“Kitsch has its source in the categorical agreement with being. . .
. . .political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes as on the fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch.”
– Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
As YouTube’s and Bethesda Beat’s most infamous Marc Elrich supporter, I did not celebrate his slim margin ahead of primary opponent David Blair as the Election Day totals were completed last Tuesday. Why? Because there are thousands of absentee and provisional ballots to be counted. And, I’ve watched Game of Thrones, Season 4, Episode 8. Even if Elrich is built more like the Mountain, I’d end up reacting like Ellaria Sand if I’m not careful.
Maybe we should have an election by combat?
The state of the County Executive race is indeed agonizing. We were all prepared for it to be over last week. By now, we would be either celebrating or moving on. If we were to lose, at least we’d all be in good company and commiserating together and drinking. Instead, it will come down to the last of the provisional and absentee ballots, which will be finished up Friday the 6th and certified Monday the 9th, according to Bethesda Beat. If Blair beats Elrich, I may very well find out while I’m at work or something, not surrounded by Elrich fans and whiskey and wine.
And now, yet ANOTHER plot twist: Nancy Floreen has entered the race, at the eleventh hour. This news broke literally just as I was starting this blog entry. Floreen, as many know, is a centrist or center-right Democrat (although, apparently, not for long?) who often takes the most conservative positions on the council, such as opposing the $15 minimum wage bill until she was basically peer pressured into supporting it.
The Countdown That Remains: Blair vs. Elrich
Before I go any further – a necessary disclaimer: These views are entirely my own. I am not and was never a paid staffer on Marc’s campaign or anyone else’s; I only volunteered. I do not represent his views, nor do my views happen to be lock-step with his. I can think of at least three issues on which I disagree with Marc. He does not tell me what to write, he has not approved anything written in this blog, and he might not even agree with some of my interpretations here. The Elrich campaign remains cautiously optimistic as the rest of the votes are counted. I, personally, might be less optimistic.
Here’s why: As it stands, Marc leads Blair by 166 votes. After election night, that lead was 492 votes. Blair basically dominated the absentee votes postmarked before the 26th. Here is a screenshot of Hal Ginsberg’s analysis on the Facebook group Our Revolution in Montgomery County:
Its main takeaways? Based on 2014 results, absentee and provisionals have skewed conservative. Progressive candidates including Marc himself have underperformed in provisional votes. What’s more, is that absentee voting has been particularly high in Council District 1, which includes Blair country Potomac. Also, there is the very educated guess that a lot of absentee voters are wealthy Potomac residents filling out their ballots according to the Washington Post recommendations before leaving for their summer homes.
Provisionals may still be a wild card, but the rumor remains that several Republicans have re-registered as Democrats specifically to vote for Blair, and their votes would fall into the provisional category. This may just be a rumor, however, and provisional ballots that happen to be affected by the glitch may very well be young voters, renters, and people who have to move a lot. This demographic *should* vote for Marc, but the effectiveness of the outreach Blair was able to buy could have turned them, too.
It is still uncertain. Marc could still hold on. I’m doubtful, but I hope I’m wrong.
The Existential Problem with Blairism
I will first state the obvious, that David Blair is not Donald Trump, and all comparisons beyond his being an outsider, self-funding businessman are just silly. Blair doesn’t carry that element of outright grotesque. He isn’t even as overtly obnoxious as David Trone. And yet Blairism is something I see as more insidious, with his motif of upbeat corporatism. It’s America’s version of “political kitsch” Kundera warned us about.
One of my favorite takeaways from Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being is the lesson that submission to kitsch – joining the parade and repeating back the Party’s slogans – is indeed worse than acknowledging how bad your life sucks. A careful read of Kundera reveals that this message is not simply against Soviet-era Communism, but against submission to an imposed political narrative in general. The narrative of Blairism is that American corporatism is the system in which we not only live, but must celebrate. He speaks in terms of “innovation” and “growth” and mimics a profit line-graph trajectory of where he believes Montgomery County is not, but should be, as if he were the County’s CEO and wielded similar authority. When one dares question his business record – which he uses as his qualification to hold public office – you’re met with an upbeat, glossy, smiling mask thinly veiling condescension and dismissiveness, telling you to #ChooseCivility.
