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Political dramaturgy and character in 2012

By Jeffrey C. Alexander

In the wake of the party conventions, the shape of the Presidential contest has crystallized. Shocking to pundits and purveyors of conventional wisdom, Barack Obama has stretched his lead, narrowly in the national polls, more decisively in the critical swing states. Campaigns are all about hope and bluff. Though “no one will hear a discouraging word” from the Romney campaign, the writing is on the wall. The reason is not the actual state of the economy or nation. It’s about the state of our political drama, our symbolic and emotional selves.

From the Greeks and American Founding Fathers to modern political scientists, democracy has been misunderstood as an exercise in rationality. Voters are portrayed as employing unencumbered intellects, as looking at issues and weighing their interests, as having the ability to understand “truth” and see through the “distortions” of the other side. But this simply isn’t the way society works.

Voters don’t decide whom to vote for by weighing their objective costs and benefits. They are not calculating machines, but emotional and moral human beings. Searching for the meanings of things, they want to make sense of political life, working out a grand narrative of where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going in the future.

Candidates are characters in this social drama, casting themselves as heroic protagonists and opponents as wearing black hats. Citizen-audiences evaluate these shape-shifting performances, making identifications, not calculations. They support characters who seem life-affirming and hopeful, and oppose those who appear evil and dangerous.

Those auditioning for Presidential power aim to become collective representations, symbols that embody the best qualities of citizens and nation. If a candidate succeeds in symbolizing “America” for enough voters, he will be allowed to direct the government.

In 2008, Barack Obama succeeded in creating a truly inspiring character, becoming a collective representation that compelled mass identification. In the first two years of his presidency, the emotional fusion binding this character to the left and center became attenuated. In some part such loosening was inevitable. The symbolic intensity of Obama-character could not possibly be sustained as Obama-President manipulated the machinery of government. There were also self-inflicted wounds. Obama’s political autobiography was all about healing the polarizing wounds of the sixties, but he deeply underestimated the difficulty of creating a vital center inside the Congress and state. During the year-long health care debate, post-partisan compromise was demonstrated to be only a figment of the President’s imagination; he came away empty-handed, without a shred of Republican support. While Obama-character played the fiddle of reconciliation, the Tea Party made America burn. “Obama” now seemed cool and out of touch, and later acknowledged neglecting narrative for policy. The Republicans smashed the Democrats in 2010.

After that cathartic triumph, the emotional energy of millions of angry, disappointed Americans seemed there for the Republicans to take. They had only to find a vessel to hold it. Failing to rise to this dramaturgical moment, the Republicans emerge from months of primary with a cipher, not a symbol. Mitt Romney possessed a mile long CV and a well-oiled political machine, but nary a drop of charisma. He sees himself as a tool, not a vessel, an instrument of economic management rather than a vehicle for emotional and moral representation.

Incapable of symbolizing, Romney performs the role of the problem-solving businessman. But voters wrap practical promises inside gauzy cultural blankets. What matters is the character of the promiser and his story. These are what citizens can feel. They can’t scientifically evaluate the validity of his promise. Is candidate Romney one of us? Is he an up-from-the-bootstraps, self-made American hero, like Johnson, Nixon, or Clinton? Is he a warrior hero like Ike or Bush, Sr.? Is he an aristocratic hero sacrificing personal comfort to work for the American people, like Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, or JFK?

It doesn’t matter who Mitt Romney is really, only what his character seems to be. With Obama’s help, Romney-character emerged as Bain Capital(ist), the quarter-billionaire who won’t tell us about his taxes and parked his hidden money offshore. Romney may have brain power, but he lacks symbolic soul. Romney-character signifies self over community, a glad hander who’ll tell us what we want to hear, not what he deeply believes.

Obama-character presents a sharp contrast. Whatever his practical failings, he is still seen as idealistic and honest, devoted to helping others rather than feathering his own nest. The plot which this admirable character has inhabited, however, has terribly let us down. The 2008 campaign was poetry in motion, a hero promising salvation; President Obama governed in prose, with no relief in sight.

Would Americans see Obama-character as a good-hearted flop? The RNC performance team would have had it so. The dramaturgical challenge for DNC organizers was shifting the chronology so that Obama-character could be a hero again. The new narrative saw Obama as inheriting, not creating, our awful economic mess – “750,000 jobs were lost in January 2008 alone!” Since then, he’s been furiously digging us out. No human being could have done a better job, Bill Clinton assured us. In his acceptance speech, the President proclaimed we are only in the middle of the recovery, a story of suffering that will not be redeemed for several more years. But then there will be salvation, and American greatness will be restored.

The bounce from the DNC indicates Obama-character regained some traction with the center, and the coiled power of his invisible ground game suggests some re-fusion with the activist left. At least for now, Obama-character can no longer be a hero, but he can be represented as working heroically for our side.

Over the next sixty days, opportunities for performative failure and success remain — most conspicuously in the presidential debates, where ritual and dramaturgy, not rational argument, reign. There will also be unscripted events that can catch a character by surprise. During the financial crisis in September 2008, John McCain seemed to fall off the stage.

At this point in the “Performance of Politics 2012,” all signs point to the success of the Democratic play. Victory is not in the economic stars, but in our symbolic selves.

Jeffrey C. Alexander is the Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology and co-Director of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. One of the world’s leading social theorists, he is the founder of the “strong program” in cultural sociology, which brings concepts from the humanities into social science in order to understand the centrality of meaning in modern social life. Among his recent books are The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology (Oxford 2003), The Civil Sphere (Oxford 2006), The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power (Oxford 2010), Performance and Power (Polity 2011), The Performative Revolution Egypt (Bloomsbury 2011), and Trauma: A Social Theory (Polity 2012).

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Image credits:
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses Indiana residents during a town halll style meeting at Concord High School February 9, 2009 in Elkhart, Indiana. (Photo by Scott Olson) Image via EdStock, iStockPhoto.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney speaks with the media after visiting the Brewery Bar IV on June 20, 2011 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by John Moore) Image via EdStock2, iStockPhoto.

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