On this day in 1945, ardent lover of the working class man (and woman, of all classes) Pablo Neruda was elected as a communist senator for the northern Chilean provinces. Neruda, long an admirer of Vladimir Lenin, saw the Soviet Union as the great vanquisher of fascism, and held great hopes for its putatively noble experiment in egalitarian living. But as details of Stalin’s repressive and murderous regime became increasingly clear, Neruda—not alone in his blindspots about Russian totalitarianism—would come to regret that admiration.
The list of great writers becoming politicians isn’t particularly long (the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel comes immediately to mind), and it’s definitely more of a European tradition than an American one.* This isn’t surprising. The “job” of politician in the United States exists as a subset of the entertainment industry and requires a level of cradle-to-grave careerism rivaled only by the beauty pageant circuit: you have to be extroverted, ethically “pragmatic,” and ready to take money from whoever will give it to you. Only one of the aforementioned qualities applies obviously to writers.
So when I submit the following nominations for “Writers I’d Like to See As Politicians” I am imagining they have somehow bypassed all the dodgy compromising and shady backroom dealmaking required of a 21st-century American politician. They have manifested into office, ready to make the world a better place.
Chee seems the obvious choice as the great lion (bear?) of the literary senate. He is forthright and fearless, deeply engaged in the politics of justice, and is adept at consensus-building (Twitter?). Also, I think he lives in Vermont now (and Bernie ain’t gonna live forever…).
The persistent inability of a certain kind of establishment liberal to recognize how deeply purple most of America is continues to be a big problem: just look at how many Twitter centrists readily taunt “red” states for having the temerity to suffer hardship under incompetent Republican administrations. Not good. Smarsh is exactly the politician we need to redress these misconceptions. Born and raised in working-class Kansas, Smarsh knows all too well that most Americans, regardless of party, just want a fair shot at a decent life, and understand that being a good neighbor means seeing to those who need it most. The job you have doesn’t define your politics.
I’m not here to relitigate the ongoing empathy wars but George Saunders is just manifestly NOT A HUGE DICK, so it would be pretty cool to see him as, like, the “governor of a nice, medium-sized state with aspirations to national office.” Saunders is who springs to mind when I think of the old adage: “Anyone who actually wants to be president should immediately be disqualified from office.”
America loves a political dynasty (particularly from Massachusetts!), and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more accomplished contemporary literary family than the Greenidges: sisters Kaitlyn (a novelist), Kerri (a historian), and Kirsten (a playwright), are all highly accomplished writers in their respective disciplines. I nominate Kaitlyn for the ambitious, career-launching slot of junior senator from the state of Massachusetts.
America also loves a straight-talking outsider with a nothing-to-lose attitude, which explains the careers of Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Al Franken (or is that just a Minnesota thing?). I’m not exactly sure what kind of platform Lockwood would bring to Washington, but as a freshman congresswoman she would sure as hell stir things up. In a good way.
Taylor is unafraid to mix it up on both sides of the aisle and is a true independent; if you need the votes whipped to push through some tough legislation, he’s the man for the job. Also, he speaks French, so if there’s any trouble with the Francophonie we can send him in to sortez out les mecs.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Pandemics, poverty, racism… America is embroiled in multiple dire crises, each one more urgent than the next. But behind it all looms the seemingly imminent collapse of all natural systems on the planet—if we don’t act quickly the climate crisis will end life as we know it. Who better to confront this emergency than one of our very best writers on the natural world, our place in it, and why we have to save it. I nominate Robin Wall Kimmerer as Czar of the Environment.
It doesn’t always work out when a gadfly assumes the reins, or when those who speak truth to power suddenly find themselves wielding it… So maybe it would be best for Rebecca Solnit to manifest her considerable moral force behind the scenes as a special advisor to the president. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a conscience in the White House?
As writers go, Jackson might actually be the one most suited to the politician’s life: he’s funny, charming, kind, generous, and… tall. You know, presidential. He’s also written powerfully about his experiences with America’s prison-industrial complex, and as vice president he could make serious and much-needed headway in reforming the carceral state.
Honestly, I just think it would be cool to have Claudia Rankine for president. That’s the hope and change I want to see.
*Nikil Saval, former editor and writer for n+1, is now a state senator in Pennsylvania. Exception that proves the rule?