Obama, symbol and reality
About this blog: Is electoral success based only on demographics, strategy and money? Jeffrey C. Alexander begs to differ, and he offers a new way of looking at the process of attaining and keeping political power in “The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power,” released this week by Oxford University Press. Alexander, a professor of sociology at Yale, focuses on powerful subtle and not-so-subtle messages a candidate conveys through emotion, images and performance to achieve cultural meaning and symbolic importance. Here, Alexander traces these issues through the 2008 presidential campaign and ruminates on the limits of heroic symbolism in politics.
In contemporary discussions about how people vote and which candidate succeeds there is a marked tendency to demographic determinism. In “The Performance of Power,” I take the explanation of politics in a very different direction, into the realm of culture.
Rhetoric, tone, and tempo are critical to the political actor. So is the script, and let’s not forget the power to procure a stage, which today means getting covered by the media. But even if you have all of these, nobody can predict how audiences will react. Another thing: every message is mediated and interpreted by journalists along the way.
It is paradoxical that, to be a successful performer, a political candidate must appear not be performing. Her action and speech must be seen as authentic, not as constructed but as a natural and sincere. The worst thing the media can say is that a candidate seems wooden, artificial, contrived, a puppet on a string pulled by invisible others, the people who actually are directing one’s action and writing one’s script.
For politicians to symbolize effectively, they must become heroes. You become a hero by offering the promise of salvation. The rhetoric of struggles for big time political power is filled with cries about the utter disaster of our times. Apocalypse looms. If my opponent gets into power, disaster looms. Only if you elect me will the world be saved.
In 2008, John McCain and Barack Obama narrated the crisis of our times in fatefully different ways. According tor Obama, we were in the midst of a great and terrible domestic crisis: growing inequality and intolerance, rampant corruption, secret government and the curtailment of civil liberties, precious resources squandered on war. For McCain, the crisis was outside civil society, not inside it. It was about the enemy at our gates. “The great battle of the 21rst century is the struggle against Islamic extremism,” McCain often declared. We must suck it up and be strong. The Republican’s mantra was “fight, fight, fight.”
The struggle for power in 2008 was not a good time for military heroes. There was a giant public turn off to the Iraq war. One poll claimed that 65 percent of Americans said they were “bored” with the issue, and few felt terrorism to be an imminent danger. There was a growing sense of domestic unease, worry that growing inequality posed a danger to civil society, that Katrina exposed government rot, indifference, and gnawing fear of slow motion economic decline.
Against this background, there were three “plot points” that actually determined the outcome of the campaign: Celebrity Metaphor, Palin Effect, and Financial Crisis.
Worried about his foreign policy credentials, in July, 2008, Obama interrupted his domestic campaign with an unprecedented trip to the Middle East and Europe. It was a risky move, but as it unfolded it was widely perceived as an extraordinary success. But performative politics are tricky.
Every hero has a shadow. The more he becomes a hero, the more he exposes himself to charges of hubris. The brilliant performance artist in charge of the Republican campaign, a k a Steven Schmidt, created a web advertisement declaring Obama a “celebrity” -- an arrogant, arugula eating, health-food intaking, Ivy League educated, holier than thou, flying-too- close-to-the-sun, better than your average Joe celebrity. The ad went viral and the metaphor spread like wild fire, with many son-of-celebrity-ads in its wake. In the run-up to the Democratic convention, Republicans claimed that the platform being erected for Obama’s acceptance speech copied Greek temples for the gods. Obama’s August 31st speech, and the extraordinary Americana surrounding it, belied Republican hopes and allayed Democratic fears.
At that very moment, however, Sarah Palin burst on the scene. She became a sensational overnight star. Touted as a hero of Alaskan civil society and a fearless domestic reformer, Palin performed the role of a god-fearing, gun-toting, post-feminist Annie Oakley. The Palin symbol came from the heartland of America’s frontier myth. Three weeks of hide and seek, rhetorical gaffs, public ridicule, and media exposure later, buyers’ remorse set in. The hero symbol deflated and the Palin Effect fizzled.
The Financial Crisis exploded on the public stage on September 14th . Not the real economic crisis but the symbol encasing it directed this final act of the 2008 struggle for power.
McCain, the former navy pilot, was supposed to be cool under fire, but he seemed irrational, suggesting “the fundamentals of our economy are good.” He also appeared impulsive, suspending his campaign to parachute into Washington, making things worse, then calling the campaign back on again. Meanwhile, Citizen Obama remained conspicuously cool, calm, and collected. The contrast in these performances assured Obama’s cultural victory. For the first time the Democrat took a statistically significant lead.
He never looked back. The performance of politics closed its long run on election day, but the results were determined by the end of the first week in October, a month before voting. Began.
How could Obama have done such an extraordinary job of “performing politics” during his campaign for the presidency, and be in such a disastrous position two years after winning it? For conservatives, the answer is simple. As one colleague put it: “The public now sees who Obama really was all the time!” But this partisan response is too easy. It takes reality for granted, as if it isn’t performatively enacted, as if facts and events can be considered outside a cultural frame. My answer is different: Obama seems to have lost his ability to symbolize, not only for the right side of the citizen-audience, but for the center and even for those sitting on stage left. But that is another story which must wait for another day.
Jeffrey C. Alexander
| November 18, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: obama hero symbolism; obama image; image in politics; 2008 campaign
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