The Mikado Debate: The ‘Lord High Executioner’ vs. the ‘Lord High Everything Else’

March 16, 2020

The Debate in a Time of Coronavirus

Subscribers Received this Preview Before Last Night’s Debate & It Held Up the Next Morning

By Al Giordano

Update: I received an extraordinary amount of mail from subscribers about yesterday’s newsletter, Issue #114, sent via email. I’d like to thank each of you who wrote to me about it. For a writer, there are few things better in life than to know you’re being read and, beyond that, you’re being heard. Some urged me to share it with a wider public as it speaks to more than one event and directly to what we’re all adapting to during this public health crisis. Later today, I’ll send advance projections of the results in tomorrow’s primaries in Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Arizona. Not yet a subscriber? An $80 donation comes with every newsletter for the rest of 2020 directly to your inbox plus an account to gain full access to all the content here at Organize & Win. Here’s the link to sign up. – Al

I’m heartened by the videos popping up this week of quarantined Italians holding neighborhood sing-outs from their windows and balconies each evening as a way to still enjoy human connection at an hour of uncertainty. The soccer games on TV have all been cancelled in the public health emergency – but there is evidently still a societal fabric that unites people in the land of the long-ago Roman Empire.

The American disease of the 21st Century is not coronavirus, but a preexistent silent plague: the alienation, isolation and loneliness of a society in which more and more of what used to be social life has been replaced by media and technology.

It did not take coronavirus to move us from neighbors to “Facebook friends,” from the village square to the Twitter coliseum, from book stores to Amazon (and from books themselves to streaming series on Netflix and, now, Disney), from eating out to Uber Eats, from childhood sports to video games, and from bona fide political movements to hashtags that are forgotten as rapidly as they went “viral.”

The number of people who no longer go to workplaces and now labor through telecommuting has risen by 115 percent since 2005. It didn’t take a physiological disease or any other threat to make that decision for us. In work and at play so many of us chose to march into self-quarantine already, one by one, all by ourselves.

If one is a writer, an artist, or anyone else whose work or personality type requires some space and solitude, the benefits of these choices appeared to outweigh any risks. In the early days of the Internet, when it was all “ASCII” – an acronym for American Standard Code for Information Exchange – before online images or videos or what today is called social media appeared, before cell phones and laptops became affordable to a critical mass of people, the dominant mood of 1990s Internet pioneers was a feeling of technological utopianism. It was, we thought, a tool we could use, like a hammer, a screwdriver, or mixing bowl, a canvass on which to create, and one that would break down barriers between peoples, languages, nations, cultures and competing belief systems.

We would use, we thought, these new technologies to change the world for the better, blissfully unaware of how they would so profoundly change us.

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, where the fear of nuclear apocalypse was omnipresent, we worried that we might end up in bomb shelters, stocked with canned goods and perhaps a television and a radio that would, if things weren’t all lost above ground, still keep us informed of when we might be able to crawl back out.

Well, look at us now.

Tonight’s Debate as Mirror of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado

As the saying goes, what a “nice mess” we’ve gotten ourselves into. And whenever trouble occurs there is an impulse among many to look for someone else to blame for it. This has been an evergreen theme in popular culture.

Early “talkie” movie stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, from the late 1920s through the 1950s, repeated a catch phrase throughout their screen careers that captured so much of what happens in response to any perceived mess.

Hardy, the American, would say, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Laurel, the Englishman, would alternate, “Here’s another nice mess I got you into.”

For three decades on the silver screen they got themselves in and out of their comical messes together, with Hardy representing the tendency of placing blame on others and Laurel the tendency of accepting his share of the blame.

When it comes to the coronavirus – and every other sticky wicket of public policy today – is that not always an underlying conflict? The never-ending fight, from the “macro” of politics to the “micro” of workplace, family and social life, is less about ideology than it is between those who want to blame others for the “nice messes” and those who accept that we’ve all participated in enabling the conditions that led to them.

