In an earlier post, my first on visual-image management during this 2012 election cycle, I critiqued the imagery broadcast by and emergent from the Republican National Convention held in Tampa, Florida from August 28-30. To summarize, paraphrasing the words of the Book of Daniel, “Meme, Meme, Tekel, u-Pharsin” — which translates roughly as “Your memes have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Aside from their unrelenting whiteness, the main image problem for the Republic Party is that its members, and its leaders, look and sound like smug, sanctimonious prigs.
Now let’s turn to how the Democrats handled the challenges they face in perception management at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. I consider it unlikely that, even if disappointed that in slightly under four years the first Obama administration has not cured a Republican-engineered recession or wiped out a Republican-generated massive deficit, the Democratic Party’s base will switch sides in any significant numbers. Nor do I foresee multitudes of undecided voters falling for the rope-a-dope promulgated by two superrich, secretive, prevaricating white guys. And, having already used up the whole Kenyan Muslim Socialist thing, the Republicans have no new mud to fling at the cleanest administration in recent memory.
So I think this election is the Democrats’ to lose. Their main risk is that people who do have one or more horses in this race, and should vote for the Obama-Biden ticket, might sit this one out. This also seems unlikely to me.
As a 68-year-old white hetero male citizen in reasonably good health who got through public college without taking out any loans, I don’t presume to speak for women, people of the LGBT or melanin persuasions, students in or aspiring to higher education facing tuition-related debt, people with serious medical conditions, or voters with undocumented relatives and friends who risk deportation. But, as someone who personally knows and cares about individuals in a number of those categories, and can imagine myself into the shoes of all of the above, I know how I’d vote, strictly on the grounds of enlightened self-interest. The Obama administration has acted in one way or another on behalf of all those demographic groups, and they surely know it.
Still, let’s stipulate that the Dems need to galvanize their base to ensure they get every such vote, while providing fence-sitting voters with persuasive reasons to come down on their side, instead of either staying home on Election Day or deciding to switch to Romney. The conventional wisdom (pun unavoidable) has it that they’ll make that decision on “pocketbook” issues — the state of the economy on November 6. But, as I see it, the Romney-Ryan ticket’s offering nothing of substance to the middle class or the working class, to one or the other of which most of those undecided voters belong. To vote Republican they’ll have to choose to trust two extremely rich white guys to have their best interests at heart. Good luck with that, I say.
The other option, of course, is the beer-buddy metric — the question of which of the candidates (or, casting a wider net, which of their constituencies) the voter would prefer to join for a brewski. I consider that a truly bizarre way to evaluate a politician. But, given that those who cover politics professionally view it as in play, I have to say that in my opinion the Democrats win that one hands down.
I don’t spend much time in bars, now or ever, but if I do walk into one I want it to look like a smaller version of the DNC, not the RNC. This is the future according to Bulworth — who, I remind you, opted to speak frankly about everything from corporate influence on politics to ethnic polarization, and advocated miscegenation as the solution for America’s problems with race.
That Warren Beatty political satire looks remarkably prophetic today, especially with Obama’s election having taken place just a decade after its 1998 release. The subtext of this 2012 election is that the former white majority of the citizenry of this country has slowly but steadily eroded toward an imminent statistical minority, a situation that — barring some massive and improbable influx of Europeans, Brits, Canadians, Australians, and/or New Zealanders — won’t likely reverse, instead becoming even more so, and rapidly. That terrifies a significant sector of the melanin-challenged population, who view with horror, sometimes forthright but often covert, the prospect of a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner moment of their own.
Obama, himself the offspring of a racially mixed marriage, functions for them as the literal face of miscegenation, on which his taking office constitutes a national seal of approval. Add to this the possibility, officially endorsed by the Democratic Party, that the next “significant other” in the family might be of the same sex as their scion, and the roots of Republican rage become apparent. Obama’s termination of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the armed forces means that, by those lights, there’s no place safe anymore, not even the military; the whole damn country’s turned into a hybrid of Will & Grace and Chalmun’s Cantina from Star Wars IV.
New York City, my lifelong home, sufficiently resembles the pirate metropolis of Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine (where Chalmun’s is located) that I fit in there imaginatively, just as I feel comfortable living in a boondocks neighborhood that includes numerous Mexicans, African Americans, a handful of Sikhs, and the largest Liberian ex-pat community outside of Africa. And of course NYC was the setting for that gay sitcom. In other words, the DNC pretty much resembles what I see when I step out of my front door every day. So if I have to choose between that familiar milieu and the overwhelmingly white populace of the RNC, I don’t have to think twice.
