Sunday, October 30, 2005

Charisma and Values: Is that all there is?

I was planning to write something about the coming mayoral election here in New York City. I thought that I could write on what the race has been about, what the issues are, and what my little sample of New Yorkers think about them. But then, well… I just couldn’t come up with anything.

After all, it’s just about electing the leader of the biggest and most influential city in the US.

Unfortunately, unless something truly unexpected happens in the next nine days, 2005 can be safely put away as the Year No New Yorkers Paid Any Attention to their Mayoral Race.


You would think that we New Yorkers would be excited about this coming election. After all, Bloomberg got elected while no one was looking—or more accurately, while everyone was still staring at the dark smoke rising from the southern tip of the island; you would think that this year, New Yorkers would be paying attention, if only to make up for their (understandable) distraction in the fall of 2001.

Yet, four years later, and after twelve (yes, that’s twelve) years of having a Republican mayor in a city where less than 15% of registered voters are Republicans, no one really seems to care that much about the coming election on November 8th. Bloomberg has spent a fortune in his electoral media blitz, but I haven’t heard anyone mention any of his ads or slogans --not even as a joke or a parody, as one would expect. And on the Democratic side, Fernando Ferrer, after winning the primaries by barely squeaking by the 40% necessary to avoid a runoff, has stayed vaguely visible in the public’s imagination thanks to the name recognition he gained from running in (and losing) the past two elections.

The two candidates are, by pretty much all accounts, light on charisma. Ferrer often sounds and looks like the Old Party Dignitary that he happens to be; Bloomberg, the “non-politician” who sounds and looks like the CEO he once was, tends to speak as if he were addressing the gigantic airless, neon-lit boardroom of a company called “NYC Inc”. The sound of New Yorkers snoring through the meeting would be deafening, if New Yorkers actually bothered to attend it.

Now, in principle, I don’t have anything against charm-less candidates. In this political culture of ours where Hollywood looms larger than ever, lack of charm can conjure the possibility of authenticity. Granted, that’s the best-case scenario. In our case, it seems that Bloomberg’s drabness has been received as a welcoming change from the self-righteous, in-your-face, holier-that-thou attitude we suffered for eight years with Rudy Giuliani. Whereas Giuliani was drama personified, Bloomberg’s utter lack of any apparent emotional life is what gives him the appearance of being a “good steward” of the city. But whether one agrees with his stewardship or not, an inspiring leader he is not.

But if inspired leadership is what gets voters to the polls, don’t count on Ferrer to get New Yorkers to line up at poll stations on November 8th . No one really knows what to think of him; no one seems to know how to define him. Some people (from both parties) really don’t like him. Not because he is too much of a “liberal”; nor because he is not enough of a liberal. He is not liked for not being anything in particular.

So, in a political race with no charisma and no personality, what on earth could get voters interested?

You might think: “I know what! Values! You know, the values stuff people kept talking about during the 2004 presidential election.”

Most likely though, that won’t work either. New Yorkers pretty much agree on values—at least, in relation to the supposed divide that exist between “red” states and “blue” states. In New York City itself (New York State is another story), you have “True Navy” blue districts like the Uppper West Side and Harlem and “Aqua” blue districts like the Upper East Side and some “Powder Blue” districts spread throughout Brooklyn and Queens. Staten Island, Former Land of the Fresh Kill landfills, is as purple as you will get around these parts. (And guess what? They want to secede anyway!)

In a sense, what we are witnessing here is the absence of true partisanship as we know it (and not as it necessarily means). We all know that Bloomberg used to be a Democrat before running for office, and no one, I bet, fears in any way that he might be a threat to women’s or gays’ rights or to the separation of Church and State. (Civil rights is another issue, as anyone who has got arrested during the RNC convention will tell you. Those arrests, and the smoking ban, are the only issue that have come close to providing the grounds for an anti- Bloomberg movement). Ferrer, on the other hand, could be a DINO, or not, but it does not matter, since, again, even a New York City DINO would still be relatively “progressive” in comparison to many other parts of the country.

What is truly amazing to me is that once you take away the entertainment value of a campaign—charisma, or personality, and values—no one (and that includes the media) seems to be interested.

Could it be that the reason why no one seems interested in this New York contest is that it has none of the wedge issues that have bee used so artfully in national elections? Could it be that we do not know how to speak of any other political issues that those which divide us, the so-called “social” issues? Could it be that without those social issues at stake, there are absolutely no differences between the two main parties?

Could it be that we, as a culture, have forgotten what matters beyond personalities and so-called social values?

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