Sure. You mean, #BowYourHead.
Blair’s forum answers suggested very superficial knowledge of County governance; they were generic, CEO-like, implicative of a corporate structure parameter, and were peppered with bland corporate buzzwords like “synergy” and “innovation” and “driven” – with a cringeworthy presence of “like” and “um.”
They basically sound like this Generic Brand Ad:
What makes Blairism dangerous and not merely annoying is that it promulgates the false narrative of the American Dream, and the notion that “more is better.” Blairism glorifies indiscriminate growth, density, and development, but with more excusably vague terms than the transparently urbanist GreaterGreaterWashington blog. Blairism incentivizes the “Protestant work ethic,” networking, being the “first one in/last one out,” and all other tenets of the rat-race centered corporate culture, the productivity-centered state of being. Blairism operates on the unfortunate American mindset that values that one percent chance of becoming among the One Percent more than the hard, cold reality that we are not nearly as upwardly mobile as we think.
Elrichism, democratic socialism, or a more sane, Northern European-style capitalism favors a decent, balanced living, where people can compartmentalize work, family, and health. It enables working people to afford housing and healthcare with some cash left over to spend at local businesses, so that communities can house residents of diverse professions. It acknowledges the fact that not every person needs to be a CEO.
Blairism leads to a sterile world of high rises and highways and existence evaluated by the upward-trending line graph.
Specifically, Blairism centers on Montgomery County’s competition to “win” Amazon by presenting a more “business friendly” face, like that of Northern Virginia. Just as I wouldn’t want to date or marry someone who loves me for someone I’m not, I don’t want Amazon here if we need to be more like Northern Virginia. If I wanted that, I’d live in Northern Virginia.
Blairistan vs. Elrichia
How would I envision a region – or a country – governed entirely according to the principles of these two candidates? If I may hyperbolize somewhat, multplying the impact of this elected office to the apparent world views of the candidates.
In a word, Blair’s world would have…traffic. I envision a similar asphalt jungle of clogged roads and high rises as Fairfax County, Virginia. The “high paying jobs” Blair’s pro-business policies would attract would enable loyal corporate servants to live in these high-rises as the established network of executives would settle in Stepfordesque cul-de-sacs lined with McMansions. (See: Reston, Virginia). The character of individual towns and neighborhoods may be lost, in favor of uncontrolled density leading to sameness and blandness. Declining schools (as real estate developers would not be required to put more into the schools and infrastructure their residents would presumably need) would lead to wealthier residents commuting to private schools elsewhere. Lower income residents, meanwhile, would be forced to move farther and farther away from their schools and their jobs leading to more… you guessed it… traffic.
I imagine an Elrich world to be somewhat like parts of Europe – the civil libertarianism of Amsterdam, the revolutionary, self-questioning anti-establishment character of the classic French Left, and the social welfare innovations of Scandinavia, which has earned these countries high scores in overall personal happiness.
Which world would you like to live in? I’m a tangible, quality-of-life kind of person – not a quantity person, not a competitor for the numbers-person. Do I live in the wrong country?
Actually, when I think about it, the “American Dream” fetish, and the glorification of rags-to-riches has some aspect I can empathize with, which is rooting for the underdog. The thing is, while Blair was able to grow his small business into a Fortune 500 company, he did NOT start with nothing. I’d argue that Marc Elrich’s life story is a lot more compelling as an American “underdog” tale – an antiwar activist from a working class family, who worked as a co-op grocer and a schoolteacher before getting elected to the County Council on his fifth attempt, being the underdog on a lot of 8-1 votes, and defying the odds (in the form of money spent by the opposing candidate, hit piece articles,/fake news, misrepresentation of his ideas, peddling of conspiracy theories, etc) and becoming the next Montgomery County Executive.
So, Who Are the Blair Voters?
For the most part, I encounter three main types of Blair voters.
