MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.
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Credit: HNN staff.
“Who lost Libya?” Mitt Romney has not asked the question exactly that way. Neither has Paul Ryan, nor any prominent Republican politician or commentator, as far as I know. But anyone familiar with the history of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s can hardly avoid hearing that question, between the lines, in the GOP assault on the Obama administration’s handling of the September 11 killings in Benghazi.
The “Who lost … ?” pattern first emerged after the communist revolution transformed mainland China in 1949. Republicans angrily demanded, “Who lost China?” The taste of omnipotence coming out of World War II was still fresh in Americans’ mouths. It seemed like the U.S. had such immense power, we could control just about everything that happened everywhere outside the Soviet Union and its eastern European bloc.
The Democrats boasted about that apparent omnipotence. Secretary of State Dean Acheson crowed that the U.S. was “the locomotive at the head of mankind ... the rest of the world is the caboose.” The Democrats assumed that claiming credit for achieving such power could only redound to their political advantage.
Then suddenly the Chinese revolution made it seem like a big “red” chunk of the caboose had come loose and was careening out of control. Given the widespread premise that the U.S. controlled the entire “free world,” it was impossible for many Americans to believe that the Chinese had the power, on their own, to release themselves from America’s grasp.
The only logical way to explain it was to assume that someone within the U.S. government had consciously let China go. Someone had committed treachery. It must have been an inside job.
The Republicans saw this explanation as a great chance to neutralize the points the Democrats had scored on foreign policy throughout the 1940s. They insisted that the traitorous villains had to be inside Acheson’s State Department.
The political dynamite was defused in June 1950, when Truman sent several hundred thousand U.S. troops to fight the communists in Korea. That was hardly his main motive, but it was a welcome political side effect.
However the “Who lost China?” debate had long-lasting effects. Apart from the ensuing purge of the best Asia experts from the State Department (which paved the way for the disastrous U.S. involvement in Vietnam), the debate had a major impact on the narrative of U.S. foreign policy for years to come.
It reinforced the assumption of American omnipotence. To argue seriously about “Who lost China?” implied that we once “had” China, as a sort of possession, and had let it slip from our grasp.
To chalk it up to internal treachery was not merely consistent with the image of U.S. omnipotence; it actually reinforced the image. Now, the story went, just as the U.S. government could hold on to nations at its will, so it could let them go, even though that would always be a mistake.
And the Democrats’ response to the charges -- ramping up the Cold War in Korea and elsewhere -- further reinforced the idea that the U.S. ought to aim, at least, at total control of the “free world.” The Democrats had to say that to reassure a nervous public. The obvious fact that other nations act independently could hardly get a fair hearing.
Nevertheless, the reassuring implications of the debate were offset by a more frightening one. Though we were still holding on to the rest of the “free world,” the “loss” of China showed how fragile our hold was. If we weren’t hyper-vigilant, who knew what country we might lose next. At any time the “dike” might burst (as Dwight Eisenhower warned his National Security Council, as the discussed Vietnam in 1954) and the “red tide” would flood our own homeland.
The reassurance and the fear actually reinforced each other. The more Americans worried about “losing” some other nation, the more they reinforced the premise that the “free world” was indeed a possession under our control. And the more we “had,” the more we had to “lose.” So our global control would always be threatened, it seemed. But the bipartisan narrative agreed that strong, wise, patriotic leaders should be able to keep the “dike” firm and hold on to the “free world” forever.
This myth of homeland insecurity became the fundamental myth of American foreign affairs. And Democrats were haunted by the shadow of the “Who lost China?” question. They were constantly on the defensive, vulnerable to GOP charges of being weak on security. Only in the late 1950s and early 1960s did they successfully fend off those charges.
Although the Cold War ended, the myth and its specter of permanent peril endured. Once the “Iron Curtain” fell, the whole world came to look like a possession that we were supposed to control. Every nation was ours to lose. As Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it in the early ‘90s, “the real threat is the unknown, the uncertain.” The U.S. needed “the ability to respond to the crisis nobody expected, nobody told us about, the contingency that suddenly pops up at 2:00 in the morning.”
During the Democratic primary contest of 2008, some copywriter for the Hillary Clinton campaign advanced the danger hour to 3:00 am. But the impact of that famous “phone call” ad showed that the myth of homeland security, institutionalized during the Cold War years, was still as powerful as ever.
In early September, 2008, Barack Obama was falling behind in the polls; his campaign based on “hope and change” was stumbling. Then suddenly a new peril appeared on the scene: an impending collapse of the economic system that threatened to flood the nation with disaster. Obama was judged most able to fend off that peril and he surged ahead.
But Obama and his political strategists knew that, as Democrats, they would always be open to charges of being “weak” on security issues. No doubt many factors moved the president to adopt a national security policy in many ways resembled his predecessor’s. But the need to guard his right political flank was surely one of those factors.
Like the Democrats of the late ‘40s, Obama’s 2012 campaign team expected to score lots of political points by crowing about American domination -- in this case, domination of a splintering, Osama bin Laden-less Al Qaeda. Once again, though, calling attention to homeland security issues put the Democrats in a precarious political position. Having intentionally created an impression of a strong U.S. hand controlling events around the world, they were vulnerable to any event that called their total control into question. On September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, that event arrived.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/HNN staff.
Today I posted a long article on Truthout.org titled "What's Still the Matter With Kansas -- and With the Democrats?" The title refers to a popular 2005 book by Thomas Frank, exploring the puzzle of why so many people of middling economic means vote for Republicans whose policies so clearly favor the rich and do little to help people of middling economic means. Frank chose Kansas as the place to study a large number of voters who vote against their economic self-interest because he came from Kansas.
In my article I use "Kansas" as a symbol for all those voters. I argue that Democrats are losing this key demographic group, and maybe this election, because they're unwilling to support values issues dear to the heart of “Kansans” that they could very plausibly endorse.
One little piece of that article may be of special interest to historians. I note another book on the same topic, Red State Religion, by another native Kansan, the eminent sociologist of American religion Robert Wuthnow. He stresses the powerful spirit of community you will find among these Republican voters of Kansas. He also traces the history of that spirit being expressed both in religious communities and in electoral politics. There’s a rich tradition of many “Kansans” voting Democratic for decades, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when populism and progressivism overlapped in so many way. Back then, lots of “Kansans” understood the invaluable role of government.