The late journalist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, who navigated the paradox of being both a bohemian libertine and a practicing Catholic, understood that “the nice mess” of her own times was a shared responsibility. Her solution: that each must “work according to his ability and receive according to his need.”

An anarchist who dedicated a lifetime to economic and social justice, Day concluded that the Soviet version of socialism-communism was unworkable: its reliance on bureaucracy and centralism, inhuman and unsustainable. She resolved the left’s dispute all her own: the “nice mess” was not something “you” got us into nor that “I” or anyone alone got us into. We all got into it together and to get out of it each must play our part according to ability and need. Dorothy Day would surely be smeared today as a “centrist” for daring to speak that conclusion.

The phrase – “what a nice mess you’ve gotten me into” – was not of Laurel and Hardy originally. It came from an earlier work: The 1885 comic opera, Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.

There is a scene in the opera in which Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, had just lied to the Mikado: that he finally, after a year of stalling, executed a man convicted of the crime of flirting, a wandering minstrel named Nanki-Poo. It was a lie, but Ko-Ko furnished a forged death certificate as proof.

Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, vouched for the story to the emperor, embellishing the tale to confirm that even after beheaded, the executed minstrel smiled “and bowed three times to me… for it clearly knew the deference due to a man of pedigree!”

The fib unraveled when it was revealed that the wandering minstrel was in fact the emperor’s long-lost son and heir to the throne of Japan. The Mikado then scheduled the executioner’s own execution for the crime of killing his son to take place after lunch, and headed off stage to dine.

Meanwhile, the emperor’s son – who had fled from home and disguised himself as a minstrel to avoid an arranged marriage – was still alive and had eloped with Yum-Yum, a school girl.

The Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko, turns to Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, and says:

“Well, a nice mess you’ve gotten us into with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree!”

Pooh-Bah replied:

“Merely collaborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

The Mikado served as Sir William Schwenk Gilbert’s vehicle to launch an uproarious critique of the double morals of British society, law and bureaucracy, but as writers often must do, placed the story in another land – in this case, Japan – to soften its acid blow. The composer Arthur Sullivan set it to music.

Almost half a century later, Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby took The Mikado’s lyrical, melodic and comical style to compose the musical score of the Marx Brothers’ movie, Duck Soup. “Hail Freedonia” and other numbers from that 1933 production – many Americans are more familiar with them than The Mikado’s – were essentially an Americanized reboot of The Mikado’s call-and-response lampoon of bureaucratic buffoonery when enforcing unenforceable morals, and of how easily public opinion gets swayed back and forth by official chicanery. The same public that yells to execute someone yesterday tomorrow cheers their salvation, and vice versa.

The show revolved full circle when in 1986 the English stage director Jonathan Miller resurrected the Mikado and synthesized the Marx Brothers’ Americanization of its key concepts into a fully British version. Gone were the fans, kimonos and pagodas of the original Mikado’s set, replaced by accoutrements of London high society.

It’s been 135 years since The Mikado opened on the London stage. Like much great art throughout the ages it remains prescient to this moment.

While doing my part in the self-quarantine upon us – which is to say, my patriotic duty to binge-watch streaming video much like many of us did before we called it self-quarantine – I streamed, via YouTube, a 2017 English National Opera performance of Miller’s version of The Mikado that strips the original from many (but not all) of its faux-Japanese (and today, offensive) tropes and dresses the cast in British rather than Japanese wardrobe. The 2017 London version added for good measure some direct references to Donald Trump.

In the Mikado story, before Ko-Ko was promoted to Lord High Executioner he was a “cheap tailor,” in rumpled suit and bad hair, the next to be executed on death row for having violated the emperor’s Draconian anti-flirtation laws.

In Act I, the nobleman Pish-Tush, of the singing “gentlemen of Japan,” explained that they had found a clever solution to the problems caused by the impossible anti-flirtation edict.

By appointing Ko-Ko as the Lord High Executioner, they could stave off further executions:

And so. we straight let out on bail

A convict from the county jail

Whose head was next

On some pretext

Condemned to be mown off.

And made him headsman, for we said

‘Who’s next to be decapited

cannot cut off another’s head –

until he’s cut his own off.’

