The Democratic Struggle for Power Has Become Theatrical

In A Nutshell

The Performance of Politics offers a new explanation for Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. Rather than demographics, strategy, and money, the argument focuses on cultural meaning making, symbolic creativity, and dramatic performance.

I have created a new theory of the democratic struggle for political power: candidates for the presidency struggle to become “collective representations,” social symbols; citizens constitute critical audiences for their performative efforts.

Politicians present themselves as heroes standing on the hinge of history, and they solemnly promise to resolve “the crisis of our times.” Each political side presents itself as sacred and pollutes its opponent as profane.

Politicians walk along the boundaries that separate the civil from the non-civil spheres, representing themselves not only as good democrats but as good fathers or mothers, men or women, competent economic managers, and as “kosher” in racial, ethnic, and religious ways.

The first six chapters of Performance of Politics develop this new cultural-sociological model of politics—illustrating it with rich empirical examples from print, blog, and television media from June 2008 until the end of the campaign on the 4th of November.

The last three chapters of the book develop a chronological explanation of victory and defeat. I define and trace the three critical crises that engulfed the campaign from late July, analyzing how they were resolved—or not—by the Democratic and Republican sides. “Celebrity Metaphor” extended for five weeks, until the end of August; “Palin Effect” lasted from the end of August until mid-September; “Financial Crisis” extended from September 15th until early October.

In an Epilogue to this account I suggest the difficulty of sustaining symbolic power after an election, as the candidate moves into the White House and confronts more mundane institutional tasks.

A final “Note on Concepts and Methods” lays out the broader intellectual framework.

The Wide Angle

We need to move away from a mechanistic, materialist, interest-based view of political struggles. Every class, every ethnicity, every gender—and every political campaign—has a fair amount of free space to tell its story in different ways. The broader ambition of this book is to conceptualize—to put into context—the “irrational” dimensions of modern politics.

Among social critics, journalists, and your everyday citizens alike there is a strong sense that we are inundated by mass media symbolism and that this is a dangerous new development that undermines democratic deliberation.

My own strong sense is that democratic dialogue is carried via the symbolic, rather than opposed to it. I believe this both on theoretical and on empirical grounds.

My theoretical conviction is derived from the growing discipline of cultural sociology, which holds that social action, no matter how rational or emotional, cannot be entirely divorced from apriori symbolic grounding, from taken-for-granted assumptions about oneself and one’s speaking partner. These cultural predispositions are like the background language within which each of us strategizes and speaks.

My empirical conviction is derived from my studies in how democratic politics actually works on the ground: not in the idealized speculation of political philosophers like Jürgen Habermas, but in the rhetorics and conflicts of everyday life in civil society.

What I have discovered in everyday life is a “discourse of civil society,” a deep and largely shared language that forms the background to particular disputes over interests. This language, which goes back to the Greeks, codes human motives and relations into rather simple binary forms, of rational-versus-irrational, honest-versus-deceptive, open-versus-secretive, autonomous-versus-dependent, critical-versus-coerced.

Democracy, in other words, is a symbolic language, one that provides the vocabulary for us to define our selves and our cause as democratic and pure and our opponents’ as anti-democratic and polluted.

But the performance of democratic politics, though always symbolic and dramatic, undergoes profound transformations over historical time.

In the first democracy, in ancient Greece, there were no political campaigns. Athenians chose their governors by lot in regular rotation. Today, states are immense and intricate, and the struggle to control state power must, of necessity, be much more indirect.

Rather than actual political candidates, the voters who referee the struggle for power have available only symbolic representations of candidates, which the mass media supply. Projected to citizens over vast space, these symbolic representations are interjected into the campaign by politicians and pushed this way and that by journalists. Politicians are compelled to enmesh themselves in a devilishly complex and unpredictable process of symbolic representation, projecting images of themselves not only to voters who are close at hand but also, and primarily, to those who are far away.

For all of these reasons, the struggle for power becomes theatrical. It is the success of these performances that determines how whites, blacks, Jews, Catholics, the young, old northerners and southerners, women and men distribute their precious votes.

The opinions of these supposedly demographic groups shift significantly in response to coding, narrative, tone, metaphor, setting, and performance in the course of campaign time.

Certainly, demographic position is significant. But in a democratic society it is the attribution of meaningfulness that determines who will be allowed to exercise power in the state.

More than half a century ago, in his massively influential book The Making of the President 1960, Theodore “Teddy” White already recognized how the candidate “sits at the center of a web of affairs so complex as to be dehumanized,” how “his ideas, his phrases, his finances, his schedules, are all prepared for him by others.”

