April 15, 2008
The Postmodern CampaignBy Jeffrey Schmidt
The mask of Serene Connectedness to All has fallen from Senator Obama's face, revealing a garden variety mountebank and snob. How else to explain saying that in troubled times small town Pennsylvanians cling to religion and guns like grungy security blankets? At a closed door fundraiser on Billionaire's Row in San Francisco, which should give levelheaded voters a nice idea of what he really believes when he's among his own.
Meanwhile, John McCain plots and plans. At the end of the month, he begins a tour, the first big swing of his general election campaign. This foray is about hunting ducks where there are none, certainly not for a conservative Republican. Not in suburb nor exurb; not in small businesses nor churches. Not even along the nation's southern borders. But on the mean streets and in the gritty confines of the Hood; then through the "hollers" and rust-bucket coal towns of Appalachia.
By April's close, the Arizonan will trundle off to devastated inner city neighborhoods in places like Detroit and New York, and to forlorn places in coal field Kentucky with names like Paintsville and Auxier and Van Lear.
As we learn from an insightful article by John Dickerson in Slate:
And this tidbit from the Dickerson article:
One wonders, does a candidate need to "show off" authenticity or demonstrate it?
Welcome to the first full post-modern presidential election, where, to quote Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is the message." Well, it's more than that: it's performance -- performance art, as John Dickerson suggests. And it's feelings. Or as Julio Iglesias, Sr., once crooned, "Nothing more than feelings."
Entertain voters, get them to feel the right way and a candidate may just gobble up enough of them to make a majority. And in the crude calculus of politics, majorities usually make for victories.
Commented on a lot is Barack Obama's vapid rhetoric. He's a Tony Robbins wannbe absent the virtue of self-help advice. When he's in control of his mouth, he peddles his liberalism in soft undertones. He dresses fashionably and is impeccably groomed. He's debonair. One gets the sense that if Obama misses out on the presidency, there's a two hour special coming to a PBS station near you. During telethon week, no less.
But John McCain is not to be outdone. Elections aren't yet "post-competition."
The crusty ex-fighter pilot aims not for Obama's highfaluting PBS demographics. One suspects that the inner cities and Appalachia tour is meant for that demographic most inclined to switch on Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer. All those religion-embracing, flag-waving, gun-gripping, pickup truck-driving voters. That group likes televised exhibitions of fist-waving, taunts, spats and venting, or so the ratings services suggest. McCain's coming showdown with angry urban blacks and downtrodden rural whites promises attention-grabbing conflict-driven television at its finest.
From their heavenly perches, one imagines old pols like Jesse Unruh and Lynn Nofziger watching the unfolding 2008 presidential sweepstakes with wry amusement. Those dime-cigar chomping, cheap whiskey guzzling practitioners of workaday politics are probably mightily impressed that in this election the Democratic and Republican Party contenders can offer voters so little and get away with so much. Lincoln and Douglas must be shaking their heads in disbelief.
Sure, there has always been an element of showbiz in politics. People and communities have served as props and backdrops since, at least, the Jackson era. Candidates have always struck poses. Today, though, showbiz isn't a sideshow, it's the main act. Polls might as well be called ratings; percentages, shares.
It isn't that this year's trials are content-free, it's that they're content diminished. Voters are getting heavier doses of image, symbolism and performance than ever before.
So what does this mean to the Republic? Nothing good, really. Not that long ago, when presidential contests were soberer affairs, candidates vied by seriously addressing the important issues of the day. During the Cold War, voters, especially those who lived through or fought in the Second World War, demanded no less. Anything other would have been met with ridicule and derision.
Gravitas was an important standard that presidential aspirants were measured by. Whatever the imperfections or flaws of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon or Reagan, voters knew that these men were playing for very high stakes: the survival of the country. Yes, they kissed plenty of babies, ate perogies in Pittsburgh and fried catfish in Columbia, but by day's end, they had to layout plans for the nation approximate to its hard reality. That's the stuff of real mandates.
The irony is that today the nation faces another hard reality. America is at war, albeit with a very different enemy from the Russians. The Russians, though, never struck us on our shores nor killed our innocents. Given the unconventionality of the jihadists, given their willingness to do what the Russians wouldn't have dared do, doesn't it make them, in some critical aspects, more dangerous than the old Russian bear?
Yet, so far in this election, we have Barack Obama inviting us regularly into his secular Crystal Cathedral for a little rah-rah and feel-good chat-up. We have Hillary Clinton drinking a boilermaker in an Indiana tavern. And we have John McCain, whose soon-to-be for-TV confrontations with the disadvantaged lets him show-off his toughness and fearlessness.
That may all be good for ratings, but is it good for the nation?