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Democracy and the Christie Phenomenon

by Digby

Chris Christie and his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, right, in September 2013. (Photograph: Phil Stilton /Getty Images)This piece by Arun Gupta gets to something important about our American “democracy”:

[T]hese days Americans have as much familiarity with democracy as they do with homesteading on the frontier. We like to imagine ourselves as pioneering statesmen, hewing a sturdy nation from the simple tools democracy has bequeathed us – messaging, voting, debates, elections, law-making – but we are lost in the wilderness when it comes to discovering the essence of democracy.

Democracy is not the same as the perpetual-motion electoral machine. It’s both a means and end built on dialogue, respect, relationships and reason, and it’s everything Christie pummels into submission. But don’t blame the public for this sorry state of affairs. Our lives are bereft of democracy. Virtually all schools are authoritarian, as are churches. Families teeter between parental authority and youthful insubordination. Few believe consumerism is democratic (but our democracy is consumeristic). Say “workplace democracy” to anyone at the office and blank stares is the best reaction you can hope for.

Few people know how to engage in democratic discussion and dialogue. I’ve heard the same story from food-justice organizers in Brooklyn, anti-fracking activists in Ohio, warehouse workers in Chicago, and home-foreclosure defenders in Oakland. It’s back to basics. Organizing now means first building community through socializing such as potlucks, block parties and softball games, and teaching people how to collectively listen to and discuss ideas with mutual respect.

He is leading up to an explanation as to why people like the bullying tough guy types such as Chris Christie — they are looking for someone to “take charge” in a world in which they feel a loss of control.

Maybe. I agree that our connection with “democracy” is more tenuous than ever, for a lot of reasons. The promise of “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and “hope and change” giving way to the reality that the whole thing can be brought to a halt by a rump group of extremists alone has been very disillusioning to a great many people. But I actually think that thuggish guys like Christie always appeal to a fair number of Americans regardless of the conditions of the moment. The question is always whether that person can get a majority to vote for him.

I think he’s right about this:

Christie taps into something dark in the American political soul – a desire not just for order or efficiency, but pleasure in humiliating the weak. Is it surprising women are a frequent target of his abuse, who are pathologized in our society as weak?

Like every bully, Christie crossed the line, or a bridge in his instance. The silver lining is his presidential ambitions may drown in the brewing scandal so the whole nation doesn’t have to suffer him degrading women with blow-job jokes. But others like Christie will follow in his wake until we realize our society does not suffer from a lack of authoritarian bullies but a deficit of grassroots democracy.

Christie may recover from this scandal and go on to win the nomination. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened. We do have a problem with our democracy, no doubt about that, and our work is cut out for us to turn that around. As Eric Boehlert illustrates here, one of the necessary first steps is to do something about the political press which has shown over and over again its propensity for immature storylines that explain nothing of importance and leave the people relating to their politics as a TV show. And boy did they love them some Chris Christie:

In the last month alone, TIME magazine has declared that Christie governed with “kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore.” MSNBC’s Morning Joe called the governor “different,” “fresh,” and “sort of a change from public people that you see coming out of Washington.” In a GQ profile, Christie was deemed “that most unlikely of pols: a happy warrior,” while National Journal described him as “the Republican governor with a can-do attitude” who “made it through 2013 largely unscathed. No scandals, no embarrassments or gaffes.” ABC’s Barbara Walters crowned Christie as one of her 10 Most Fascinating People, casting him as a “passionate and compassionate” politician who cannot lie.

Note that when Christie last year easily won re-election against a weak Democratic opponent (via record low voter turnout), the Beltway press treated the win as some sort of national coronation (“Chris Christie is a rock star” announced CNN’s Carol Costello), with endless cable coverage and a round of softball interviews on the Sunday political talk circuit.

Here’s Time from last November’s celebration: “He’s a workhorse with a temper and a tongue, the guy who loves his mother and gets it done.” That, of course, is indistinguishable from a Christie office press release. But it’s been that way for years.

The man acted like a thug and a jackass in public repeatedly, in ways that foreshadowed this scandal to a t, and yet this was how the media chose to portray him. No wonder our democracy’s in trouble.

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