Now, their descendants will still often bend over backwards to help you out when you need it -- as long as they judge you deserving. But, crucially, they insist on reserving that right to judge for themselves. They won’t let any government bureaucrat do it.
Why not? Wuthnow traces the distrust of the federal government back to 1938, when Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to follow through on the promises he’d made in the 1936 campaign. As my Truthout article shows, that’s far too simplistic an explanation. It’s only one factor, and probably not a major factor, in understanding the “Kansas” of today.
Still, it’s an interesting point. Wuthnow does make a strong case for the late ‘30s as the crucial point at which “Kansas” began to support the conservative drive to shrink government.
But he neglects to explore the complexities of that turning point. FDR did not intentionally forsake “Kansas.” He made a couple of bad strategic blunders: insisting on his court-packing plan after it was obviously bound to fail, and campaigning in the 1938 primaries against some stalwart Democrat conservatives running for re-election to Congress, who won re-nomination and re-election anyway.
As a result, FDR lost a lot of political capital in Congress. For that and lots of other reasons, Congress became more conservative and blocked progressive measures that FDR probably would have been happy to sign into law.
So FDR was blamed for failures that were mostly caused by an obstructive Congress. Of course back in those days a president was allowed to blame Congress, loud and clear, for obstructing progressive measures that he would have approved.
Today that seems to be pretty much taboo. Barack Obama, who suffered much the same fate as the second-term Franklin Roosevelt, has put very little effort into pinning the blame on the Republicans in Congress. If he tried to make that a major issue, he would be pilloried by the press as a whiner and a weasel, trying to avoid taking responsibility.
I’m not sure why that change in media perspective has happened. But it’s certainly worth noticing.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The prominent psychologist Steven Pinker has a long piece on the New York Times website, trying to explain why Republicans do so well in the South and the West but not in the rest of the country. It seems that it all comes down to how different regions have, historically, dealt with the eternal threat of societal anarchy. Harvard media stars rush in where careful historians usually fear to tread, or at best tread very lightly.
There are plenty of holes in Pinker’s speculative framework big enough to drive most any vehicle you can think of through. For starters, if the North is indeed historically accustomed to counting on government to tame anarchy, as he argues, how to explain the Republican strength in New Hampshire, or in the non-urbanized areas of northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois? And if the West (which one assumes includes the “red” Great Plains states) is so accustomed to rejecting government as the tamer of anarchy, how explain the great political success of Progressivism and farmer-labor coalitions in those states in the days of William Jennings Bryan?
If Pinker’s whole edifice is taken seriously, it quickly dies the death of a thousand qualifications.
But rather than subject it to such a slow, painful death by analyzing it in detail, I’d rather look at the part of the article that has some persuasive power. That means setting aside all the speculation about the history of geographical regions and looking at politics in terms of personal decisions. What makes some people choose a candidate who sees a prominent role for government in society, while others choose a candidate who wants to limit and weaken government's role?
Pinker is an expert on the history of the long-term decline in human violence. So his focus, naturally, is on how people deal with violence and the prospect of it being inflicted upon them.
He links the small-government view to the culture of honor, where individuals -- mostly men -- decide for themselves when they have been offended and how to punish the offenders. They keep “the safeguarding of their personal safety” as their own private prerogative. At best, they cede that power to “their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance,” created largely by women.
Those who would allow government a much larger role “are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages.” They are especially extensions of “the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, [when] governments were forced to implement democratic procedures, humanitarian reforms and the protection of human rights.”
If there’s any truth in this speculation, it suggests that less-government advocates live in a social world where collective institutions for curbing violence appear to be relatively weaker and less dependable, compared with the social world of more-government advocates. (Note that I say social, not geographical, world. Two next-door neighbors can -- and from the campaign yard signs I see in my town, often do -- live in totally different social worlds.)
Explaining how and why those different social worlds arose is like explaining the weather: The causal factors way too complicated, with far too many variables, to be modeled completely on even the most sophisticated computers. The best we can hope for are partial explanations, depending on what particular questions are asked. Historians and social scientists should certainly keep on vigorously pursuing those questions. But they should not hope for the kind of simple, all-encompassing explanation that Pinker offers here.
However, like the weather, the effects of different social worlds can be understood with a lot more certainty than the causes. People who feel relatively less protected from offense and violence, for whatever reasons, are more likely to feel more vulnerable, to see the world as a more threatening place and other people as sources of threat. So they are more likely to draw upon the mythology of homeland insecurity to make sense out of their experience -- a mythology based on the premise that we Americans will always face some serious threat to our very existence.
People who feel relatively safer from offense and violence are more likely to feel more protected, to see the world as a place where people can cooperate because others are not such sources of threat. So they are more likely to draw upon the mythology of hope and change to make sense out of their experience -- a mythology that says people can work together to make a better community for all, using government as their collective agent.
In the current presidential election we might seem to have a direct head-to-head competition between the two social worlds, with the two locked in a virtual tie. But things are more complicated. The number one apostle of the mythology of hope and change, Barack Obama, states bluntly that “the first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe.” That’s “homeland insecurity” at its best.
Perhaps he is simply trying to appeal to the less-government advocates, so he can peel off enough of their votes to eke out a victory. If so, it’s good evidence of how strong the mythology of homeland insecurity is.
But I think this is better evidence of how closely the two great mythologies are intertwined. Pinker’s “red state vs. blue state” kind of analysis is popular for the same reason athletic contests of all kinds are so popular. We want to see two clearly defined sides fight it out and, in the end, have a clear-cut winner and loser.
But it doesn’t match the reality of American life. No one feels absolutely threatened or absolutely secure. Like Pinker’s “red state” and “blue state” personalities, these absolutes are ideal types, useful only for theoretical purposes.
In fact, all of us live somewhere on a spectrum between those two theoretical constructs. All of us feel some degree of threat and vulnerability, and some degree of safety and protection. So all of us are drawn to both of the great mythologies. How we vote will depend largely on the particular mix of the two within our minds and our autonomic nervous systems.
