American Psychos: How we shouldn’t be doing business in politics

A while back someone asked me, “When I run for office, will you support me?” They couldn’t tell me when they’re running, or for what office. They didn’t share a single policy or platform plank, which admittedly would be difficult to pin down if you don’t even know what seat you’re running for. I have no idea where this person stands on policy, how they make political calculations. And yet, it occurred to me that I’d heard them promote their wish to run for office many times, without any mention of why they wished to serve.

Instead, they were soliciting my “support” in the context that we belong to the same organization. What was clear, though, was an appeal to transactionalism: “We’re all ‘members’ here, so what’s the problem?” Shouldn’t membership have its privileges? Why should the substance of a campaign matter? Who cares what office, what policies, or what circumstances?

The ask came as I was gathering my things to call it a night, which only intensified the oddly transactional flavor of the moment. Like, “One last thing before you leave, we’re taking a head count. Can we put you in the yes column?” I told them that a few weeks earlier I’d given a good friend this answer to a similar question: “I’ll be glad to look over your platform and ideas once you have those materials pulled together.” The point being, I won’t hand out my approval sight-unseen even for someone I consider a good friend.

The context of the ask suggested pressure to conform. Call me old fashioned, but substance matters to me, and it should matter to anyone running for office. It saddened me that I’d be mistaken as someone who would gladly hand out “cocktail party political approval,” as if membership in a social club ensures one of a lifetime of non-accountability in the form of being excused from having to provide a rationale for electability.

I hadn’t given the exchange much thought until this weekend when I re-watched Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (written in 1991) for the first time since its release. I stumbled on a Youtube clip of the famous Business Card scene, which is as concise a study in conformity and aggression as you’ll ever find.

Re-watching the movie brought me to a better understanding of my reaction to that conversation: Requesting an unqualified promise of loyalty is an appeal to conformity and transactionalism. It shows disrespect for my integrity, and worse, seems to telegraph a dishonest approach to leadership. It’s the kind of oath that C students everywhere don’t mind giving and taking because it’s a shortcut to doing the work. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” It’s so fundamentally worthless, why would anyone want the support of someone who would just give it without regard to substance?

In American Psycho, the main character Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) is driven insane by his substance-free identity, in his substance-less world:

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“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman — some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me; only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I am simply not there.”

Watching the movie a second time around I realized Bateman was, in effect, the only sane person in the movie because he was the only one paying enough attention to be driven to murderous rage by the non-stop nihilistic transactionalism of the world around him. Bateman and his colleagues were in “Mergers & Acquisitions” (or, “Murders & Executions,” as his alter ego proclaims). He, like Ronald Reagan, was able to “get away with murder” because he manufactured an image and belonged to a social strata which ensured he’d never be called to account.

Coincidentally, as many of the icons of the age of American Psycho — Donald Trump, members of the Bush family, and the Clintons are all vying for President — Mergers and Acquisitions have hit new all-time highs, amounting for more than $1 trillion in trade this year alone. That’s trillion with a “T,” and it’s brought to you by the Fed’s cheap money policy which makes these sorts of financial killing sprees so damn attractive (like an 8:30 rez at Dorsia). M&As are both a symbol and a source of wealth inequality. They destroy jobs, provide tax shelters and produce huge speculative markets on Wall Street that redistribute income from working families upward to the financial class — the .01 percent — the billionaires that Bernie Sanders keeps droning on about. The posh lives of the M&A brokers are soaked in the tears shed for the murder of the American Dream.

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If there’s anything I want to contribute to political discourse circa 2015, it’s that we don’t have to make the same mistakes and easy trade-offs that were made in early 90s. I realize this is the “New Democrat” way that it’s done (everything old is new again), and it’s the way young people, especially on the fundraising end of things, are rewarded for doing it. But we don’t have to take this route. As Progressives we have access to a newer and better toolkit.

