New Book Discussion: The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power
Jeffrey Alexander, Sociology, Yale University; David Greenberg, Wilson Center Fellow and Associate Professor of History and of Journalism and Media Studies, Rutgers University
Political pundits, journalists, and pollsters tend to seek explanations for the outcome of elections, in demographics. By this logic, demographic shifts in the electorate spell the outcome of the election, with little influence from the candidates themselves. According to Jeffrey Alexander, this approach misses the whole story. Instead, he says, we must look at less easily measured factors such as messaging and image. His book follows the performance of the Obama campaign on the public stage in the 2008 general election, describing how these factors contributed to his victory.
By using the word "performance," Alexander noted, he does not intended to imply deception. Rather than being disingenuous or manipulative, performance offers candidates an additional means of getting an audience to understand and interpret a message. It comprises every element of a candidate's communication—his press releases as well as his speeches and advertisements. Only with successful political performance will a candidate can become a symbol to the electorate.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, each candidate attempted to cast himself in the role of the hero to the American people in order to win their votes. Paradoxically, however, as Alexander pointed out, success in fashioning such a narrative depends on appearing not to be "fake." For the Obama campaign, the candidate's apparent authenticity was crucial.
Alexander identified three critical turning points in the narrative of the 2010 general election: McCain's release in July of a commercial denouncing Obama as a shallow celebrity, his selection of Sarah Palin as running mate in August, and the collapse of Lehman Brothers and accompanying economic crisis in September. In each of these moments, according to the author, both the McCain and Obama campaigns used performance to shape the narrative and cast their candidates in a better light.
In the case of the September financial crisis, for example, economic collapse did not automatically spell victory for Obama. For the Democrats, Alexander said, the crisis served to create an environment that played to Obama's strengths on economic issues. Meanwhile, McCain was struggling to control his own message, most notably when he stated that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" the day after Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch declared bankruptcy. While Obama remained calm, McCain continued to shift his approach and rhetoric, failing to provide the measured response the public desired in the midst of uncertainty. In Alexander's view, this performative contrast clinched the outcome of the election.
David Greenberg agreed with Alexander's analysis of the financial crisis, adding that the campaign's message of change, while used in a different context earlier in the year, dovetailed perfectly with the national sentiment as the financial crises surfaced. Though skeptical of the impact of the celebrity metaphor on the election, Greenberg lauded Alexander for recognizing that public performance and the surrounding public discourse are central to political issues. Taking seriously the public's proclivity for coverage of the superficial and performative aspects of candidates, Greenberg argued against the myth of the "purity of the electorate," noting that public responsiveness to media campaigns ensures their continuation.
Turning their attention to the current political situation, the speakers agreed that the Obama administration has not enjoyed the same success he did during the election. Since taking office, criticism of the president has turned from his being "fake" to being "inept," though neither characterization need be true in order to have an impact on public perception. While the administration struggles to exercise the same message control it did while campaigning, the Tea Party is emerging as the new master of performance, drawing upon early American revolutionary symbols to attract followers.
Despite the political differences between the Obama administration and the Tea Party, the approach is not new. Re-enacting and re-framing cultural values is a time-tested approach that goes back to the beginnings of the American democracy. As new methods of communication are developed and become increasingly available, performance, according to Alexander, will continue to be a relevant factor throughout the political landscape.
By Lauren Demeter
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies