as candidates courted the votes from the nation’s population centers, like Chicagoland, that are so often ignored by presidential election strategists.

French presidential elections characterize how this system was intended to work, where more than a dozen presidential candidates typically enter the first round of balloting. Voter turnout averages an astounding 80% in this method as French citizens from all ideologies can clearly identify with at least one of the candidates from across the political spectrum.

Round 2 in France functions the same way James Madison depicted a large republic working when he wrote Federalist 10. The top two contenders must campaign beyond the base factions that supported them in Round 1 in order to gain the majority of support. This helps build a political culture where elections become a way to galvanize connections between otherwise diverse groups.

In reality, Chicago’s mayoral elections resemble Russia and Iran much more than the ideals of France.

Since the introduction of the non-partisan election in 1999, Richard Daley dominated each of his three campaigns in this system and never experienced a second round of mayoral balloting. Similarly, Iranian presidential elections have never gone to the second round, and Russian presidential candidates have only battled onto a second round once.

1996 was the only Russian election that extended beyond the first round. A weakened Boris Yeltsin barely survived this electoral challenge from the resurgent Communist Party. In order to secure the win, Yeltsin had to rely heavily on influence and favors from the new class of oligarchs. Financial turmoil and subservience to these oligarchs ended up characterizing the last of Yeltsin’s years in office.

Vladimir Putin followed these years of weakness with political muscle made possible by his electoral superiority in the first round of elections. This perception of electoral invulnerability helped Putin to quickly centralize political power and stabilize Russia’s economic chaos. Even out of the presidential office, Putin’s political influence runs deep today.

In the politics of perception, Rahm Emanuel knows that winning a plurality of tomorrow’s votes without securing the outright majority will be perceived of as weakness. And when the image of electoral dominance can lead to the reality of political strength, Emanuel surely wants to be remembered as winning first round elections like Putin rather than stumbling through the second round like Yeltsin.

Learn about Political Socialization

Check out this short video about political socialization

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

See Mo’ Green

The 53rd Grammy Awards, broadcast last Sunday on CBS, featured more than the best and brightest musical artists of our time. Today’s performers mean to do more than entertain. Sounds like they want to teach.

More and more musicians seem to be tapping into our present zeitgeist. Music and lyrics now heard across all musical platforms transcend the visceral. Pop has gone cerebral.

So da rappers have gone political on us?

Just look at this year’s Grammy winners and decide for yourself. President Obama could not have asked for a better opening act to his budget proposal this week.

Lady Antebellum, who brought both shock and awe to the Grammy’s this year, won big for their song, “Need you now.” Equally showing shock and awe the president this week proposed his $3.7 trillion budget for 2012. The leadership from both political parties rained down criticism. Obama is going to need, at the very least, the help from his own Democratic Party.

President George W. Bush shocked us in 2002 by proposing a $2 trillion dollar budget. The trillion-dollar marker was first crossed back in 1967. It would not take another thirty years to add another trillion. Obama crossed into $3 trillion just six years later. Combined with historically high deficits today’s outrageous budget numbers make Lady Gaga look down right dull.

President Obama and his budget team are attempting to pass off these record deficits and debt by assuring us we were just “Born This Way.”

Strangely, the Republicans seem to be channeling Eminem. His most recent effort “Recovery” was the top selling album of 2010. The same could be said of the Republican Party. Aided by the Tea Party, Republicans have recovered their majority of the House of Representatives.

With their newfound confidence Republicans are “Not Afraid” to take a stand against the president and his “monsters.” Resurrecting memories from the Carter administration, House Speaker Boehner can be heard crying out, “Holla if you feel that you’ve been down the same road.”

The Grammy artist who seems to have touched closest to our nerves, however, is singer-songwriter Cee Lo Green. Some might remember him as vocalist of Gnarls Barkley and the smash hit “Crazy.” We were singing that song just as the unknown Barack Obama was deciding to run for president four years ago.

Today Cee Lo Green is singing a different tune.

He is no longer crazy. He is angry. The new normal is unacceptable.

His monster hit can be song in many different ways. Even Gwyneth Paltrow covered it during an episode of “Glee.” Cee Lo Green’s “Lady Killer” lyrics reflect the angst of our age.

President Obama is singing about mo’ green. You can understand if our first reaction is “Forget you.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Prefix - ation

The prefix “super” is derived from the Latin for “above” and “beyond.” We Americans love anything that is super. We love to use the prefix “super.” It might be a collective fixation.

This weekend we loved the Super Bowl. Record numbers watched and enjoyed two of our most storied NFL franchises play in our biggest game.. The game lived up to its hype.

This weekend we also gave tribute to our Super President. Ronald Reagan would have been 100 on Sunday. Both conservatives and liberals paid homage to the memory of our cheerleading president. We shared super memories.

But there is more.

We love our Super Heroes, Super Smash Brothers, Super-sized meals and our Super Mario.

We have supermarkets with supervisors using supercomputers. We superimpose, supersede and superscript. Things are superficial, superfine and supercritical.

The prefix “super” is superior.

Obama hoped for super results as president. Barack Obama ran a super campaign. Yet his presidency has been dominated by super problems. He certainly had made plans for a long legacy of superlatives. Obama had counted on the prefix “super” to best characterize his transformational presidency.

The super problems, however, have made this superpower worry more about leaking supertankers. Our superintendent-in-chief rose to power in supersonic ways but now all too often appears on the world stage as a supernumerary.

Four years ago this month Obama announced his candidacy for president on the steps where Lincoln stood. On a super cold day a super cool narrative began.

Soon Obama will be asked to announce that he is running again. Shortly Obama will have to make if official that he is seeking a second term. To be successful this time the prefix “super” might sound superfluous.

If President Obama expects to go above and beyond this time he best start thinking about using the right suffix. If that suffix does not contain jobs no prefix will be noticed anyway.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The American Political Culture

By studying the American political culture we can learn how democratic revolutions can end well. Democracy is sustained not by its institutions but by culture.

Check out the video and tell us what you think about the American political culture and the likelihood that these democratic revolutions around the world today will end well.