NEW YORK — I was recently amused to read the following observation quoted in an intellectual history of modern Japan: “The system in which people vie to get elected head of state through indulgence in garrulity and by flaunting gestures like those of low-class actors is a singularly bizarre custom that we should do nothing more than watch from the sidelines.” The system in question, of course, is the process of electing a president in the United States.
What may be surprising is the man who wrote these words: Ikki Kita (1883-1937). Kita, after all, is best remembered today as a man arrested and executed for allegedly providing the philosophical backbone to the handful of army officers who led the 2.26 Incident in 1936 — a revolt that was prompted by an absolute trust in the Emperor that is incomprehensible today. Such a “radical nationalist,” as the American historian George Macklin Wilson called him in his 1969 book on the man from Harvard University Press, could not possibly have passed proper judgment on the cherished American democratic process, you might say, let alone dismiss it.
In truth, Kita was more than that. An aide to Sun Yat-sen during China’s 1912 revolution albeit as a member of the Japanese rightwing Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society), he studied various political systems, in the end advocating “genuine socialism.” Also, in the year 1919, when he wrote “An Outline for Remaking Japan,” in Shanghai, from which the passage quoted above is taken, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was at the forefront of international affairs. During the protracted Peace Conference in Paris, he was the dominant actor with his Fourteen Points, although, as is well known, the U.S. Senate late that year would refuse to ratify the Versailles Treaty he had worked out, largely because his go-it-alone, self-righteous stance, amply adumbrating that of the current U.S. president, put off the Republican majority in Congress. The ratification failure would put America in an odd position in international dealings for the few decades that followed.
In any case, Wilson in his top hat was a familiar sight in newsreels watched around the world. Given the war in Europe and the growing interest in America’s likely entry into it, that familiarity extended, we can be certain, to the crowd-rousing, speechifying image of Wilson campaigning for second term, in 1916. The outcome of the election, his narrow victory over his Republican opponent, Charles Evan Hughes, also must have made an impression on someone like Kita.
You might still think that Kita’s characterization of the American way of electing president was the gibberish of a die-hard Japanese nationalist in a bygone era who was incapable of apprehending the American democratic system. If you do, it may be because you have grown too inured to the electoral process to be able to sit back and look. For there is no mistaking the fact that it has some strong elements of a third-rate theatrical troupe on the road.
Consider stump speeches. They are not much different from the lines memorized by actors and actresses making the rounds of local theaters, with variations the occasion demands or simply because the performer forgets the exact script. It must be a wearisome, debilitating process you would not go through unless for money or, in the presidential campaign, “the glitter of the prize,” as Hendrik Hertzberg, the staff writer for The New Yorker, put it in the Jan. 21 issue of the weekly: becoming the most powerful man (or, this year, woman perhaps) in the world.
As long as I’ve quoted Hertzberg, there must also be what he calls “the addictive intensity of the experience” in running for president, just as there must be gratification in performing the same acts from town to town, from one night to another. But it must be debilitating nonetheless. Hertzberg caught a touchy moment during Barack Obama’s campaign in Rochester, New Hampshire. After launching into an oration in a packed house, the senator suddenly stopped in his tracks and said, as if to remind himself, “That’s the second time I’ve done this today,” before forging ahead with the script.
The roadshow aspects of the presidential race are exacerbated by its spectators, the perpetual pundits.
Their contumely is almost puerile. Think of all the attention and analyses accorded to Hillary Clinton’s “quasi tears” (New York Times weekly columnist Frank Rich’s formulation) or, most likely, an “expression of human ordinariness,” as Hertzberg phrased it. One morning in a coffee shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, one woman asked Clinton a sympathetic question. In responding, the candidate became soft-spoken and perhaps misty-eyed.
“The media frenzy that followed had to be seen to be believed,” to quote Hertzberg again. Not that I watched the frenzy to any meaningful degree, but when the news — should it have been news? — broke, I could foretell an avalanche coming. After all, I remember Edmund Muskie’s “tears” (melting snow?) in 1972 and Patricia Schroeder in 1988. To make the matter worse, it occurred just before the New Hampshire primary that gave Clinton a win after the Iowa caucus had made Obama the winner.
There are great differences between the two processes — New York Times columnist Gail Collins dismissed the result of the former as “the considered opinion of a small state full of idiosyncratic New Englanders” and derided the latter as “a strange ritual that resembles Red Rover with votes” — but that did not prevent countless pundits from writing Clinton off after Iowa. After all, Obama won in a state where 91 percent of the people are non-Hispanic white and only 2.5 percent are black, did he not? This self-induced embarrassment compelled many of them to write and mouth grudging self-analyses, if not outright mea culpas.
Aside from puerile punditry, I wish the candidates would act with more dignity, if not like first-rate actors. Clinton’s unseemly behavior during the Democratic debate on Martin Luther King’s Day was a case in point. I wonder what it would have been like to attend one of those debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas exactly 150 years ago.
I should note that Ikki Kita’s ideas for reshaping Japan, which were really for social reforms, were not what you might expect from his usual reputation. Historians tell us that seven out of 10 of his ideas were the same as those the U.S. Occupation introduced less than 30 years later.
Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato’s most recent book is “Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology.”