1. The Uninformed.
Low-information voters – and by this, I do NOT mean lower intelligence or lacking general knowledge; I mean voters who simply don’t follow local politics, and who may be quite knowledgeable in many other subject areas – may vote on name recognition. Again, not judging these folks. When I lived in DC, I didn’t follow city council elections all that much, and would simply vote for the woman or vote for the person whose name I’ve seen around, trusting my neighbors and such. When one candidate drowns out the rest, it’s easy enough to win on just the ratio of people giving the benefit of the doubt versus people who are rightfully annoyed.
2. The Gullible.
The knee-jerk anti-Elrich crowd falls into this category. These people trust the Washington Post editorial board, blogs like Greater Greater Washington, and developer-funded covert Republican fronts like Empower Montgomery when they release reports with cherry picked doomsday economic predictions (see my past blog about the Post endorsement). And yet I am not judging people who fall into this category either. They are simply inundated with the business community’s narrative, and blogs like GGWash at least masquerade as left-leaning, so it’s completely understandable that people might take their word for it if they don’t take the effort to follow the money.
3. The Cynical and the Selfish.
These people, I am absolutely judging. I am talking about wealthy Montgomery County “progressive” Democrats who virtue signal, sometimes using weaponized identity politics as a financially expedient way to #resist, because it doesn’t require any actual sacrifice to one’s wallet.
Flying a rainbow flag or a Black Lives Matter sign doesn’t affect your bottom line in Montgomery County as much as actually paying your fair share of taxes.
The Washington Post editorial board is an example of what I would place in the “cynical” category. As Elrich continued dominating the crowded primary, they panicked at the idea that no one was rallying behind a more “pro-business” candidate, and so they endorsed the one who wasn’t even the most right-wing (that would have been Rose Krasnow, according to the Empower Montgomery mailer), but the one with the most money. Cynical indeed.
I’d also place someone like real estate industry blogger Dan Reed in this category, even though he did not (allegedly) support Blair. His anti-Elrich tweet uses identity politics to make it look like Marc’s opposition to the “uncontrolled development at any cost” ideology was somehow racist. Keep in mind that Marc Elrich was the one who fought to preserve housing for immigrant communities along the Purple Line amid “revitalization” efforts.
My guess is that Reed does this for attention and retweets.
Now, Enter Nancy Floreen.
I must say. Nancy Floreen’s decision to jump in was impressively House of Cards. She takes advantage of a bitterly divided primary between two presumably unpopular lead candidates and goes straight into the general as an Independent without going through the grueling year-long campaign process beforehand.
Disclosure: I’m not a fan of Ms. Floreen. While I haven’t interacted with her enough to have a personal grudge against her, I find her overall demeanor condescending. She made assumptions about the reasons MoCo residents supported Term Limits in 2016 – a decision I disagree with, but I would acknowledge the varying arguments for it. She also appeared on MyMCMedia’s coverage of the 2018 primary, where she and the other hosts were pretty transparent in their rooting for a Blair victory, and where her voice was absolutely dripping with disdain as Elrich pulled ahead. All this on top of the fact that I disagree with her on a lot of policy issues.
At best, Floreen is an opportunist, for the reason stated above. At worst, she is the development community’s last gasp attempt to prevent Elrich become County Executive. This will become clear if she decides against running if Blair wins the primary. If (admittedly, currently unsubstantiated) rumors are true that she has been approached by Empower Montgomery before making this decision, it is clear that the real estate development community is losing their shit over the idea of having to pay slightly more for the infrastructure new residents would demand.
The “Establishment” – which I am defining as centrist corporate Democrats, big business executives, real estate development industry profiteers, and The
Bezos Washington Post – are shamelessly, hilariously, and needlessly terrified of Commissar Marc B. Elrich. Honestly, that makes his supporters love him even more.
The False Hope of Unity
A few nights ago, I attended the Montgomery County Democratic Party’s traditional “Kiss and Make Up” Party, which aims to bring all Democrats – successful and unsuccessful candidates, elated and disappointed supporters alike – to unite and support each other with the goal of electing more Democrats. Do I agree that this is a good thing?
Yes and no.
First of all, if the idea is to just elect more Democrats, a Floreen candidacy against Elrich should be irrelevant, as Floreen would run as an independent.
