What we’re reading: Matt Taibbi on “Shattered”

“The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.” — Matt Taibbi

Read Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article here.

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If, like me, your first impression of the new Clinton campaign history, Shattered is that it is your usual gossipy post-election slam book, you’d be wrong. Using saved-up Audible credits (hoping to spare my library another half-pound of political pulp) I started listening to the audio version of Shattered this week. To my great surprise it’s less of a back-biting tell-all and more of a sociological study of modern political consulting.

The book reveals a little-known truth about the way we elect leaders: it’s all a clusterfuck. We imagine the political process to be similar to the idealized liberal-land fantasy portrayed in the The West Wing, but the reality more resembles the pettiness and fumbling portrayed in HBO’s Veep. Veep is so spot-on that I had to stop watching in 2016. It was too depressing. I’ve known musicians who can’t enjoy This Is Spinal Tap because it’s too close to the truth. Veep hits similar notes for me. But I digress.

Shattered describes a rabbit warren of ego-driven careerists all jockeying for power. Clinton’s people are tasked with crafting a world-class campaign under impossible circumstances. Hillary interacts exclusively with an inner circle that guards their access like Gollum’s ring.  The larger team is disempowered and undercut at every turn. Departments war with each other. The center can’t hold because there is no center.

Don’t read this book to confirm your bias one way or the other about Bernie vs Hillary. Read it because the extreme danger of the Trump administration requires that we see our shortcomings clearly. Shattered diagnoses the malady afflicting the Democratic Party. Being able to name the sickness enables us to find treatment and possibly a cure.

The earliest reviews have mostly been preemptive poo-poos, scribed by Clinton loyalists, but Matt Taibbi writes that Shattered is a “cautionary tale” describing how consultant-driven campaigns fail to engage regular folks. “Most don’t see elections as organic movements within populations of millions, but as dueling contests of ‘whip-smart’ organizers who know how to get the cattle to vote the right way,” says Taibbi. “If someone wins an election, the inevitable Beltway conclusion is that the winner had better puppeteers.”

We already know this, of course. Voters aren’t stupid. We’re keenly aware of when we’re being handled or pandered to. We’re always on alert for the politician who takes us for granted, or speaks past us. Voters respond to candidates who offer an empathetic, empowering and compelling vision delivered with conviction. This is the currency of trust, and Clinton suffered for not having enough of it on hand.

Take for instance Clinton’s reason for running as President: she didn’t have one. The campaign moldered for two years without knowing what they stand for.

“In the Clinton run, that problem became such a millstone around the neck of the campaign that staffers began to flirt with the idea of sharing the uninspiring truth with voters, says Taibbi. “Stumped for months by how to explain why their candidate wanted to be president, Clinton staffers began toying with the idea of seeing how ‘Because it’s her turn’ might fly as a public rallying cry.”

That approach didn’t go so well. In my circles, “It’s her turn,” was one of the most vehemently criticized message of the campaign. I can recall discussions in which Clinton’s supporters denied that this was a central message. When I pressed them for what her message actually was, they’d reply with “Trump can’t be allowed to be President.” This message kinda works for high-information political fanatics and political professionals—none of whom are going to sit out a Presidential election regardless of misgivings about the candidate.

The problem with the “it’s her turn” message is that it affirmed voters’ cynicism—that politics is really just a game rich people play to accrue more power for themselves. For an electorate buzzing with desire for dramatic change, “It’s her turn,” became a prime example of everything that’s wrong with ‘the establishment.’ The voters’ concerns were completely erased from the pitch, and we’re told we have to “do this for her,” rather than for any larger consideration such as the well being of our families.

“Shattered is what happens when political parties become too disconnected from their voters,” says Taibbi. “Even if you think the election was stolen, any Democrat who reads this book will come away believing he or she belongs to a party stuck in a profound identity crisis.”

Nailed it.

 

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