We are told daily in that the Sanders vs. Biden debate tonight will put on display what the media punditry keeps insisting is the main conflict among Democrats: Sanders as the “progressive” and “socialist,” and Biden as the “centrist” of the “establishment.”

The alleged dialectic contains a Gilbert & Sullivan-level absurdity. Sanders, the purported tribune of class struggle, became a millionaire by railing against millionaires. In our real-life opera, Bernie is the “Lord High Executioner” who would have to cut off his own head before he can execute another’s.

In the opera, the “Lord High Everything Else” holds literally every other post of government. That would be Joe Biden, with long experience in the legislative and executive branches of US government and, as a former public defender and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, one who has worked in and influenced the judiciary branch as well.

Biden first won election to the US Senate at the age of 29 (he would turn the requisite 30-years-old in the weeks between the 1972 election and taking office in January), becoming history’s youngest senator. He defeated an incumbent Republican US Senator against the tide of Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection in which 49 states, including Biden’s Delaware, rejected Democratic nominee George McGovern.

That year, McGovern had achieved the Democratic nomination by running against the establishment, fueled by young activists (paradoxically, today’s “boomers”) who sought not merely to win the nomination but to purify the Democratic Party in the process.

Theories of Change: Vanguards vs. Coalitions

The “progressive vs. centrist” media narrative is often cited to explain the 1972 Democratic nominee’s landslide defeat (and its divisions ever since), but that’s an entirely fictional revision of history. The failure did not come because the party “moved too far left,” but, rather, from the divisive and sectarian tendencies that dominated the American “new left” impulses of the era.

McGovern had won 21 state primaries with just 25 percent of the votes cast that year. A significant swathe of his delegates then set about purging the convention of delegates from places where he did not win. The Democratic mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston and San Francisco – and even some labor union officials – were banned from the convention floor. A forty-year Democratic Party coalition, woven together by the 1932 campaign of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fractured at the 1972 convention in Miami. And it happened on national TV.

What newspaper columnist Froma Harrop has called “the narcissism of small differences” that continues to characterize so much of activist politics in the USA – in which the self-proclaimed “only true progressives” seething resentment and hatred against what they call “the Democratic establishment” eclipsed all strategic considerations for winning in November – was on full display to the television audience back home.

Procedural fights over the standing of delegates and details of the party platform took such center stage that McGovern’s acceptance speech got pushed back to 2:48 a.m. On the night of the vice-presidential nomination, no conclusion was reached until 1:40 a.m. The ticket never got the chance to pitch their message while actual voters were awake and tuned in.

The divide in the Democratic Party, then and now, is far less about “issues” than it is a competition between two conflicting theories about how change is made to happen. The real fight is over power and how it is obtained. It’s not a meaningless conflict because tactics determine policy: the means with which power is gained have historically determine how it is then deployed.

In my own lifetime organizing in and reporting on political and social movements throughout the United States and Mexico, in Central and South America, in Europe and in Egypt during the Arab Spring, I have witnessed the same conflict play out over and over again, and often described it as the conflict between “activists” and “organizers.”

At the core of the conflict are two competing theories of how change is made to happen: The aspiring vanguard vs. the coalition.

Newcomers don’t typically enter a cause believing in the vanguard model. A cause catches fire because enough people suddenly believe that something must and can be done about a problem, and a critical mass becomes involved with it. That brings media attention and, often, some early successes.

Once the perception begins that a cause might actually win, the media starts to refer to it as a “movement.” It becomes like a prized piece of real estate in the terrain of media spectacle, a commodity to be exploited. And like anything else in this world that is suddenly perceived to have value, that’s when fights emerge over who will control and grab any possible benefits or credit for it.

A social movement around an issue is different in many ways than a political party, campaign or electoral movement. But the underlying dynamics are largely the same for each.

When a social movement becomes a thing of perceived value, that’s when aspiring vanguards sweep in to try and take control. These are largely activists of previous movements that failed. When their earlier lost causes were riding high, those activists experienced a taste of power. No matter how small a piece, once one catches a whiff of it, power is a very addictive drug.

