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31 January 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 4:08pm

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knows: to truly understand US politics, ask a bartender

To tend bar is to be a part therapist, part pastor, part diplomat – and all politician.

By A. M. Black

Being a bartender can get you ahead in politics. Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently seated in the House of Representatives as the member for New York’s 14th congressional district. She poured tequila for a living. There is a photo of her mixing a drink in November 2017. One year later, at the age of 28, she unseated Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House. His stool at the bar of power was secure until Ocasio-Cortez decided to shake up the Democratic Party like a bartender shakes a Martini. Call her mix: The Revolution.

President Trump, as far as we know, never tended bar. He might be wary of bartenders, writ large. His late-brother suffered from alcoholism. Trump is teetotal. He prefers to get his sugar-load through diet coke, not whisky sours. But even if your bartending connection is as a dry as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a politician might still learn something about the working class from sitting on a stool in a dive bar listening to the bartender perform his or her duties as therapist to the proletariat or as confessor. Politicians on barstools could be tempted to avow their crimes. Bartender forgive me, for I have sinned against the people. Drink three Bloody Marys in lieu of the hail version. It could be made into a reality TV show.

I tend bar in a dive in California. Located in a tough neighbourhood, the exterior of the building has a forbidding look – iron bars on the windows. Inside, the warmth comes from the people. The greatness of tavern life is with the drinkers. Every stripe of humanity bends the elbow at the bar. On occasion, a visitor from a faraway land appears.

Last month, a loaded, working-class Texan from Dallas walked in. Without prompt, he professed being an extreme right-wing conservative Christian. He asked me how long I had been in his country? As a privileged immigrant with a brogue from an English-speaking island in Europe, and in possession of a US passport, I was mildly taken aback – especially with his follow up remark, your country wasn’t good enough, so you decided to come to mine without being asked?

The possessiveness was odd considering his jeremiad of being descended from Irish traveling people. A couple of the regulars picked up on his tone, a few political barbs were exchanged, and insulting commentary on his bland sartorial choices stuck to him like a cheap polyester shirt sticks to a hairy torso in warm weather. Demanding I shoot with him, whisky that is, I deferred to my dodge – I can’t, I’m an alcoholic – and his face fell like a sad lone star. I can’t stop drinking, he said plaintively, tears in his eyes.

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Cast as his lay pastor, I entreated him to be humble; to accept others without judgment; to stop claiming ownership of the nation, and to stop the nonsense about who is welcome and who is not. America is big enough for all, I said. Pausing for reflection, he left a tip, and left for Texas.

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Intervention is a bartending skill. Politicians can learn from it. Republican candidates keen to exercise their credentials for cutting public services can learn from the bartender who has his finger on the jukebox eject button. After all, is control of the public purse all that different from cutting the power when a sonic criminal plays Bohemian Rhapsody for the seventh time that evening? Right-wing candidates looking to prove their unforgiving moral authority before Heaven can practice banishing those who imbibe too much of the devil’s water, subbed in for welfare by DC, amongst their fellow travellers, sending the poor into exile like God banished Cain to the Land of Nod. Go home and sleep it off!

Democrats with a desire to maintain international order through diplomacy can learn from the necessary bartending skill of defusing conflict – the foresight and insight to stop punches before they are launched. A low, firm,and assertive voice, as if speaking to children, usually stops the Battle of the Barstools from breaking out; next stop, the ambassador’s job at the United Nations.

And instead of supporting Big Pharma’s dominance of the pain market, a candidate with bartending experience would understand that in lieu of asking your doctor which expensive drug is right for you, shots of whisky might allow the voter to forget that they can’t afford healthcare – at least for a few hours of relief.

The next presidential election – we all can’t wait! – is just around the corner, and Democrats fighting for their party’s nomination can take their signature cocktail on the campaign trail. The senator for Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, might stir up a Cape Cod, with a squeeze of lime in the eye of an opponent. Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii’s second district, might throw down a strong Hawaiian Punch. Coastal elite candidates can down a Cosmopolitan before they go for coffee on the set of MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Sherrod Brown, the populist senator from Ohio, could knock out a Rusty Nail for the Rust Belt. Should there be a Deep South candidate, figure the Alabama Slammer. A challenger from Florida couldpour out Hurricanes or Cuba Libre if still fighting Communism from a beach in Miami. With such an abundance of potent political cocktails to choose from the nation is set to be truly sozzled come the election. Whether a brutal hangover will descend on the knackered electorate should the sober Trump win again remains to be seen. Too bad he doesn’t drink. His would be a White Russian.

So, bartending and political careers go together like gin and tonic. You’ll get to understand labor and humanity in all its glorious forms. But beware! The lust for power can be as intoxicating as a jug of Sex on the Beach. Don’t let your call to public service fall into the dark and stormy gloom of meanness and retribution. Look to a brighter tomorrow and, dare I say, the Tequila Sunrise.

A.M. Black has been a bartender for 30 years. When not slinging whisky, he teaches in a prison.

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