It’s not surprising, then, to see both of the major party presidential candidates drawing on both of the mythologies and blending them together. Each does it in his own way, gesturing somewhat more toward one end or the other of the spectrum. But both recognize that the crucial swing voters are in the middle of the spectrum, with their sense of vulnerability and their sense of protection balanced in roughly equal measure.
That seems to sum up the state of the union in the autumn of 2012. No one can yet predict which way the balance will tip by Election Day.
For the as-yet-undecided, it’s worth remembering that even the smallest gesture toward one end or the other of the spectrum is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who act as if the institutions that protect us are relatively weak end up weakening the institutions that protect us, so that ultimately we are all in fact more vulnerable. And that’s true no matter where we live.
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.
McGovern vs. Nixon campaign pamphlet, 1972. Credit: Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
George McGovern was the first presidential candidate I actively campaigned for. Like many baby boomers, I stood on the street corner handing out “Vote for McGovern” handbills. The fifty-year-old Democrat was so unique among politicians, we gave him a special exception to our first commandment: Never trust anyone over thirty.
Under thirty? Sure. We knew we could trust each other. Or so we thought.
But the day before George McGovern died, I stumbled across a little known fact that took me back those forty years and made me wonder whether my trust was misplaced.
Assuming that we can trust the data compiled by American National Election Studies, it seems that on Election Day 1972, of my fellow under-thirty, baby-boomer voters, only 47 percent marked their ballots for McGovern. 53 percent voted for Richard Nixon.
There are at least two good lessons here: First, our knowledge of the body politic depends largely on who we hang out with. We tend to assume too easily that the people we know in our own demographic groups (age, gender, race, whatever) represent the entirety of those demographics. I suppose we ought to get around more, talk to more people who are like us demographically but not politically.
The other lesson is that the common wisdom handed down as history is often not borne out by the facts. I suppose we ought to do more empirical research and less parroting of the common wisdom (of which, in this case, I was guilty all these years).
By coincidence, on the day George McGovern died I learned another fact about that 1972 election: women voted overwhelmingly for Nixon, in virtually the same numbers as men. And there was no gender gap at all in 1976. Since 1980, though, Republican presidential candidates have done far better among men and Democrats far better among women. It looks like the same pattern will repeat again this Election Day.
When I mentioned this to my wife, she asked an obvious question that I’ve rarely if ever seen discussed in all the fevered analysis of the polls: In presidential elections, do more women vote, or more men, or is it roughly equal?
Since I had the American National Election Studies website up on my computer, it was easy to get an answer: In ’72 and ’76, women voters far outnumbered men. It didn’t matter much then, since there was virtually no gender gap.
But since 1980, women have continued to outnumber men by nearly as much. On average, roughly 54 percent of voters have been women. To repeat: In all those elections, women have voted Democratic in significantly higher numbers than men. So if the vote had been evenly split between the two genders, the Republicans would have done significantly better.
In 2000, for example, Al Gore won the women’s vote by 11 percent. George W. Bush got the men by 9 percent. But 56 percent of the voters were women. Had it been 50-50, Bush would have won easily and the Supreme Court would have been spared its worst embarrassment in living memory.
As far as I can tell, since 1972 (when the stats I have on the gender gap begin), there’s no case where the preponderance of women was the decisive factor; i.e., where a 50-50 gender turnout would have swung the election to the other candidate.
But 2012 could be a first. As close as this election is, and with the gender gap as large as ever, if the pattern of women outnumbering men by about 8 points continues, Barack Obama might well gain re-election solely due to the women’s vote.
The larger point here is that, since 1980, the presidential vote has not accurately reflected the political views of the population at large (assuming that the gender split in the overall population is roughly 50-50, which is roughly the case in the U.S.). With so many more women voting, the electorate has trended a bit more Democratic than the whole body politic. In other words, the presidential election results have led us to think that the American people were a bit more liberal than they really were.
In the same way, the mythic tale of George McGovern and the “youth vote” led us to think that the baby-boomers of “the ‘60s” were a bit more liberal than they really were.
Considering what hard times it’s often been for liberals since 1972, it’s a bitter pill for those of us on the left to learn that the reality has been even worse than we thought.
It’s sad that we no longer have George McGovern with us. He was such a fine model of the committed liberal who keeps on speaking up for what he (or, more likely, she) believes in, regardless of how chilly the political climate may be.
Credit: Flickr/Obama for America.
Did you think the second presidential debate was too nasty, that it was sad to see the two lead actors portray such a polarized image of American politics? The third performer up on the stage, moderator Candy Crowley, didn’t think so.
“They were talking to their bases who want to see them stand up to each other,” Crowley said on CNN after the debate. “They were so good being at each other’s face, and I thought this was a debate, so I let it go. … It was so good.”
The woman with the only front row seat didn’t seem to be interested in the content of the candidates’ arguments, much less their logical coherence. She cared about the show. And as long as they were at each other’s face, “it was so good.”
A long-time TV professional, who has made television her life, naturally judges the debate by the same criteria she would judge any television show. And appropriately so, since the debate is above all television entertainment.
That’s why when debate season roles around I always turn to TV critics, like the New York Times’ David Carr. What struck Carr most about the first debate was not anything about the content. It was the extraordinary size of the audience -- over 70 million -- “breaking a 32-year-old record in viewership.” (And there was every likelihood that the second debate would score even higher.) Only the Superbowl gained more viewers -- a TV show where we don’t merely hope, but know with certainty, that the performers will be at each other’s face.
“Credit live event television,” Carr wrote, “the last remaining civic common in an atomized world. While ratings for almost everything on television have sunk, big spectacles that hold some promise of spontaneity -- N.F.L. games, the Olympics and various singing competitions -- continue to thrive.” And, of course, so do the presidential debates, as long as the race is close enough that the big prize is at stake.
Carr quotes Jeff Zucker, former chief executive of NBC Universal: “Television is about drama, whether it is the Olympics, the Super Bowl, or ‘Homeland,’ and these debates have provided incredibly great drama. It just proves the adage that if you put on a good show, and both of these debates have been very good television, the audiences are going to be there.”
