The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Vox populi?

October 13, 2008

There’s this video of McCain supporters in line at a rally in Pennsylvania that has been making the rounds on the ‘Net (tip of the hat to Janice Bially Mattern for sending it to me). Here it is now:

Figuring out what to make of this is slightly more complicated than simply having a gut reaction to it — not the a gut reaction is unimportant, or even necessarily wrong, but in this case I think it can obscure some of what’s going on in the scene. This is particularly true since the video’s author is clearly drawing a contrast between the hate-filled and factually inaccurate statements of the McCain supporters, and the progressive (even set to a hip-hop soundtrack!) presence of the Obama supporters. Now, I am not saying that the author is right or wrong about this; I am only suggesting that we have to slow down and consider the situation a little more closely.

First, it’s important to note that what we’re seeing here is not some kind of uncensored raw set of opinions. It isn’t even the relatively calm environment of a telephone survey or a set of questions asked by someone holding a clipboard in the shopping-mall parking lot. It’s people waiting in line to attend a campaign rally, a situation roughly akin to people standing in line to get into a major sporting event. Emotions run high and a certain amount of over-the-top trash-talking is more or less expected — and we shouldn’t underestimate the subtle social pressure of appearing fired up in front of one’s peers. Plus what we might call the “Real World” / “Jerry Springer” effect: turn a camera on someone and watch them slip into performance mode, and perhaps appear even more over the top than usual.

My point is that what people say in such circumstances doesn’t necessarily represent any sort of true inward conviction. Not that “calm” environments are any better at eliciting such inward convictions; calm environments have their own set of subtle social pressures and norms of appropriate behavior. Rather, my point is that what people say and do in any given situation is less a reflection of their inner state of mind and more a product of the interaction of different aspects of the situation with whatever their inner state of mind happens to be, and the result might not have much of any correspondence with their inward state of mind at all. One could easily construct several different explanations for the statements heard in that video — people “really” feel this way, people wanted to be accepted by their peers, people were caught up in emotion of the moment, people have only been exposed to a narrow ranges of messages and don’t have much other vocabulary in which to express their support of one candidate over the other — which, at least to my way of thinking, means that we are making a mistake if we jump right to the conclusion that what we see and hear in that video is some kind of a genuine and authentic expression of popular sentiment.

Second, McCain’s down by several points in the PA polls, and has been for several days. This of course exacerbates any of the social dynamics I just mentioned — think about the rabid fans of a losing team before a big game with their arch-rival (not that I would know anything about that this year, since the Yankees are . . . um . . . ). One can easily imagine an even greater emphasis on supporting the team and denigrating the opponent, as it’s easier to be charitable and generous from a position of strength than from a position of weakness. Which leads me to wonder about the counterfactual: if McCain were up in the polls, would we see this kind of vitriol from his supporters? Probably not, because we wouldn’t have seen the deliberate activation of these scripts by the campaign, and their intense circulation by a pretty well-organized propaganda machine. And since I am unwilling to jump from public performance to dispositional essence, I would not be comfortable saying that the people depicted in the video “really” feel this way about Barack Obama, and would be equally uncomfortable concluding that such sentiments would “inevitably” find expression somehow.

So, and this is my final point, because we can construct a whole bunch of plausible scenarios involving a whole bunch of subjective motivations, we should basically abstract from internal motivations (which means: we acknowledge that individual people are motivated by something, but we deliberately do not specify precisely what that motivation might be) and instead read what’s going on here as a product of observable social mechanisms and processes. In particular, we should focus on the formation of the available cultural vocabulary that is being deployed against Obama in this situation. Several things are noteworthy: the singing of “God Bless America,” the accusation that the Obama supporters need to go “get a job,” the notion that Obama is a terrorist and hangs around with terrorists, the use of Cold War-era anticommunist (and antisocialist) jabs, and my personal favorite, the charge of homosexuality that is leveled about 55 seconds into the video (and linked to “commie”). Much of this should sound familiar, and not just because of the past few weeks of Fox News “coverage” of the election; rather, these symbols and commonplaces are quite well-established parts of the American political vocabulary, and the “terrorism = Communism (= Nazism)” linkage has been a staple of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” rhetoric since 2001. What we are seeing here is a group of people using the resources at hand to make sense of a situation, which is, I think, what people do in general.

This does not mean that people are cultural dupes, or that the media simply produces a false consciousness that overlays their “real” interests or feelings or whatever. But it does mean that people are sense-making creatures, even when the resources that they have available to make sense are both narrow and all strategically slanted in the same direction. Sure, some of the people in the video probably have completely internalized those messages, but I’ll bet that others are just (to paraphrase Nietzsche) passing around a coin that is taken to be true because it’s in such circulation among their peers and in the media outlets that they regularly turn to. What I am suggesting is that the problem here isn’t the ordinary people in the video, but the broader social context within which articulations like this make sense in the first place.

But since, certain overzealous Habermasians (and “marketplace of ideas” Millians) to the contrary, that broader social context doesn’t work according to the rules of civil rational debate, all the empirical falsification in the world of silly claims like “ACORN caused the financial crisis” is not likely to make a damn bit of difference. Instead, what is needed are alternative stories and the means to convey them into the places where people live. And that’s not likely to happen in the heat of a presidential campaign, because whatever the motives (noble or ignoble) of the candidates when it comes to producing a more civil national politics, at the moment their exclusive focus more or less has to be on turning out voters, which one does by ignoring pockets of high support or the other candidate and looking for easier targets of opportunity. I wonder if we can ever lift our eyes away from such short-term considerations to focus on the organization of the public sphere that makes the (re)circulation of scripts like that possible.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.