Obama Must Symbolize America's Innate Goodness in Order to Reach the White House

There's no doubt which party Barack Obama represents. Just listen to him: "This is going to be a very concrete contest around very specific plans for how we improve the lives of Americans." That's how Democrats typically talk -- as if elections are decided on the merits of competing policy proposals, as if the candidate who has the most popular plan to improve life wins.

We wish! If it were true, a Democrat would have been living in the White House for the last 28 years. Since Ronald Reagan's first victory, the polls have told the same story: A majority of the voters agree with the Democrats on the issues. But a Democrat never gains a majority of the votes.

Things look only a bit better today. A recent poll shows a mere 32 percent of the public saying Republicans can do better than Democrats in addressing with the nation's problems. But John McCain gets fully 44 percent of the vote against Obama (and more against Clinton). On Iraq, a large majority have favored Obama's policy position over McCain's for years. Yet when the pollsters ask who can best handle the war, the two candidates remain tied. So if Obama really means what he said about focusing on "specific plans," he's choosing the wrong strategy.

Don't worry, though. He's too smart a politician to really mean it. He surely knows that many voters care less about satisfying policies than satisfying symbols. They want a president who will symbolize values that make them feel good. And a substantial portion of those voters want to feel good, not about what the nation could be in the future, but what it has been in the past and what it is in the present. That's what they think patriotism is all about. A candidate who cannot symbolize America's innate goodness, past and present, will have a tough time reaching the White House.

It's a safe bet that Obama (and his strategists) know all this perfectly well. Even if he did tell columnist Maureen Dowd that he's not interested in crafting a narrative, I don't believe it. It can't be just dumb luck that he has become such an appealing symbol of a traditional patriotic story: We Americans are eternally full of hope because there's nothing we can't accomplish together when we live up to our motto, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). You can't get much more all-American than that.

And Obama's knack for turning this red-white-and-blue narrative into a black-and-white-and-brown-and-yellow-and-red narrative makes him all the more appealing -- to some voters.

To others, though, that translation of the flag's colors into a rainbow of racial colors is the problem, not the solution. The America they love is not a stewpot where all boundaries are blurred in one sweet harmonious dish. Their "one," which the "many" are supposed to blend into, is a monoculture. It's built out of well-established categories, long-standing rules, and universally acknowledged boundaries that separate not only whites from nonwhites but men from women, parents from children, citizens from foreigners, authority figures from masses, hard workers from slackers, "our troops" from "terrorists," patriots from subversives, etc. Their America is unified, and virtuous, because it aligns all these dichotomies under the overriding rubric of good against evil.

Yes, that rigidly structured "one" is a fantasy. It has never existed in reality. But that's exactly why so many voters crave a president who can mask that painful truth. They want their leader to symbolize the fantasy of strict boundaries so powerfully that he'll convince them it has always been, and will always be, the heart and soul of America.

Many are unsure that a "she" could ever be such a symbol; a woman president, simply by being a woman, would blur traditional categories and cross long-standing boundaries in a way that millions would find threatening. Many are unsure that a person of color, even if male, could be that symbol, for the very same reason.

Now suppose that man of color has parents of different races, from different continents and different religions. Suppose he himself was raised on different continents amidst people of different races and religions. Suppose he was raised in working class surroundings but carries himself like the Ivy Leaguer he was. And suppose he says he's ready for the most responsible grownup job in the world, yet he still looks as boyish as a college student. He is bound to symbolize precisely the blurring of categories and the crossing of boundaries that so many voters find so frightening to contemplate.

That's why the very narrative that Obama backers count on to carry him to victory may be his biggest obstacle. John McCain, on the other hand, has a seemingly unbreakable lock on the symbolism of old, familiar, patriotic categories and clear-cut boundaries. (And for that purpose, the older a candidate is, the better.)

Now I hear someone objecting: "Hey, you left out the most important part of the story. A record number of voters say the country is on the wrong track. They want change. And Obama has established himself as the candidate who symbolizes change."

True. But the Republicans are just beginning to fight on that front, as a recent New York Times headline announced: "House G.O.P. Adopts Change Theme." Their new battle cry will be: "The Change You Deserve" (ironically, the slogan is already used to sell the antidepressant Effexor). So, would you rather have "Change We Can Believe In" or "The Change You Deserve"? You pays your money and picks your change.

How to tell the two kinds of change apart? Note, first, that the Democrats speak in the first-person plural, while the Republicans use the second-person singular. Which would you pick as the more popular symbol of America: "We" or "You"?

If you are dreaming of what the nation could someday become, you might go for the plural, the pluribus. But if you are looking for the dominant symbol of what we are and have been, it's a safer bet to put your money on the individualistic singular, the unum. As usual, the Dems go for improving life in the future, while the GOP affirms the goodness of past and present.

But there's a more concrete difference between the two parties' idea of change. "The first element of the [Republican] party agenda," says the Times article, "will focus on family issues."

GOP strategists begin with "family issues" because they understand a crucial point about "change." When people are dissatisfied with the present, it doesn't necessarily mean they want something new that they've never seen before. They may very well be dissatisfied precisely because they are surrounded by new, unfamiliar realities. They want change to put things back the way they used to be -- or, more precisely, the way they imagine things used to be.

That's what "family issues" are mainly about: creating symbols of an imagined past when everyone supposedly respected traditional lines of authority, saluted the flag, and abided by fixed rules of behavior handed down by their elders. "Family issues" is our current code for a fantasy of rigid cultural categories and clear-cut boundaries, the kind of fantasy that has put Republicans in the White House so often, going back at least to William McKinley in 1898. When Republicans talk about "change," they are speaking in that same code, promising a return to a idealized past.

In the 1980s, although voters favored the policies espoused by Carter and Mondale, Ronald Reagan easily won two victories. He symbolized a fictional America that was tranquil and harmonious because everyone supposedly loved their country, followed the rules, and knew their place. (Remember Reagan assuring us that when he was a boy, the folks in his small town did not have any racial problem?)

After the turbulence of the '60s and early '70s, even the illusion of returning to such an America was the kind of change that most voters welcomed. The same kind of change fueled the "Republican revolution" of 1994, led by Newt Gingrich -- hardly a man that progressives could imagine as an agent of change.

Therein lies the problem. At the left end of the political spectrum, we assume that change means something really new, that loving your country means rejecting the existing institutions in favor of innovation, the more radical the better. But Republicans are betting that the change, and the patriotism, most voters think they deserve is just the opposite: one that takes them back to a tried-and-true, red-white-and-blue way of life.

And they are betting that they can turn the old superpatriot, John McCain, into a convincing symbol of that change, especially when set against Obama, the most potent symbol of boundary-crossing since George McGovern. The reality of McGovern was far different than the symbolism, but there was nothing he could do to make that reality prevail in the public eye. Obama faces the same kind of dilemma.

As long as progressives put all their focus on "very specific plans for how we improve the lives of Americans," we can't expect to shift the center of political gravity very much. Policies will always matter. But we also have to figure out how to navigate through the murky, turbulent waters of political narrative and patriotic symbolism. The first step is to confront that symbolic dimension in all its complexity, recognize its tremendous power, and begin to understand how it works. Then we can go on to figure out how to make it work for, rather than against, the genuine change we want and so desperately need.


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