Carr and Zucker didn’t say it, but they know as well as Candy Crowley what makes great drama that draws big audiences: conflict, characters standing up to each other and being at each other’s faces.
Crowley and Carr were merely two of the thousands of journalists and commentators, not only on TV but in every news medium, who all read from the same prescribed text: It’s fundamentally about performance. Obama lost the first debate because of his poor performance. In fact he lost most because of his performance when he wasn’t speaking. So the content of his words could not have played much role at all in his loss.
That’s why everyone was focused on Obama’s performance in the second debate. And he played it pitch perfect. When Romney spoke, Obama showed no scorn or disinterest or boredom. He was all ears, apparently paying attention with the appropriately neutral face. But when it was his turn to speak, he was at Romney’s face -- certainly not all the time, but enough to make it the biggest news event of the night.
Romney gave as good as he got, though -- letting the New York Times website headline (happily, I trust), “Rivals Bring Bare Fists to Rematch.”
Media professionals don’t really care who won, as long as they get a good conflict-packed show. Having one candidate declared the surprise, clear-cut winner, as in the first debate, is a bonus; it makes the show even better.
Most voters will agree it was a good debate. It offered enough conflict to create a good drama, which is always entertaining.
But the voters care about more than just production values and being entertained. They have a much more urgent question than “Was it a good show?” As Maureen Dowd put it, “Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders?” That’s the question the voters ask about each candidate -- consciously or unconsciously -- as they watch the two perform.
That’s bound to be the crucial question in a nation whose political life is shaped so much by the myth of homeland insecurity -- a myth that says invaders are always outside, threatening to burst through the door and destroy us if our leaders don’t have fists strong enough to keep them out.
There’s no common agreement about who the invaders are. Indeed, one way to understand American political discourse is to see it as a debate about the name of the truly threatening invader. Is it the rich who thrive in an unregulated, runaway, overly free market? Or is it the government, imposing too much taxation and too much regulation? Or perhaps the terrorists? Or maybe it doesn’t matter so much who, exactly, the invaders are.
The crucial question is which candidate is strong enough to keep out the invaders, whoever they may be.
Oh, perhaps you thought the crucial question had something to do with the economy, since you’ve been told that about a zillion times. Consider this:
In CNN’s instant (but “scientific”) poll of second debate watchers, well over 55% said Romney would be the better president when it comes to boosting the economy and lowering the deficit. But the same group awarded Obama a victory in the debate by the sizeable margin of 46% to 39%.
Obama lost the first debate, the media consensus agrees, because he simply did not look strong enough to protect the house. In the second debate, he was warned, he had either to look strong enough or to expect defeat on Election Day. He certainly got the message, proved himself up to the task, and took home the blue ribbon.
But Romney did a creditable job of performing the role of strong father, too. So he’s not out of the race by any means. It will continue to be close unless one or the other candidate shows a moment of major weakness.
Whoever wins, though, this debate will stand as evidence that many voters are looking for both good entertainment and that strong father to soothe their insecurities. Perhaps they are looking for good entertainment mostly because it, too, soothes their insecurities.
Romney as Pagliacci -- acting out the theater state. Credit: Flickr/HNN staff.
There’s an old theory that people perform religious rituals as a way of acting out their sacred myths. Scholars of religion don’t take this old theory very seriously any more. It’s far too simplistic and misses too many aspects of the meaning of function of ritual. Sometimes, though, this theory still sheds interesting light on rituals. It’s especially useful when a ritual does pretty obviously act out a myth and the people performing the ritual tell you that they are reenacting one of their myths.
A fine example is the Christian ritual of Eucharist: eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. In the Gospel story of the Last Supper, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples to keep on eating bread and drinking wine after he is gone, because those consumables are his body and blood. When you ask Christians who believe that the consumables literally become the body and blood why they are doing the ritual, they’ll tell you that they are obeying Jesus’s command and doing exactly what the disciples did. They are acting out their sacred myth.
Christians, when I call the Gospel story a myth, please don’t be offended. I don’t mean it’s a lie. A myth is a narrative that people tell to express their most basic views about what the world is like and how they should live in it. The myth serves that purpose whether it’s totally false, totally true, or (as is usually the case) some mixture of the two. So it’s perfectly possible that every word in the Gospels tells us what actually, literally happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels would still be Christians’ mythology.
Fact-checking the myth is irrelevant to its role in the lives of the people who tell it. They do not judge it by whether it can be proven factually true. Rather, it shapes their view of truth; it tells them what they can accept as factually true and what they must consider false. So they act out their myth in a ritual to reinforce their commitment to truth as the myth teaches them to see it -- or so the old theory goes.
It’s worthwhile dusting off that old theory in this election season, which presents us with an interesting twist: What happens when fact-checking itself becomes a ritual? I don’t have quantitative data, but it seems to me that we have much more fact-checking in this presidential election than in any election before. Fact-checkers seem to be all over the place.
And the mass news media promote their fact-checking as a major part of their campaign coverage. They treat it as something their audience really wants. Since they are in business to make money, presumably they do have quantitative data; presumably they’ve done market research that shows they can increase their ratings or readership with all that fact-checking.
Why is fact-checking so popular? The traditional American view of democracy has a ready answer: The people know that, to be responsible voters, they must know the facts. How else can they judge which party’s policies are best for the nation? And they must know whether the candidates are leveling with them. We want a president who is a straight-shooter, not one who will deceive us for his or her own political gain.
There’s a complex myth of democracy packed into that little story. There’s a basic premise: Democracy can work because we humans are rational animals. We are built to be fact-checkers; we all have the capacity to separate true facts from lies. And once we have true facts, we know how to analyze them logically to come to reasonable conclusions. If that weren’t true, democracy would be a foolish experiment, indeed.
But, the myth goes on to say, a capacity is useless unless it is developed through training. That’s why democracy demands universal access to education. How much education is a matter of debate; other democracies tend to set the bar higher than we Americans. The basic concept is the same in all democracies, though: Only educated people can be responsible citizens because only the educated have actualized their potential for fact-checking and rational thinking.
