Today’s LA Times carries a piece by Columbia University professor of journalism and sociology Todd Gitlin that provides a vivid and sharply drawn analysis of the symbolic import of the presidential election. Read it!
Gitlin starts from the premise that:
“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.”
This idea will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. What makes this contest intriguing, says Gitlin, is that the current campaign pitches a candidate who fits a tried and true mythical stereotype — the grizzled, plain-spoken, straight-shooting John Wayne-type — against someone who mixes up the stereotypes twenty-first century style, and can’t be pinned down. Gitlin’s conclusion is spot on. This is the underlying contest:
“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.”
This seems a fair description. By contrast, while New Zealanders’ shared identity continues to evolve, the process is much less conflicted than stateside (Orewa 1 and the Maori Party notwithstanding). Instead, New Zealanders seem to be pondering whether to stick with the modest (and fair) achievements of the past nine years, or venture just a little more aggressively into the world.
Like Obama, Clark embodies an oddly contradictory amalgam; no nonsense, no-frills, presbyterian farmer’s daughter and Vietnam protester, policy nerd and steely tough political operator. In many ways this mix gelled with what the country was looking for in 1999, after 15 years of neo-liberal attacks on kiwi decency, fairness and social cohesion, not to mention the bumbling incompetence of Jenny Shipley’s ill-fated administration.
Key’s narrative is much more straight-forward and appealing, in a traditional way. State House kiwi boy makes good in tough, competitive New York. Like Clark, this narrative also embodies competence — hence Labour’s attempts to define the election as about trust, as in 2005 — but is more contemporary.
National have utilised this more future-oriented symbolism to an extent, but much less so than I anticipated. Perhaps that’s because they feel less need. Plant the seeds of anxiety — outward migration, wage gaps with Australia — and let the narratives do the work.