The aspiring vanguard activists are of the Oliver Hardy tendency: we ended up in a mess, but somebody else – not me! – got us into that mess. To this tendency, no mess has ever been or ever could be of their own making. They lost because it was “rigged.” They lost because others didn’t do as they said. Every setback or obstacle was somebody else’s fault.

The competing tendency in movements and campaigns alike is that which values coalitions. In the Democrats’ case this model is often referred to as “the Big Tent.” Veterans of successful movements and campaigns know from experience that we win by persuading public opinion and building relationships between sectors that may have distinct priorities but find common cause in making whatever differences they have secondary to the greater power that alliance brings. Every organizer with receipts knows this is the most basic building block of success.

And when obstacles are setbacks occur, as they always do, those of the coalition tendency are more like Stan Laurel: This is a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. How do we get ourselves out of it?

One of the most important lessons years of experience with movements and campaigns has taught me is something I should have learned from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child: “Look for the helpers.” I’ve learned that in any battle or cause, the value of a potential ally does not emanate from their ideological stance or belief system but, rather, that people of the coalition tendency are those who will bring us to victory and people of the vanguard tendency either have to be persuaded or walked around to be able to keep moving forward. Whenever anyone enters into their game of granting concessions that only encourages them to bully more violently in an attempt to grab more.

The vanguardists see coalitions and their working parts as a kind of mortal enemy: If we have to share power with people more impure than us that’s less power for me. They come up with pejorative labels for organizers and coalitions: “identity politics,” “neoliberal,” “establishment,” “sell outs.” And as with the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, they blame the Democratic coalition for their own behaviors that aided in Trump gaining the White House.

The vanguardist is a personality type. He and she must gain control. Any person or organization that will not hand that to them becomes an enemy worse than the real adversaries of the cause. They are portrayed as “sell outs,” corrupt, and denounced for their alleged impurities. They must be bullied, intimidated and harassed out of the way or into submission. No level of character assassination or defamation is too low when it comes to the vanguardist’s primary objective: to gain control and credit, if not over the entire cause then at least over that piece of power one covets within it.

This conflict – between the aspiring vanguards and the coalitions – has been the real one on the left side of American politics since the 1970s. For much of the 80s, 90s, and 00s, aspiring vanguards caused an endless march of lost causes with real human consequences.

In 2008, Barack Obama brought back the organizer tendency of persuasion – and training a new generation of organizers to do it – as the path to win. The vanguardists whined throughout his presidency that nothing he accomplished was ever enough. The greater the victory – national health care, for example – the more seething the anger from the defeated vanguards became. In many ways that drives the focus on “Medicare for All” more than the policy proposal itself.

In 2016, Democratic voters again ratified the coalition approach. But the quarter-century obsession by the right and some parts of the left alike with Hillary Clinton as a media personality and symbol, infused with both overt and covert misogyny – obscured the ongoing public conclusion that coalitions work far better than vanguards at getting change done.

To say that “Hillary had a lot of baggage” is not accurate or fair. It’s not like she picked up a suitcase by the hand and walked around with it. Rather, much of 25 years of smears had stuck to her as it would to anyone under that much constant enemy fire.

In Joe Biden, the coalition tendency doesn’t have a vessel as inspiring or history-making as Hillary Clinton was and is for many. But nor does he have much smear sticking upon him.

The Democratic nomination primaries since 2008 have served as referenda on those two competing theories of change, and the coalition has won over a majority of hearts and minds because people don’t need a degree in political science to see the difference in “what works” and “what doesn’t work.” 2020 now marks the fourth presidential cycle in a row in which the vanguard tendency has proved ineffective and one that is increasingly a thing of the past.

The dictionary definition of vanguard is “a group of people leading the way.” But vanguard politics has shown again and again that its focus on past resentments have stuck its adherents far behind where a bona fide vanguard would in reality be.