Back in the early 90s we had the excuse that ‘anything will be better than Reagan/Bush.’ Supposedly, we had no choice but a neoliberal, corporatist, favor-trading, blue dog to take us out of the Gipper’s Reign of Error. And what did we get for that? Financial deregulation and trade deals that have decimated the middle class and left us so weak as a country that the financial class is currently garnishing Social Security checks to collect student loan debt. Have we lost our collective minds?

We’re at a point in history now where we must create new futures, so that we don’t keep re-living these old nightmares. We have to be on the side of better ideas, not more effective favor trading. If all you want is my favor, without a description of what you’re playing for, then no, I can’t be on your team.

It’s not enough to just have a “D” next to your name. It’s not enough that we belong to the same organization, or identity group. It’s not enough that we’re good friends, even. I don’t even care if you’re a family member —  I want to see your plan to work for the people.
And really, I need you to want this as much as I want it. It’s not something that should be seen as a requirement for my approval. It should be seen as the most basic way we do business politically.

The question should never be whether I, or any constituency, fit in enough to be “one of you.” The question for me is always going to be whether you, as a potential candidate, intend to serve as “one of us.


Otherwise, we’re just trading business cards.

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Brook Hines is a writer, photographer, activist and former alt-weekly publisher, as well as an award-winning advertising creative with more than 20 years’ experience crafting strategy in “words + pictures” for clients ranging from healthcare companies to county fairgrounds. She’s the Senior Political Correspondent for Progressive News Network (tune in Sundays at 7 pm or download the podcast anytime), the Communications Chair for the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, Outreach Chair for the Orange County Democratic Party, and the 2015-2016 Co-Chair of New Leaders Council, Orlando Chapter.

All opinions offered here are her own, delivered from the perspective of social theory, cultural criticism, and near constant stream of caffeine. Political and media analysis through a Progressive lens. Appeals to conformity will be met with lulz.

awesome dogs couchYou can easily find Brook Hines on Facebook and Flickr. Read all of Brook’s articles here. 

These are her Italian Greyhounds, Trouble and Daphne. This was a big week for both as Trouble upped his walk to almost two miles, while Daphne started the lowest of low-tech agility training by learning a weave of six bamboo sticks and doing a tunnel with almost no confusion. No bored dogs!

2 comments

  1. Fisher Fleming · · Reply

    This is a brilliant piece. I re-watched American Psycho recently as well, and it struck me differently this time. The first time ’round, I thought “Patrick Bateman” was just an over-the-top caricature of the soulless, “greed is good” ethic of the 1980 / 90’s. Striking, but not particularly insightful.

    This time, though, I realized just what this piece is saying — Bateman’s character is actually the sanest person on the screen, because he’s the only one that reacts to the empty ambition and vapid greed around him with a homicidal inner scream. He’s the only one bothered enough by the inane babble around him to actually go crazy. Christian Bale’s portrayal of the inexorable unraveling of a man trying to “fit in” with an empty, Machiavellian ethic is both horrifying and masterful.

    And tying it to the rise of the blue dog, Third Way, “pragmatic” Dems we have today is dead-on. Every time someone tries to raise any kind of principle, or philosophy or just an intelligent approach to problem solving or the collective good in general — the only things that might actually validate having a political party or a movement in the first place — we get the blank, uncomprehending stares of the lumbering Wall Street bimbos that drove Patrick Bateman to psychopathic rage..

    We are awash in a sea of quasi-Republican, money first / principles-never operators who can’t see past the end of a checkbook, or the approval of insiders. It’s sad to see some of the up-and-comers buying into this hollow thinking, going to meetings to collect selfies with big dog funders like grinning collie dogs, willing to give up anything for a rub on the belly. Ask them “why” about anything, and they blink slowly and squirm away. “Because that’s where the money is” is the underlying answer, every time.

    We can’t win that way, and we don’t deserve to. We can do better, and we must.

    Great piece.

    1. nailed it here: “It’s sad to see some of the up-and-comers buying into this hollow thinking, going to meetings to collect selfies with big dog funders like grinning collie dogs, willing to give up anything for a rub on the belly.”

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