Race for president builds characters
Race for president builds characters
Once again, we're treated to not just a campaign but a collision of myths.
By Todd Gitlin
September 28, 2008
This election campaign is about more than its issues, slogans, proposals,
strategies, tactics, attacks or counterattacks. Like most presidential
elections, it represents a collision of myths. Every four years, various
versions of America wrestle with one another, and through this combat, the
nation inspects itself, turns itself over and over, striving to choose not
only how it wants to be led but what it wants to affirm, how it wants to be
known -- really, what it wants to be.
Americans, of course, aren't always focused on these grand stakes; day to
day, they see a more down-to-earth campaign -- the stump speeches, the
barbs and one-liners, the attack ads. Pettiness consumes the attention of
journalists and the prurient interest of the jaded. Sometimes the combat
rises to the level of issues and policies. Sometimes it even approximates a
rational contest as the candidates try to explain what they think is wrong
and what they propose to do about it. Petty or substantive, all these are
elements of the surface campaign, which may, in the end, determine who wins
and loses but also obscures what is really at stake.
The true campaign is the deep campaign, the subsurface campaign, which
concerns not just what the candidates say but who they are and what they
represent -- what they symbolize.
In July, Barack Obama took some criticism for saying that "the crowds, the
enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about
America. I have just become a symbol." Some people thought that sounded a
bit arrogant, but he was right. It was not a boast, it was a fact. People
look at the candidates and project onto them something they value.
The candidates become, in a sense, walking archetypes. To warm to a
candidate is to align not just with a person but with a myth, an ideal.
Sometimes we say that people prefer the candidate they "feel more
comfortable with" or the one they "would like to have a beer with," but to
put it that way is to trivialize the deeper truth.
Part of what makes this year's race so volatile -- and so absorbing -- is
the range of archetypes it has mobilized. Sen. John McCain is relatively
familiar. He is the leathery man of the West, of exactly the sort who has
entranced the Republican Party for almost half a century now. It is the
role that Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush played before
McCain himself invokes Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider who, despite his
New York origins, ranched in South Dakota and hunted throughout the West.
Those who admire McCain tend to believe that it was men of this sort --
rugged individualists, plain-spoken, straight-talking, self-sufficient men
at home in nature (not in our effete cities) -- who settled the West on
their own. The myth discounts the immense role of the federal government in
conquering the natives, seeing that the railroads were built, adjudicating
disputes, arranging for water. No matter: Print the legend. In this image
of the Old West, history belongs to the man who takes charge, the warrior
in command who knows how to shoot and how to lead others to shoot as well.
To McCain's incarnation of this powerful archetype has been added the
sidekick Sarah Palin. Palin mobilizes a powerful and unusual -- powerful
partly because it is unusual -- supplementary combination of myths. She is
Annie Oakley, the sharpshooter who foolhardy men underestimate at their
peril even if she has a penchant for tall tales. But Palin is also Wonder
Woman, the super-heroine whose exploits and attractions appeal to both
sexes. And she is Aimee Semple McPherson, the onetime revivalist and
moralist of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. In the
imagination of her followers, Palin is some combination of Glamour, Outdoor
Life, Playboy and DC Comics.
If the Republican ticket harmonizes with deep mythic currents, the
Democrats this year are pioneering, and a bit scrambled, in their mythic
significance. Obama is the quintessential outsider -- a "sojourner," the
New York Times' David Brooks has called him. He hails from exotic Hawaii,
alien Indonesia, elegant Harvard and down-and-dirty Chicago, all at the
same time. To his devotees, he is part city-slicker, part man of the world;
to his enemies, precisely this combination makes him suspect. Like the Lone
Ranger, he rides into town to serve a community in need, but in a
surprising twist, this Lone Ranger is closer to the color of Tonto.
Mythically, therefore, Obama is elusive, Protean, a shape-shifter who, when
not beloved, arouses suspicion. Perhaps he is that object of envy and
derision, a "celebrity," as the McCain campaign suggested, but he's also an
egghead. He's the professor -- but one who can sink the shot from beyond
the three-point circle. He too has a sidekick, but, if you judge by their
resumes, it is as if Robin has chosen Batman. One thing is clear: He is not
a man of the ranch. Personifying a welter of archetypes, he thrills some,
confounds others and jams circuits. Some people ask, "Who is this guy?"
So that's the clash. McCain, the known quantity, the maverick turned
lawman, fiery when called on to fight, an icon of the old known American
story of standing tall, holding firm, protecting God's country against the
stealthy foe. Obama is the new kid on the block, the immigrant's child, the
recruit, fervent but still preternaturally calm, embodying some complicated
future that we haven't yet mapped, let alone experienced. He is impure --
the walking, talking melting pot in person. In his person, the next America
is still taking shape.
The warrior turned lawman confronts the community organizer turned law
professor. The sheriff (who married the heiress) wrestles with the outsider
who rode into town and made a place for himself. No wonder this race is
thrilling and tense. America is struggling to fasten a name on its soul.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia
University, is the author, most recently, of "The Bulldozer and the Big
Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American