Many of the reformers who promoted universal public education in the nineteenth century (for boys at least; some weren’t sure about girls’ capacity for reasoning) were motivated by that myth. Of course capitalism also drove education reform; the industrial revolution created a demand for more educated workers, just as the high-tech revolution has in our own time. But a genuine commitment to the mythic vision of democracy played a significant role back then. (We’re probably too close to evaluate how much of a role it plays in moves toward expanding educational opportunity today.)
The myth of democracy says that citizens must educated enough to know which policies are best for their community. But good citizens must also bring their rationality into the polling booth. They must know which candidates promote and implement the right policies. They must know whether incumbents have done so, and whether challengers might do better. That means they must have honesty from their leaders and transparency from their government.
Hence, the need for fact-checkers at every step on the campaign trail. It’s only logical.
Except that there’s no evidence all the fact-checking has any measurable impact on the voters’ choices.
As soon as the first presidential debate ended, many Obama supporters were quite gleeful. Mitt Romney had made so many demonstrably false statements, and denied his own positions so often, that it seemed like a bonanza for the Democrats. They duly set about broadcasting that bonanza, falsehood and deception by falsehood and deception.
And look what they got for their efforts.
Even the prominent pro-Obama intellectual Robert Reich, a master of progressive ideas, opens and closes his “Memo to the President” for the next debate with advice about performance style. Though Reich offers plenty of ideas too, he knows that ideas hardly mattered any more than facts in the outcome of the first debate. Romney won on style points alone.
The “theater state” is a performance art. Every candidate is judged, above all, on their performance. Good theatrical performers know how to create satisfying illusory images of truth. It’s one of their highest skills. Mitt Romney proved that in the first debate. The big question, all the mass media reports tell us, is whether Barack Obama can prove equal to the task in the second debate.
Michael Scherer’s conclusion to his perceptive Time cover story on fact-checking is quite on the money:
When the final book is written on this campaign, one-sided deception will still have played a central role. As it stands, the very notions of fact and truth are employed in American politics as much to distort as to reveal. And until the voting public demands something else, not just from the politicians they oppose but also from the ones they support, there is little reason to suspect that will change.
But why should the voting public demand something else? They’ve already got this enormous stage in the political theater packed to the rafters with fact-checkers. The fact-checkers are performing their duly appointed role in the drama, just as the candidates are. The fact-checkers, too, are seasoned performers skilled in the art of creating satisfying illusory images of truth.
Above all, they create the illusion that American democracy is alive and well because the public is apparently being informed of the facts and the veracity of each candidate is apparently being carefully evaluated and widely reported. Fact-checking, then, is the ritual enactment of our myth of democracy. As long as the myth keeps getting acted out, we can trust that it is alive and well.
There has been growing suspicion over the years whether democracy really is alive and well in this postmodern world, where signs are increasingly detached from the reality they claim to signify. The ritual of fact-checking eases the anxiety about the state of our democracy in this “theater state.” That, I submit, is why fact-checking is so popular.
Are you worried about the looming “fiscal cliff”? Well if it’s your only worry about the American economy, you’re not worried nearly enough. There are plenty of other economic cliffs out there, just waiting for you.
That’s the lead story on the front page of this past Sunday’s Washington Post. “Even if Washington somehow finds a way to avoid the fiscal cliff -- the automatic tax hikes and federal spending cuts that threaten to plunge the nation back into a recession --” Zachary A. Goldfarb warns us, “the economy could suffer a stiff blow next year.”
Tax hikes and spending cuts could take billions of dollars out of the economy. But if we extend tax cuts and cancel spending cuts, we’ll increase the federal debt, bringing new and unpredictable economic suffering. So we’re trapped.
There’s no glimmer of good news to counter the gloom and doom brought to you by the WaPo. There’s only an overwhelmed Congress and administration, forced to grapple with an impending economic apocalypse. We’re likely to go over one cliff or another, it seems -- no matter who wins the election.
Indeed, from this article you wouldn’t even know that there is an election coming up. The apocalyptic threat is treated as a fact of life that transcends politics.
We’ve seen endless news reports and opinion pieces for a long time now telling us that this is “the new normal.” It doesn’t always mean that we’re doomed to go totally over the cliff. But it always means something pretty disastrous compared to the promise of endlessly growing prosperity, which was, until recently, taken for granted in our shared national story.
A permanent possibility of disaster is nothing new in the American story, though. What’s new is to find it in the domestic, economic arena. When it comes to foreign affairs, Americans are accustomed to living with apocalyptic danger as the norm, expecting their government to manage the threat at best, but never to extinguish it.
We first learned this fear-ridden way of life back in the 1950s. Of course then the threat was “the reds.” The Eisenhower administration created the foreign policy that Ike’s successors followed throughout the cold war, the policy I call “apocalypse management.”
Eisenhower warned publicly that we were “not in a moment of peril, but an age of peril.” In an internal White House memo, a staffer described it as “the new normal.” After the 9/11 attack, Dick Cheney used the same phrase to describe the supposedly endless “war on terror.”
Now, the WaPo suggests, permanent fear is still the new normal. The only difference is that the peril comes from the economy within.
Over at the Sunday front page of the nation’s other most influential newspaper, the New York Times, the horizon is a just tad brighter. There’s a big color photo of Donna’s Diner in Elyria, Ohio, with the dawn’s early light barely relieving the gloom of night. The headline reads: “At the Corner of Hope and Worry: A Small Café, and a Small City, are Put to the Test by a Tough Economy.”
Below is a photo of Donna, the proprietor, holding her hands in an obviously prayerful gesture, with anxiety etched on her face. It looks like there’s still a chance that Donna, an iconic ordinary American, will somehow avoid the cliff, pass the test, and make it through these tough times -- if she has enough hope and faith, the photo suggests. But no one can say for sure.
Put these lead stories from the nation’s two most prominent newspapers together and you get a complicated narrative: As we head toward a domestic apocalypse, there’s not much the government can do about it. The politicians will try their best to manage this “new normal.” But they are so hopelessly tangled in their internal contradictions, we can’t count on them for anything. We would do better to put our hope in the faith and resilience of ordinary Americans, people just like you and me. That sounds like a very Republican message.
