Thursday, February 7, 2008
Obama, Clinton & The American Imagination
Dug took me to task in the comments to the previous post about Obama and Clinton representing two halves to a whole:
Two different, evenly matched candidates who triggered different identity factors would carve things in half, but different halves. In short, you need to say something substantive about the constituencies, something to the effect that only this kind of pair would generate an even split. Otherwise, the speculative question about a larger collective dynamic at work isn't very interesting.
I was going to add something more substantive about the qualities I had in mind last night, but it was already pretty late and I was already up past my bedtime. What I was going to add, though, wasn't quite so much about the "identity factors" that Dug mentions. I was thinking more along the lines of American archetypes and our national genius. It's the sort of thing that isn't as easily measured as who carried which race, class, or gender among voters, and it's also much less useful in terms of the nuts and bolts of winning an election. So it's not likely to show up in any exit polling data.
The Rorschach of Obama and Clinton is the story of American archetypal opposites. See them at their best and Obama represents the tent revival movement leader, Clinton the party machine fixer working for the little guy. Obama the vertiginous and meteoric rise, Clinton the plodding and tedious ascent. Obama the promise of American renewal, Clinton the reassurance of American decency.
Take them at their worst and Obama takes on all the trappings of the charlatan snake oil salesman, while Clinton becomes the bought and sold politician in the special interests' pocket. Obama is the American idealist with his head in the clouds, Clinton the vulgar striver with her ankles in the muck. Obama is the teacher's pet, Clinton the crooked school board boss. On and on it goes, off to the horizon of the American imagination.
I'm not arguing that Obama and Clinton are the only two politicians who could ever inhabit such diametrically polar corners of the American archetypal landscape. But neither do I think it's just a question of finding images to stick onto two politicians who happen to split the electorate. A few dozen votes separated Bush and Gore, and the same exercise does not seem to apply.