Second of all, I’d say it’s a case-by-case question. I’m still figuring out as to where one may draw the line in determining when one has the luxury of voting one’s conscience versus voting for the lesser evil. I voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, despite being an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter, because I knew how much was at stake. As one of many, many examples, attending the March on Saturday to keep immigrant families together was enough to justify voting against Donald Trump.
That being said – while some may still argue that Bernie Bros or Purity Ponies lost Hillary Clinton the election, the fact is that Hillary Clinton lost Hillary Clinton the election. While she did win the popular vote, her message failed to resonate in the swing states and rust belt states which, however unfortunately, determine the outcome of the election in our Electoral College system. The Democratic Party needs stronger candidates, and Hillary was a weak candidate. This means that we absolutely MUST critique the DNC and improve the way it operates by making it less corrupt.
I also completely disagree with putting party loyalty over progressive policy. Those who are quick to condemn “Purists” point to how Bernie Sanders is “not a Democrat.” My challenge to these people is to examine Independent Bernie Sanders and Democrat Joe Manchin. Which of these esteemed Senators is more likely to vote with Trump? Which is more likely to actively oppose confirming a Trump nominee? Exactly.
If having a “D” by your name is more important that actually standing for principles that distinguish you from Republicans, then…I rest my case.
So, enough of this “Unity” bullshit. Kundera would describe this false moral superiority as another iteration of “political kitsch.”
Speaking specifically to Montgomery County, I would make the call to NOT vote for the lesser evil at the local level. The outcome of a Robin Ficker election, which wouldn’t happen anyways, would not have nearly the global impact of a Donald Trump presidency, yet would certainly be the kick in the ass the entitled developer-backed Establishment Democrats might need.
The Root of All Evil
Citizens United is bar none the worst Supreme Court decision in modern American history. In fact, I’d say it “trumps” all others, even those that take away rights of women and minorities, because it serves as the umbrella or roadblock of preventing the very candidates that want to take away these rights from ascending to office by outspending their rivals.
As many have described this election as a battle cry for rank choice voting (I don’t disagree), it’s also a case study for the need to get money out of politics.
Is it really a fair election if those who opted into public financing – which many argue is taking the moral high road, or at least proving one’s independence from special interests and large corporate and developer donors – end up fighting with one arm tied behind their backs, when a self-financer like Blair can come in with $3-5 million of his own money to drown out everyone else? What’s more, is when moneyed interests further put their thumbs on the scale by controlling the media narrative in favor of their candidate.
But I won’t be hypocritical here. I also think union money does not belong in politics – and my candidate has the overwhelming support (though not financial) from unions.
As I see it, with our current Supreme Court, the only hope is an Article 5 convention to add a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics, which is what Cenk Uygur’s Wolf PAC is doing, state by state. It’s a long haul, but I think progress is gradually being made. And yes, I understand the irony of a PAC fighting PAC money. To this, I would say that in this case, I’m an ends-justify-the-means person, as we cannot unilaterally disarm in a system where you need to get money from somewhere to have any influence whatsoever.
Side note: Progressive Maryland has gotten similar flack over the fact that the organization has a Super PAC. As Progressive Maryland does operate on donor money, right-wing bloggers jumped at the “gotcha” opportunity to attempt to tie Progressive Maryland’s donors to an anti-Blair flyer, which volunteers printed out at their work printers and distributed by hand. Because of the nature of the monied interests controlling the narrative, more attention was paid to the fact that Progressive Maryland has a donor-funded PAC than to the actual allegations cited in the flyer.
Tying this back to the County Executive race… Is Blair trying to buy the election? My answer is absolutely YES. The absentee vote tells a story. Blair was able to reach voters on a breadth and depth that publicly financed candidates simply did not have the resources to match. I am also aware, based on anecdotal evidence, that Blair has handed out free t-shirts, water bottles, and even metro cards to encourage passersby to support his candidacy. Personally, I find this tacky, but politically, it points to “buying their votes.”
The argument that some Blair supporters make – that his spending of his own money makes him independent of special interests, also does not hold water, considering his association with Empower Montgomery (see previous blog). I find it completely unconspiratorial to suspect that Empower has a dog in this fight. I find it only slightly conspiratorial to suspect that Jeff Bezos himself may have meddled in the election coverage, given the gratuitous double endorsement by the Washington Post, as the new DC metro area resident is searching for a second headquarters and presumably wants the best deal he can get.