Members of that tendency have had in Bernie Sanders a vanguardist they can relate to and believe in. A quarter century of failures at getting anything meaningful done in congress were not, to Sanders, consequences of his own failings. No, in his and his sector’s view, it was “the establishment” that blocked him at every step.

Around Sanders has sprung up a “Bernie Industrial Complex” of forces that are visibly guilty of what they accuse that “establishment” of being: in it for the money and power.

To some podcasters, media publishers and organizations, the Sanders show has meant a dramatic spike in, gasp, profits. One notorious podcast, as of February, was raking in $160,000 a month through Patreon pledges. The Democratic Socialists of America latched onto the Sanders campaign and its paid membership grew from 6,000 to 45,000. A lefty magazine grew from under 10,000 subscribers to 40,000 by latching on to the Sanders train and focusing their product on content that pleases the same people who make regular donations to Sanders’ massive war chest. The campaign treasury employs its own army of staffers and vendors.

To those who measure their power by number of Twitter followers (for a certain group of them that also fuels the money coming in from their own podcasts and ventures) the online “Bernie Bros” are capital, mere consumers of what they’re buying.

These happen to be the same voices who today, as it has become evident that Sanders is not going to win the Democratic nomination, most loudly threaten to refuse to vote for the Democratic nominee in November. Unlike in 2016, when it was a given that Sanders would be back in 2020 to run again, that’s not presumed this time: Sanders will be 82 in 2024. The end of the line – the “vanguard” can barely see the caboose of the train they hoped to captain rolling away – is posing them an existential crisis.

Tonight’s Other Debate: Sanders vs. Sanders

Sanders himself appears to understand that the jig is up. He shows the familiar symptoms of the bargaining stage of grief. After disappearing last Tuesday night when badly losing primaries and delegates he announced he would remain in the race and show up for tonight’s debate. The bargain he seeks is to be seen as a force that successfully pushed Joe Biden to adopt his political positions and, by extension, take credit for a Biden victory in November.

But the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – do not transit in a straight line. They sway back and forth between the first four stages before they ever arrive at the acceptance stage. The tendency toward denial fuels a glimmering hope that if Sanders can just hang on and stay in it a miracle will come his way.

To some degree, he and his supporters are hoping for a “Kennedy vs. Nixon” moment in which Joe Biden badly stumbles at the debate. Sanders himself knows that what his own people say about Joe Biden suffering “dementia” is untrue. A Buzzfeed report last week based on interviews with two dozen Sanders campaign staffers and allies informed that the candidate rejected calls by some on his staff, including the notoriously toxic David Sirota, to personally attack Biden prior to last Tuesday’s primaries.

Sanders himself seems genuinely pained by the realization that many Democrats view his 2016 words and deeds as having debilitating Hillary Clinton’s campaign enough for Trump to slip in through cracks in the Electoral College. Four years and a heart attack later, his language toward his current rival has softened considerably compared to the point in 2016 where it became evident he would not win the nomination.

At this same hour, though, he is surrounded by an inner circle that seeks to keep the gravy train going for as long as it can, damn the consequences: #NotUsME!

This is the conflict inside the head and heart of Senator Sanders that we will be able to watch tonight. The real debate is going to be between Bernie and Bernie. All Joe Biden needs to do is to be his “Happy Warrior” self, stay on his message, and stand back and let the debate between the two Bernies reveal itself. In the best-case scenario, “Bargaining Bernie” might score a debate podium victory over “Denial Bernie.” But not even that is needed for Biden to stay on his clear nomination track.

This Is Your Campaign on Coronavirus

There have been other moments when Sanders has seemed reconciled to the fact that the nomination is not going to be his. But the adulation of the crowd, and his love for those big arena speeches, itself a drug, kept him on the path of slash and burn.

The precautions now necessary to impede the spread of the coronavirus have upended the parts of the campaign that most fueled Sanders and the sense of meaning he derived from it.

There can be no more big arena crowds for as long as major cities increasingly ban large gatherings.

The debate itself tonight won’t have a studio audience whose applause at other moments has led Sanders to showboat and ratchet up his divisive tones.