When it comes to foreign policy, presidents of both parties have offered much more than that when they pledged to protect the American people from “the red menace” and "the terrorists." They never said it was up to the people themselves to keep the nation safe. They promised that the government would do the job.
Democrats traditionally made the same promise when economic apocalypse loomed. William Jennings Bryan famously preached that the Democrats would save the people from being crucified on a cross of gold. Franklin D. Roosevelt asserted that, if Congress failed to halt the Great Depression, he would ask for “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” That was the biggest applause line of his first inaugural address.
In the same address Roosevelt summed up the traditional Democratic view of how ordinary Americans respond to crisis. He insisted “as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States -- a recognition of the old and permanently important manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer.” FDR knew that the pioneers were no rugged individualists. They built their communities by working together, using government as their agent.
Barack Obama seemed to be building his campaign on the same kind of message, until he lost his narrative way. He still offers more from government than Romney, to be sure. But now, as the race tightens and he knows he’ll have to work with another Republican House, he seems to focus more on the power of “ordinary people.” In his closing remarks in the first debate, all he could offer from government was to “channel” the “genius, grit, and determination” of the American people.
If that is the political narrative of the future -- if the alternative that Democrats once offered is so muted in our national conversation -- then today’s “new normal” is something new indeed. And the real looming tragedy is the way it diminishes the possibilities for a better future that we all could enjoy if, like true pioneers, we expected -- and elected -- government leaders to serve our common interests.
Teddy Roosevelt knew how to string a narrative together.
Everyone is talking about Barack Obama’s flat performance in the first debate, and with good reason. The debates are essentially television shows. Like any theatrical contest, the performer who is most entertaining and charismatic wins. The other guy loses.
But Obama also failed in another very important way. He failed to tell a good story. He didn’t offer any persuasive narrative that would tie together all his talking points. If he had, it might have compensated for his poor performance and softened the blow he suffered that night.
The funny and sad thing is that the Obama campaign has the makings of a consistent and powerful narrative, one that contrasts sharply with that of the Republicans. The president laid it out clearly last December at Ossawatamie, Kansas: “We’re greater together than we are on our own. ... In the long run, we shall go up or down together.”
That’s an time-honored story in American political life, though it hasn’t been heard as the main theme of a presidential campaign in decades. Obama went to Ossawatamie to take it off the shelf because that’s where Teddy Roosevelt spoke the same words over a century ago.
When TR used that narrative to run for the presidency in 1912 as a Progressive, the Democratic and Socialist candidates, Woodrow Wilson and Eugene Debs, were telling variations on essentially the same story. Among them they got fully three-quarters of the votes.
The last major party candidate to run on that narrative, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, got re-elected with 60 percent of the votes -- still a landslide in American political terms. The prospect of another Democratic president basing his re-election campaign on that progressive story, giving it new life in a new century, was exciting.
At Ossawatamie Obama enlarged the story when he praised “the promise that's at the very heart of America. ... Even if you're born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class.” The idea that everyone who works hard earns the right to a middle-class life is something new in American history. A campaign centered on that narrative would have been a landmark.
Obama used the same story for months. But then it got lost in the midst of a tangle of stories. The president began to show his central narrative the way he shows his smile -- in fleeting, and presumably carefully calculated, flashes. By the time he got to his acceptance speech in Charlotte, he was still saying, “Our destinies are bound together. … We travel together. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.” But that message was no longer central.
The words “middle class” showed up only twice in the acceptance speech. Obama mentioned, almost in passing, that he was fighting to restore the values that built the world’s largest middle class. But the “make-or-break moment” and the promise that everyone could make it into the middle class were gone.
Then, in the fiasco of the first debate, the progressive narrative pretty much evaporated. Obama hinted at it in his opening statement when he offered “a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best.” But then it went MIA. There were merely a few vague references to helping the middle class and one weak claim that, though free enterprise is “the genius of America, ... there are also some things we do better together.”
You could find the whole progressive story between the lines of Obama’s rambling words, but only if you tried really hard. The whole point of good storytelling is that the audience does not have to try hard. The main lines of the plot are too obvious to miss, because the storyteller puts them front and center and repeats them over and over again.
Bill Clinton proved that in his speech in Charlotte. He reminded us that not long ago, for eight years, we enjoyed a masterful Democrat storyteller in the White House. Before Clinton, the most popular presidents of both parties -- Reagan, Kennedy, the Roosevelts -- were all equally skilled storytellers, especially on the campaign trail. As the prominent Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg once wrote, in a presidential election “a narrative is the key to everything.”
No doubt Obama’s strategists know all this. And no one doubts Obama’s ability to put across an appealing story when he wants too. He proved it four years ago with his narrative of “Hope and Change.”
So what were those strategists thinking as they prepared their man for the first debate? Perhaps they were out to prove that he is a master of detail with a head full of numbers. But we already knew that.
More likely, they were obsessed with the messages they got from their polls and focus groups. So they had their man tell a new narrative: The Democrats have a plan to reduce federal deficits and the debt while still offering specific benefits to specific groups of people. Obama spent most of his time ticking off those benefits, in traditional Democratic laundry-list style, while insisting that Romney was the one who would increase the debt.
Maybe that’s the message the focus groups wanted to hear. Maybe it could be a winning narrative. If so, Obama should have stated it up front and then repeated it constantly. Implication and indirection don’t win elections. A clear narrative, told in simple language over and over, is what wins.
But there’s an obvious danger in letting focus groups determine the story: Next week a different focus group will want to hear something else, so the story will keep on changing.
Fortunately for the Democrats, Romney isn’t any more consistent as a storyteller than Obama. His performance in the first debate confirmed him as the etch-a-sketch candidate he’s been all along.
With neither candidate offering one clear-cut narrative, there’s nothing to interfere with the main goal of the debates: to show which candidate is a better performer on stage. That’s one more nail in the coffin of democracy.
I wrote this before the Obama-Romney debate:
The debate that will pit the two candidates against each other will also show us two fundamentally different ideas of government going head to head. I don’t mean the Republican versus Democrat ideas. I mean something much bigger than that.
