The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power

January 13, 2011

The political theorist, Judith Shklar, once commented that in order to understand political conduct, it is not enough merely to study instrumentalist-rationalist behaviour and related outcomes, as most political science seems to be doing these days. Instead, we have to attempt a major interpretative effort in order to make sense of such crucial elements in politics as ritual, display, social exchange and acting out in the public arena. As Shklar also knew, when politics and morals meet, drama is the most likely outcome; dramas, however, are revealed in stories and storytelling, not in rational-choice models.

That politics is about drama and unpredictable, surprising moments is one of the central arguments in Jeffrey Alexander's remarkable analysis of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. His study, as he reveals, is about understanding what the Greeks called kairos, the right moment, not the workings of mechanical time (chronos). As Alexander also frankly acknowledges, his book is about the drama of how Obama became president - not Obama being the president. It is an account that tries to understand that fortuitous moment of yesterday, not the politics that apply once a president has taken office.

So, how does one succeed in becoming president? And what was so special about the Obama campaign? The answer to these questions lies in getting the narrative right and in making that narrative stick throughout an outstanding performance, usually through the art of reading and interpreting events as they unfold.

By employing the tools of cultural sociology, Alexander writes about the most recent US presidential campaign as if it were a modern form of the Iliad. Two heroes struggle over the significance of their respective myths, one a Hector-like figure (Obama), the other resembling Achilles (John McCain).

As it turns out, in the course of the campaign McCain couldn't make the myth of the semi-divine soldier work. In a new era of civil recovery and in times of economic crisis, it is the redeemed and more humble, universally appealing and simply more human-seeming Obama who wins. The outcome of Homer's story is reversed in this modern drama. This time, right wins over might.

In contrast to the traditional sociology of culture that studies it as if it were one of many realms in a highly differentiated society, cultural sociology attempts to deliver "thick description" in which culture runs through every single social and political action. In the context of political performances - as they occur during election campaigns, for example - cultural sociology attempts to understand meaningful constructions of a particular type - in this case that of gaining democratic legitimacy. In campaigns, candidates fight over who becomes the collective representation of the civil sphere. The main actors must be seen to combine the exercise of power with morality in such a way that people can identify with them.

One of the book's highlights appears early on, as Alexander explains the essentials of the performance and its stage-setting. Describing a field visit that the author makes to an Obama training camp in Colorado, he reveals in fascinating detail how thousands of helpers are turned from foot soldiers into committed campaigners convinced that their engagement matters - however small the contribution.

In the book's second half, the two heroes and their co-actors (Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton for Obama, Sarah Palin for McCain) enter the stage and the real play begins. However, the drama is shown to include many more twists and turns than the stage plan had originally suggested. The two main actors and their teams must constantly work with binaries (civil-uncivil, private-public, left-right, religious-secular/mundane) and operate in a complex social and political minefield in which related boundaries must sometimes be violated, often by taking high risks and finding themselves in continual danger of being "found out" by some maverick TV channel.

In the last part, Alexander takes a closer look at three particular lucky moments that proved crucial: the weird workings of celebrity effects after Obama entered the international circuit; the moment when Palin was introduced as a Republican trump card; and the point when the shocking news broke about the dire state of the US economy. In all three challenging scenarios, the Obama camp managed to improvise brilliantly by making their interpretation of events work to their advantage - but, as Alexander shows, only just.

A longer explanatory guide in the appendix introduces readers to the main concepts and methods that Alexander's cultural sociology employs. This is a very convincing resource and other sociologists should take note; sometimes the best sociology is that which reveals itself through brilliant analysis and storytelling - not through mere self-advertisement.

The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power

By Jeffrey C. Alexander. Oxford University Press, 336pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780199744466. Published January 2011

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