Today, the dehumanized apparatus of the message giver, the political candidate, has expanded exponentially. The campaign has become a floating crap game of press secretaries, spinners, speechwriters, advance personnel, poll takers, focus groups, lighting and stage designers, personal assistants, and bodyguards. Arrayed against this effort is the opposing candidate, who sits at the center of an equally large and depersonalized political apparatus.

Each side wishes to appear authentic and sincere—and in fact they may well be. Inspired by democratic ideals, “we” present ourselves as embodying freedom and liberty. “They” seek to undermine the power of our performance by making it seem artificial, denaturalize it by declaring it to be only a performance, make our human candidate seem like an automaton reading a script from a machine.

A Close-Up

If you were to just pick up The Performance of Politics in a bookstore—perhaps attracted by the striking cover photo of Obama striding confidently to a podium in Denver to deliver his acceptance speech before a nearly delirious crowd—I’d point you to two brief sections.

One is a section called “The Hero’s Shadow” (pp. 84-87). The other is the section entitled “Celebrity Pollution” (pp. 174-176). In these two sections, you have in microcosm a discussion of narrative and symbol that define what my approach to the struggle for power is all about.

I mentioned earlier that candidates must be imagined to be world transforming heroes if they are to be elected. In these two small sections I concentrate on a surprising boomerang effect of heroic narration: the problem of hubris.

All heroes have their shadow, a negative other whose inverted attributes the bright light of their glory keeps hidden in the shade. Heroes must be modest. They cannot be seen as overreaching, as wanting to be glorious instead of simply to be good. For the Greeks, this was a matter of distinguishing heroes from gods. When heroes try to become gods, they will be destroyed. Hubris is the stuff of tragedy. It reveals a fundamental character flaw, one that triggers an action that brings the hero down from the heady heights of victory to the numbing depths of defeat.

In late July, 2008, Obama interrupted his domestic campaign to take a daring foreign policy trip that carried him from the Middle East to Europe. Speaking to adoring crowds and deferential foreign leaders, the trip seemed like a smashing success—until Steven Schmidt, McCain’s campaign director, realized that Obama might have flown too close to the sun. On the evening of July 29, McCain’s campaign places a 30-second advertisement on its website that calls out Obama as a “celebrity.” The ad goes viral and shifts the media’s narration of the campaign. For five weeks the Democratic campaign is back on its heels, and the polls show, for the first time, an almost even race.

Here is the power of metaphor! A poetic action changes the course of a campaign, responding to the potential contradictions of a narrative. Who says that only demographics, money, and organization determine the course of political campaigns?

Lastly

My book illuminates the dramaturgy of the struggle for power in 2008, and candidate Obama’s success. But the model of political performance can also illuminate President Obama’s fall from grace, and the electoral “shellacking” (his words) the voters gave his party in the Congressional elections this last November, 2010.

Reading media reports about the Obama presidency, we see repeated descriptions of the lack of “connection” between President and citizens, of a lack of “excitement,” of sparse crowds, of increasingly banal speeches. These are descriptions of performative failure, of Obama’s increasing inability to symbolize.

Obama presented himself as a hero who would transform the crisis of our times. But—sadly—the economic crisis has continued, and perhaps even deepened. He presented himself as a leader who would draw enemies into negotiation and replace military force with civil power. He has, so far—again, quite sadly in my view—been able to do nothing of the kind.

As Obama’s hero stature is diminished, the power to resolve the crisis has shifted to the Republican side. His conservative challengers have succeeded in building up their own dramatic movement, one that is equally embedded in American political myths, e.g., the “Tea Party.”

It’s a time of deep crisis for the Obama character and the narrative driving his presidency. But defeat, by itself, does not unmake a hero. Even a debilitating setback can become the middle of the hero’s story, rather than the end—a new mountain for the gutsy and determined protagonist to climb. Of course, that requires that the hero climb his way back. It is up to Obama and history to decide.

© 2010 Jeffrey C. Alexander

Jeffrey C. Alexander is the Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology and founder of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. Besides The Performance of Politics, featured in his Rorotoko interview, Alexander is the author of The Civil Sphere (Oxford, 2006), The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology (Oxford 2003), Social Performances (Cambridge 2006), and Remembering the Holocaust (2009). Alexander has been called “America’s best and best-known social theorist,” his books and articles have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and in 2010 he received the Dogan Prize from the International Sociological Association.