Trump supporters and Trump apologists often say that the election of Donald J. Trump was “a middle finger to the establishment.” Trump opponents – myself included – liken the Trump Tower in downtown Washington to a giant middle finger to our Founding Fathers.
If Blair wins, I’d also see this as a middle finger to Montgomery County’s public financing experiment. The public financing option encouraged numerous candidates to run, leading to crowded primaries and confused voters and a fertile ground for a big spender to jump in and drown everyone else out. Likewise, I’d see a fair-and-square Elrich victory as a middle finger to corporatism. Considering that Marc was up against every imaginable adversary – developers and their money, big business executives, the Washington Post (and Jeff Bezos?), and millions and millions of dollars – if he STILL wins with a plurality comparable to that of some European elections, it really would be a triumph of progressivism over bullshit.
A Bad Prescription
If David T. Blair wins the Democratic nomination after all the absentees, provisionals, and recounts, he will most certainly NOT have my support in November. More than likely, I will write in Marc. I will, however, #ChooseCivility and refrain from giving him my own Middle Finger if I ever see him through tinted windows and past his taxpayer-funded security detail (taxpayers: maybe you should be interested in supporting candidates who can be their own bodyguards? Think about it…) because I see Blair as a symptom, not a disease.
As a former CEO of a pharmacy benefits manager, with developers on his side, Blair is prescribing us the drug of neoliberalism. The “Unity” behind Blair that loyal Democrats may call for is akin to relying on painkillers for an ailment instead of addressing the root of the problem, the thing that’s making you sick. (Digression – this is why I usually don’t take aspirin or ibuprofen for a headache. I try to address the problem causing it – be it lack of sleep, dehydration, or not eating enough – and when it goes away, I know the problem is fixed. Usually it’s sleep.)
In fact, Blair’s PBM executive background is a perfect metaphor for the unhealthy cycle of neoliberalism. The system perpetuates rat race-style capitalism, that stresses you out, makes you eat like shit and lose sleep, makes you sick, and requires you to spend more on prescriptions.
The Democratic Party is sick. Democrats lost over a thousand seats when Obama was President, and they couldn’t even nominate a candidate to beat the most unpopular president in modern US history. If we are really going to have a #BlueWave in November, we have to nominate candidates that are true to their word, are principled, and distinguish themselves enough as alternatives to Republicans so that young people – who have more at stake in the future – rally behind them.
It’s possible that some may rally around Blair. After all, he gives them free bling. Soon they’ll find, however, that this is where the “handouts” end, and the same rat-race corporatism that exacerbates income inequality will not only be imposed, but glorified.
It’s unlikely that many will rally around Floreen, except the development community, or possibly those who support her for the sole reason that she is a woman. She would not, however, EARN anyone’s support, as she conveniently bypassed the grueling primary that began in early 2017.
It would be nice if many rallied around Elrich, as young people, renters, people of color, environmentalists, conservationalists, small business owners, and civil libertarians have every reason to do so. But in facing Floreen, Marc will have the same establishment adversaries and with less money, depending on what the public financing laws allow for a contested general. Not saying I’d give up hope – I’d imagine we’d do everything we can to up our ground game and social media presence. While I can’t speak for Marc and his staff, who probably live for this kind of thing, I could only liken this to running a personal best half marathon (which was 1:27:30, by the way), and then being told, just kidding, you’re actually in a 20-mile race instead, keep going!
Robin Ficker will rally his contingency of far-right Republicans, fellow sports hecklers, and internet trolls.
At this point, 2018 looks pretty grim in its chances of having the County Executive galvanizing any kind of epic, gnarly swell as Democratic Party loyalists paddle their surfboards to ride the #BlueWave. But then again, since when has Rockville ever been “epic” or “gnarly”? The past County Executives that I can name are not exactly the embodiment of “cool” – or of inspiration, progressiveness, or mobilization – so why should that change?
I sure hope I’m wrong.