Maybe being cool and being a decent politician are mutually exclusive.
If you’ve ever been part of a creative group like a band or artistic project, you probably know that one guy that’s a little different than everyone else. The guy that you look at and think, why is this dude using his time to play a show to 9 people at this shitty bar, or whatever equivalent. There are a handful of people that I played music with throughout the years that the rest of the band was always keenly aware weren’t around for the long run. One of them is now a defense attorney, another a successful business owner.. the point is that I would assume almost every band has “that guy” that makes the rest of the group nervous that he could cut and run for better things at any moment. It’s hard to imagine that former US Congressman Beto O’Rourke was not this guy during his oft-talked about stint as a touring musician.
The stories of Beto’s time on the road with his band Foss are cheeky and fun. During a recent interview I was listening to, former Mars Volta and At the Drive-In frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala (who played drums for Foss) said that there are plenty of stories about Beto that now can’t be told due to his run for US Senate. It’s funny to imagine having to call the guys that you used to tour with to say “Hey remember that time we took a dump in that other band’s trailer? Yeah yeah super funny… but I don’t think it will poll well with rural voters.” It’s doubtful that Beto was living a NOFX type lifestyle on the road, but was instead probably the guy that would spend every day wondering if what they were doing was worth it and how it would help him get to the next stage of his life. It’s probably also worth noting that Beto’s net worth is estimated to be around $4 million due to gifts from his wealthy parents. Like I said… that guy.
Beto hasn’t shied away from using his background in punk rock music on the campaign trail though. Videos can be easily found of the guy skateboarding across the stage at his campaign events and saying That’s fucked up! on cable tv, much to the delight of the culture war savvy Republicans trying to minimize his chances of prominence. He’s just so edgy like that.
To be fair to Beto, he’s probably just as confused about how to tie his interest in punk culture into his public appeal as the rest of us. Are there enough 30-something year old washed up punk guys who like reading about the history of Fugazi to catapult a mediocre centrist to the Democratic nomination for president? Current polling suggests the answer to that question is an emphatic no, but also maybe? I don’t believe the problem with Beto is his policy positions, but is instead the fact that he thinks something like selling t shirts that say THIS IS F*CKED UP will appeal to counterculture as well as mainstream voters with live, laugh, love decor adorning the walls of their suburban American homes. The appeal isn’t broad enough for him to double down on, but he’s doing it anyway. Some might argue that by trying to water it down enough to reach the normies, the rest of us look at it as a lack of authenticity. Beto’s own website boasts “In 8th grade, Beto’s friend Arlo lent him London Calling by The Clash, which Beto describes as a life changing moment—because it introduced him to the world of punk rock, where he felt like he belonged.” with an accompanying video called Beto’s Punk Years. My own views of The Clash notwithstanding, to put this on your official campaign website feels like some serious pandering, or at the very least a lack of self-awareness that this will appeal to anyone in a meaningful way. In the video he describes El Paso’s punk scene as a community of “…misfits, fuck-ups and weirdos… and I was all those things.”
Is this history semi-relatable to myself and others? Sure. Is it the foundation of a strong campaign? Probably not. The point I’m trying to make is that a candidate should be known first for their policy positions and second for their interests and hobbies, and he has consistently gotten this progression out of order.
Without a doubt, the most punk rock (for lack of a better descriptor) candidate that the Democrats have at the moment is Elizabeth Warren. Someone who can say that things are fucked up without having to tie herself into a pretzel of self-elaboration in order to do so. That’s kind of how it should work, right? Have you ever met someone so sure of themselves that it’s intimidating- someone that doesn’t need to quote Ian MacKaye in interviews to prove that they’re anti-establishment because everything they do and say proves it for them. All I’m saying is that Warren could be the next singer of Black Flag and I’d like like “yeah that makes sense- great choice.”
This is one reason that having the endorsement of nearly every American hip hop artist (except for one) didn’t work for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but did work for Barack Obama in 2008. Authenticity, however you may interpret that word, matters a whole lot- and Beto doesn’t have it. His skateboarding at Whataburger and swearing on tv and trying to toe the line between edgy and acceptable isn’t working because none of it instills in voters a confidence that he’s the guy for the job. He now appears to be someone that says something out loud, gets a good reaction on twitter, then makes it a primary position in his campaign.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Beto. I believe him to be a good politician in a lot of ways and I think he would make a decent leader, I just don’t think that the selective use of his punk rock background translates in the way that he needs it to. He comes off like a wealthy former congressman saying “I was cool once!” to an audience of mostly educated voters who don’t care, probably because he is a wealthy former congressman shouting “I WAS COOL ONCE” to millions of voters who are largely unaffected by his attempts to be relatable.