Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Political Symbolism Is Political Reality: The Case of Wisconsin

Oct 23, 2012

Political Symbolism Is Political Reality: The Case of Wisconsin


Tammy Baldwin in 2010. Credit: Flickr/Center for American Progress.

In case anyone doubts the power of myth and symbol in American politics:  In the dead-heat race for the Senate in Wisconsin, one issue now towers over all others, the Washington Post reports. It’s not health care or education or energy or immigration. No, it’s Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s 2006 vote against a purely symbolic bill to continue recognizing September 11 as a national day of remembrance and mourning.  

Baldwin voted against the bill because it included a clause endorsing the Patriot Act and a host of other post-9/11 legislation, which few people had read completely and even fewer understood thoroughly.  

But an ad by Baldwin’s opponent, former Wisconsin governor and secretary of health and human services Tommy Thompson, conveniently omits that explanation and all the symbolic recognitions of 9/11 that Baldwin did vote for. Instead, the ad features military personnel and veterans charging that Baldwin dishonors the victims of 9/11, disgraces the flag, slaps every one of America’s military personnel in the face, puts the nation’s security “in jeopardy,” leads us down “a very dangerous path,” and doesn’t care about America’s children. All this from one symbolic vote -- and in 30 seconds.

As a piece of political advertising, it has impressive production values and certainly tugs at plenty of voters’ heartstrings. But only one thing sets it apart from many other such slick ads: It has now made Baldwin’s no vote six years ago the pivotal issue in the far-too-close-to-call contest, according to WaPo reporter Aaron Blake.

It would take an entire book to unpack all of the symbolic and mythic narratives crammed into those thirty seconds. I won’t even try to outline the table of contents of that book here. I simply want to note what a huge role pure symbolism can play in what we think of as the very real world of power politics, as if “symbolic” or “mythic” and “real” were somehow opposites.

But if we define “real” as whatever makes a difference in the world, then in Wisconsin in 2012, at least, the mythic symbolism is the dominant reality. If a politician as liberal as the fifty-year-old Baldwin enters the Senate, she might well be there for three decades or more, moving up to committee chairs, wielding significant influence, and thereby nudging the Senate at least a bit further to the left. If she’s kept out by the emotional impact of this ad and this issue, the future of the Senate will be at least a little different for decades to come.

Moreover, Wisconsin is still very much a toss-up in the presidential race. Voters’ feelings for or against Baldwin are sure to influence the fate of Wisconsin’s ten critical electoral votes.

In this context it’s also worth recalling a former senator from Wisconsin, named Joseph McCarthy. Talk about myth and symbolism becoming political reality!

All this is a useful reminder that myths and symbols are political realities, deserving the same careful attention we give to any other political reality. 

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