We have debates because we have a long tradition of democracy as an exercise of reason. The people learn the facts, analyze them thoughtfully, and then draw rational conclusions about which policies will benefit them and their community most. That’s the myth of democracy -- myth not as a lie, but a story we tell ourselves to express our most fundamental assumptions about what life is like and how it should be lived.
This myth of democracy requires candidates to present facts and logical arguments to the people and then let the people decide on the basis of their own logic. To help that process along, candidates should engage in classical debates, the kind we learned about in high school: each side presents a sustained, coherent argument based on facts and rational analysis. Then each side gets to pick apart the other side’s facts and reasoning systematically, point by point.
Of course that’s not what political debates do in 2012. They haven’t done that for a long time. The modern presidential debate started with Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. It’s no coincidence that theirs was the first presidential contest held when virtually all voters owned televisions. Since1960, the debates have been, above all, TV shows -- infotainment at best, and sometimes nothing but sheer entertainment.
What we remember most about that 1960 debate is nothing that either candidate said, but the poor make-up job that left Nixon looking like he’d forgotten to shave. The words we remember most from later debates are not substantive ideas but entertaining one-liners: Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” or Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” They gave us a good laugh. They were great theater.
We should not laugh at the notion of government as good theater. It has its own rich mythic tradition. The eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz, studying the pomp and ritual of the royal court in medieval Java, called it the “theater state.” It’s a concept that goes far to explain government in every empire and monarchy -- and very possibly in our contemporary version of democracy, too.
In the “theater state,” the main job of the ruler and his or her court is to keep performing a traditional set of ritualized public performances. As long as they keep performing properly -- the theory goes -- the society (and, it’s often believed, the whole world) will keep on running in its smooth, orderly, eternal pattern. So the pomp and pageantry are not just the trappings of power; they’re the essence of power.
The royal court is housed in a magnificent capital city to send the mythic message that the court is the splendid center of a splendid society (and again, it’s often believed, a splendid world). As long as the court maintains its perfect structure without fail, the whole society (and perhaps the whole world) will maintain its structure too. All will be in balance as long as the center is in balance.
So nothing -- not even the worst disasters, human-made or natural -- may be allowed to perturb the implacable equanimity of the ruler and the court. No matter what happens, the show must go on.
The “theater state” has been around ever since the first little city-states were born in the river valleys of China, South Asia, and the Middle East. Compared to its ancient heritage, democracy is hardly more than an infant. The “theater state” has had those thousands of years to permeate culture everywhere in the world -- including, it seems, the United States. The pomp and pageantry of the White House have grown rich enough to be at least a clear echo -- and occasionally, it seems, a rival -- of the great royal courts of the pre-democracy era.
In the 1980s it struck me, being no fan of Reagan’s policies or politics, that he was a poor president but would make a wonderful king. That’s when I started thinking about what the American people really want from their ruler. To what extent do they want the reassurance that comes from seeing and hearing the same ritualized words and behaviors, over and over again, in a well-acted political theater? There’s no way to quantify the answer. But there’s no doubt that we still live, to some degree, with the age-old legacy of the “theater state.”
And nowhere is it more evident than in the presidential debates. The candidates are judged, above all, on how well they “perform.” Barack Obama clinched his 2008 victory, I believe, during the “town hall” style debate, at a time when there were serious fears that the horribly wobbling American economy might collapse entirely. John McCain wandered around the stage rather erratically, looking like confused, somewhat befuddled old man. But Obama kept himself stationary and poised, with that perfect basketball player’s posture, looking completely calm and centered. “Make me the center of America,” his body seemed to say, “and you can feel reassured that our familiar structures will endure.”
In tonight’s debate the candidates will be judged, above all, by how well they entertain us and even more (though perhaps unconsciously) by how well they communicate the reassuring sense of orderly structure that the “theater state” was designed to give.
Ultimately, though, it may not matter who “wins” the debate. The most important message of the debate may be the comforting fact that our political system is once again performing its familiar ritual, perfectly organized down to the last detail. What both sides hope for most is that the debate comes off “without a hitch” -- and that it gets very high Nielsen ratings. Presidents come and go, but the “theater state” endures.
I wrote this after the debate:
The myth of democracy did put in a brief appearance tonight. Each candidate gave us a whole series of little logical arguments, compressed into soundbites. But the part of the myth that requires thoughtful debate, with every point subjected to sustained, careful logical exploration, was predictably missing in action.
What we got instead, again predictably, was a fine display of the “theater state” in action. The familiar ritual did come off “without a hitch” -- so much so that many observers found it a rather dull affair.
So who “won”?
Full disclosure: I am an occasional local volunteer for the Obama campaign, so my personal preference is obvious. But I agree with many of the pundits that Romney came off better than expected. He certainly showed more energy than the president, and he got the benefit of appearing to stand up to the “leader of the free world” as an equal.
Of course no one doubts that the president can show as much energy as Romney, and probably more, if and when he wants to. But tonight he never went on the attack. Nor did he play defense. In almost every case, when his opponent hurled potentially damaging charges at him, he simply ignored them.
Perhaps Obama was just “off his game.” But his campaign organization is a pretty shrewd calculating machine that so far has shown impressive results. So it’s worth considering the possibility that his performance was a deliberate choice.
After describing Obama’s demeanor as “grim/uninterested,” Washington Post political analyst Chris Cilizza concluded: “My guess is that Obama and his team made the calculated decision not to hit Romney” because “a) it wouldn’t look presidential” and b) the Democrats’ relentless attacks on Romney have “already penetrated deep into the political consciousness of the electorate.”
Looking presidential means always remaining centered, never losing your balance, remaining at all times the regal actor-in-chief of the “theater state” whose equipoise does not merely symbolize but actually creates the equinamity and balance of the societal structure. Let others do the attacking and defending, raising tensions and stirring destabilizing conflict. The president must remain implacable, unmoved.
The challenger is obliged to do a certain amount of attacking and stirring conflict. Romney appears personally prone to be full of stresses that he is constantly trying to repress; when he defends against others he often appears to be fending off his own inner tension, too. At least that’s the way it looked to me, tonight as always.
So perhaps Obama intentionally chose his placid demeanor to bring out the contrast between his own imperturbable official status and the excited agitation of the challenger. Perhaps it was a calculated strategy to give the impression that dethroning him would mean overturning the order of the “theater state” and ushering in a new era of frightening chaos.