What is not known, but highly possible it has already happened, is whether the ATM of Sanders’ online fundraising machine has considerably dried up. The increased economic anxiety the virus has wrought on all Americans, combined with the growing recognition by many of his own supporters that the nomination race is effectively over, are not fertile terrain for the money crop. People nervous about their own employment and health security understandably tend to cling a little tighter to what little they have.

A risk for Joe Biden tonight is that facing all candidates in every debate (and in this case it is as high for each candidate as it is for the other): that a serious gaffe or stumble of the sort that causes viewers to think “he’s not who I thought he was” could theoretically revive the contest.

In Biden’s favor is that voters already knew that he is prone to gaffes, struggles with a stutter, that he is no spring chicken anymore, and that he is not a grand orator, and they voted for him anyway.

Nobody expects Biden to get through this debate without saying something perhaps a bit awkward or old fashioned. But where some try to promote those “Ordinary Joe” gaffes as negative, it’s become part of the charm of his brand, that of a well-meaning guy who, like most people, sometimes misses a key verb or noun when trying to express himself.

The other risk for Biden is that he says or does something that sufficiently angers Sanders’ rank-and-file supporters, particularly younger voters, in a way that lessens the chances they vote in November. I’m not speaking here of the “Bernie or Bust” dead-enders nor of the grifters of Sanders’ “industrial complex” – that cohort, about to lose much of its audience, is in full freak-out – but of the vast majority (one recent poll had it at 80 percent) of Sanders voters who want to vote for any Democrat against Trump.

The opportunities for Biden with those same voters are there for him to persuade and reassure tonight if he shows some skill at doing so. If you go back and watch Biden’s one-on-one VP debates with Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, he won both of those just by being himself.

When this week Biden adopted Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy policy plan as his own – which means replacing the 2005 law he helped pass with progressively better – he provided a glimpse at how he’ll approach tonight’s debate.

Biden will give Sanders a few proverbial pounds of flesh on policy. Whether or not Sanders shows genuine appreciation or insists that nothing is enough will be beside the point. The viewing public will recognize those moves as what coalition politics are made of.

Biden also knows that he can’t do it in such a way that creates a media narrative that he went in whole hog on Sanders’ version of “democratic socialism.” He will also likely look tonight to highlight some of his ongoing differences with Sanders on policy that are in keeping with the Biden everybody already knows. Joe is not the type to “bend the knee” just to pander for votes. Most voters don’t want him to be that. Biden is the silverback of tonight’s Discovery Channel debate (which begins on CNN at 8 p.m. ET).

For example, expect Biden, when the debate inevitably turns to “Medicare for All,” to insist clearly that what he will do at all costs is defend the existing advances of Obamacare and build upon them and will not, as Sanders proposes, do away with it altogether to start from scratch anew.

Joe Biden enjoys a confluence of factors tonight: His lead among Democratic primary voters is growing with every new poll. The coronavirus emergency has only increased voter tendencies to want to wrap this thing up now. It has also likely led to a spike in absentee and early ballots that have already been cast before tonight’s debate in the four states – Florida, Ohio, Illinois, and Arizona – where he is going win handily on Tuesday. Whatever the media narrative that comes out of tonight’s debate, voters in those four states will send a powerful message that they’re still “ridin’ with Biden.”

Because Biden did not have “home run” debates on the wider stages with more candidates, expectations are low for him. Even if he’s boring, that has become a form of normalcy compared to Donald Trump. The low expectations belie another truth: Biden is experienced at mano-a-mano debates on the national stage and when he’s been in that situation he has each time come out the better.

The advice Biden is surely hearing from his team members is: Be yourself, Joe, be the “Happy Warrior,” relax and give the two Bernies enough room to let their own inner debate reveal itself tonight.

We’ll be watching at the Organize & Win debate watch party. I’ll send subscribers the link to that page shortly before it starts. I invite you to self-quarantine with me and others and we’ll do it like the Italians are doing – together. See you out there on that balcony and let’s keep on singing… perhaps a little tune or two from The Mikado.

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