Monday, October 25, 2010

Christine O'Donnell and Jimmy McMillan Walk Into A Bar

Akim Reinhardt 
   Towson University

Christine O’Donnell is kind of like a knock-knock joke: the set-up doesn’t change, but there’s a seemingly endless variety of punch lines that can spring from it. Yesterday’s gaffe is the latest example. While debating in front of the faculty and students of a law school, no less, she became visibly flustered when her opponent pointed out that the 1st amendment stipulates “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” What’s sadly humorous is that the content of the 1st amendment to the United States Constitution seems to be news to a major party senatorial candidate just 2 weeks before the election. I say sadly humorous, because it’s not quite outright funny, like say the thought of her flying around town on a witch’s broomstick, or imagining her desperately trying to stave off the perils of masturbation. I mean, the recently departed Robert Byrd’s saliva stained grandstanding aside, I really do want all of our senators to have a reasonable familiarity with the Constitution. I don’t think that’s raising the bar of expectation too high.

   And then there is the new folk hero, born of the recent NY gubernatorial debate: Jimmy McMillan of The Rent Is 2 Damn High Party. The major candidates in that race are the son of former Governor Mario Cuomo (will Americans ever stop voting for famous families, be they Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes or Clintons?) and O’Donnell’s fellow Tea Partier, Carl Paladino, who, and I’m not kidding here, left the stage early so he could take a wiz. Seriously. But this debate, thankfully, was not closed off to everyone outside the established political duopoly. As the man who is claiming to have coined the term Demublicans and Repocrats (first in print last year, see the article I co-authored with Sociologist Heather Gautney of Fordham University entitled “The Imperial Coin” in Peace and Change), I really do think it is important that smaller political parties and independent candidates be allowed to legitimately participate in the political process, so much of which funnels through large media outlets.

   That brings us to Mr. McMillan, who joined Monsieurs Cuomo and Paladino and four other candidates on stage. That’s right, for this particular debate seven people shared a stage, ranging from the well informed and very serious Libertarian candidate Warren Redliche and Green candidate Howie Hawkins, all the way to Kristin Davis, former madame of the brothel where former Governor Elliot Spitzer became, well, a former governor (at least Ms. O’Donnell can take comfort in the fact that he wasn’t masturbating), whose main campaign tactic so far is making risque jokes.

   Mr. McMillan was somewhere in the middle, mixing serious issues with strange hair styling, talking about the problems of the economy while professing to be a karate expert, exuding a deadly serious tone as he subtly showed his Black Panther street cred by donning 2 black gloves. And to me he seems a lot like Christine O’Donnell.

What? What did you just say? Christine O’Donnell and Jimmy McMillan have something in common?

   Yes, I say, they do. And not in the obvious way, in the easy jokes people (including myself) make about them. Beyond the flaming bull’s eyes, they’re both speaking on behalf of people who feel like they’re on the outside looking in, whether it’s the overwhelmingly white Tea Party movement who loath many of the changes spinning around them, or the black permanent underclass that endures multi-generational poverty that no one else seems too broken up about. They have a lot in common because there are a lot of people in this country who are very, very unhappy with the status quo, who quite understandably believe that the two major parties represent that status quo, and who are looking for a voice to represent them. Chirstine O’Donnell and Jimmy McMillan are attempting to fill that void.
   Are either Christine O’Donnell or Jimmy McMillan the best qualified people to assume the political offices they’re seeking. Of course not. Not even close. Not by a long shot. I’m reasonably confident that almost any 18 year old high school valedictorian could do a much better job than either of them, truth be told. But do they deserve to be heard? You’d better believe it. Because they represent real people, citizens who are very pissed off. That O’Donnell has a major party candidacy and is now on the inside, while McMillan is a far off fringe candidate in a make-believe party who had only a few minutes in the spotlight, merely says something about the resources and successes of angry middle class whites as opposed to the resources and successes of angry lower class blacks.
   But what’s truly devastating is that even though both are the butt of jokes, and even though neither one of them has a real chance of winning their election, both of them are getting more attention than serious outsider candidates like Libertarian Redliche and Green Hawkins. Redliche and Hawkins are at extreme opposite ends of the political and economic spectrums, and you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anything they agree on. But I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that they agree on this: they’ve both studied the issues, they’re both dedicated to improving conditions for Americans, and neither one of them can get a fraction of the attention lavished on O’Donnell and now McMillan. Why? Because they’re both with small but serious parties that are currently marginalized yet represent potential threats to The Big Two, they’re both on the outside looking in, facing all the obstacles that the major parties throw in their way, and because neither one of them is willing to make themselves into the kind of a joke that the press loves because it helps them sell papers or TV and radio commercials or targeted website ads (Did you notice there are no ads here? There never will be). 

   And consequently, the real joke is on all of us.

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