If most viewers get that impression, it would add one more negative mark to the long string of negatives with which the Obama campaign has tarred Mitt Romney. To achieve that goal, though, the president had to refrain from reminding viewers of all those other negatives. He and his strategists had to count on those others to be in the air, working the way television always works: subliminally.
This may be a charitable interpretation. But this was only act one. There are many scripts that can be played out effectively by the actor-in-chief of the “theater state.” In the next two debates we may well see a rather different Barack Obama, which would tend to bear out the view that tonight’s performance was indeed a deliberate choice.
Obama campaign graphic.
On the eve of the “great debate,” the presidential election narrative in the mass media is moving toward “Obama’s widening lead.” That may or may not be true, depending on how seriously you take the polling process. But in politics, as in so much of life, the story will trump the facts nearly every time.
If Obama is indeed widening his lead, the change is most evident in the battleground states, where voters are inundated with advertising, robocalls, and candidate appearances as portrayed on the TV news. Why are Obama’s numbers improving, slightly but steadily? Theories abound.
Here’s one that comes from a little fragment of (perhaps previously unreported?) history that I just stumbled across, reported by Howard Kurtz, The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. (Isn’t it telling that a once-serious magazine, now turned into a pop tabloid, would hire a very talented media -- especially TV -- critic as its Washington bureau chief?)
It seems that Mike McCurry, who was White House spokesman for Bill Clinton, told Kurtz this story:
In the summer of 1996, Clinton “had not crystallized his argument for reelection until he watched Dole deliver his acceptance speech,” which included the line “let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action.” In the hotel room, Clinton “slammed the desk and said, ‘No, that’s wrong. You’ve got to be a bridge to the future. That’s how I want to make my closing argument.’” “Obama is now building that argument,” Kurtz adds, speculating that this goes far to explain the September boost the president is getting in the polls.
There’s no way to prove it, of course. But we do know that Clinton is now up there in the pantheon of modern American political geniuses, alongside Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. So his advice is always worth listening to. We also ought to know that Clinton’s famous piece of campaign advice from 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid," cannot, by itself, explain Obama’s standing in the polls.
So it’s worth considering the possibility that the Obama campaign’s focus on the future really has made a difference. The old slogan of “hope and change” has not been trotted out again. The media wrote its obituary long ago, so it would make too tempting a target for Republican scorn. But the idea is certainly there, front and center. Perhaps the “comeback kid” has revealed to the Obama campaign the secret of coming back from the brink of disaster.
When the campaign first settled on that one-word slogan, “Forward,” I laughed. It seemed not merely a sad cliché, but a flimsy one. Even less substance than “hope and change.” Who’s going to take it seriously, I wondered?
But as the contest has unfolded, a pattern is emerging. Romney, as the challenger, naturally focuses on what the incumbent has done wrong. Indeed the challenger has come in for some major criticism from media wonks like Kurtz because he has not been able to keep the media focus, or his own focus, on one simple message: Obama is ruining the economy.
But that still remains the best argument Romney can make. And it boils down to, “Voting for me is the only way to prevent disaster.” Romney would have us believe that Obama, the symbol of “big government” and “the crushing burden of federal debt,” is leading the invasion, destroying the tranquility that many voters imagine America enjoyed before the turmoil of “the ‘60s.” It’s not a message about making the future better but about preventing it from becoming much worse.
So Romney is following the script that we might expect from any presidential candidate. As Maureen Dowd once wrote, “Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders?”
That kind of frightening narrative -- contrasting the peril we face with the safety we crave -- has indeed dominated American politics for a very long time (since the 1930s, I would argue.) Through this spring and summer, the Obama campaign continued that tradition, emphasizing a negative message about protecting our national house from an invader named Mitt Romney. That message worked well enough to prevent Romney from moving into the lead. But it didn’t give Obama a lead either.
During the Democratic convention, though, we saw a shift in tone. Clinton wowed the audience and media with a speech that largely accentuated the positive. When I read Obama’s acceptance speech with my best skeptical eye, even looking between the lines for an implied narrative of protecting American from threats and dangers, I must admit I had a hard time finding it. The speech really was almost all about a vision of a better future, with the candidate, of course, presenting himself and his party as the bridge to that future.
Now Obama may be opening up a lead by following the 1996 dictum of the “comeback kid” and giving us a kind of “hope and change” redux. If a positive focus on the future gives Obama victory and a second term, it will certainly be worth watching whether he uses that second term to try to fulfill the promise of his first campaign: to change the basic tone of American political discourse from fear to hope.
I wouldn’t bet much on it. The “protect us from invaders” them is so fundamental to American political life that challenging it in any significant way would be a massive, and politically risky, undertaking. Presidents win political victories most commonly by presenting their policies as the only way to ward off disaster.
Clinton himself is a good example. Though he may have campaigned on building a bridge to the future, he is best remembered as president for resisting putative threats like “welfare queens,” Slobodan Milosevich, and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”
Obama certainly followed Clinton’s dictum during his first campaign, when he promised to move us to that politics of “hope and change.” In fact, though, Obama won mainly by using the “protect us from invaders” plot line so effectively (in this case, an invasion of economic disaster), as I argued in a recent article in the journal Political Theology. I also showed that his most important speeches during his first year in office were based on that negative theme.
I haven’t done careful research on the president's rhetoric since then, but my impression is that it shows a mix of positive messages -- “a future built to last” -- and negative messages about protecting us from dangers foreign and domestic (mostly China and the rising federal debt), both driven by political necessity.
A second term Obama is likely to focus on getting a few more landmark pieces of legislation through a Congress dominated by Republican obstructionists, as well as insuring another Democratic victory in 2016. And the best -- perhaps only -- way to achieve both goals is to lean heavily on the rhetoric of resisting threats to the nation, as history shows.
Still, it’s worth noting that a more positive message may very well turn out to be the key to victory for an incumbent whose chances, not long ago, looked rather uncertain. If Obama does win, the consequences are impossible to predict with any certainty. A political narrative, like a politician, always has a chance to be the next “comeback kid.”