And if I’m going to chew the fat over a tall draft ale with some wings and fries to munch on, I want to hang with Barack and Joe, not Mitt and Paul. I don’t mean this as a political judgment. I’ve read Ayn Rand and F. A. Hayek (and Thomas Sowell, and others on that side of the spectrum); I agree with some of those ideas, accept others as worth considering, and would enjoy a good conversation about them. Just not with Romney or Ryan. Because the image they project isn’t an inviting one, it’s off-putting: uptight and, in some fundamental ways, inauthentic.
I sense a disconnect between what they say and how they say it, as with second-rate actors playing roles and mouthing lines without inhabiting their personae and making the words their own. More than what they say, even setting that aside, this impression emerges from visual cues (facial expressions, body language) and auditory cues (tonalities, speech rhythms, vocal inflections).
To test my impressions, after both conventions I experimented with muting the audio (I accessed streaming webcasts and video recordings on my MacBook Pro) and simply watching the spectacles. I found the differences striking. Go to any of the archived convention speeches and try this with any of the opposing pairs of speakers — say, Ann Romney and Michelle Obama. Ms. Romney looks like a wind-up doll, her grimacing shout-out “I love you women!” painful in its insincerity even with the sound off. She shows more affection for her dressage horses than she does at that moment for women in general or even Republican women in particular.
Michelle Obama, on the other hand, appeared as if speaking to people with whom she truly wanted to communicate. Similarly, with sound off Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan look like dorky schoolboys who never grew up, naïve and awkward; Romney periodically projects a Buzz Lightyear/deer-in-the-headlights aspect, while Ryan regularly exudes a hangdog pathos. (He didn’t help his image as the Republic party’s teller of hard truths by shaving an hour off his best marathon time, either.) Barack Obama — jughandle ears and all — and Joe Biden look like grown men, savvy, confident, and capable by turns of coming across as humorful, earthy, and sophisticated.
No, I didn’t imbibe the powdered soft drink. I’ve had my disappointments with Obama (such as his failure to close Guantanamo as promised, for starters), and with this convention — especially the kowtowing to the Christian right that resulted in overriding the voice vote of the delegates in order to insert multiple references to God into an amended platform.
I realize that no politician can get elected to national office today without ending his or her speeches with “God bless America!” It’s the curse of Kate Smith, whose portly bleating of that dreadful Irving Berlin ditty has grated on my ears for a lifetime. But getting sucked into a contest with the Republicans over which party mentions God most often in their platform? That’s just chickenshit. Fortunately, it didn’t happen live during primetime, though discussion of it did.
I voted for Obama in ’08 not only because the prospect of a McCain-Palin White House scared me but because Obama struck me as a pragmatic mainstream Democrat in the tradition of Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton before him. Far from perfect, but the best I think we’ll get in the White House. Yet with Obama’s 2008 campaign, and his election, the Democrats seemed intent on reinventing themselves as vertebrates after decades of spineless surrender of all moral high ground to the Republic Party. About the only remainder of that cowardice this past week was the kissing of God’s ass involved in amending the platform.
Except for that, this convention — in its imagery, its content, and its level of discourse — suggested a return to the Democratic Party’s roots and traditions: centrist, progressive, empowering of minorities, inviting and embracing diversity, and committed to the success of the working class and the middle class. Perhaps by 2016 they’ll even have grown a pair big enough to use the forbidden words “working class” again, as they once did, without treating that denomination as shameful and degrading and without pretending that everyone with a full-time job is automatically in the middle class.
The difference in energy levels of the two conventions, both audibly and visibly, proved telling. If you wanted enthusiasm and a sense of common cause, the DNC had it all over the RNC. Fox News tried to spin this as the DNC techies somehow cranking up the volume of the monitors, but I don’t think even the inhabitants of their parallel universe bought into that one. So, on that level of image creation too, the Democrats took the lead.
I’m trying my best, in these posts, to set aside my partisanship so as to assess, as impartially as I can, the effectiveness of both parties at perception management through the projection of visual images — actual images, most of them lens-derived, and mental images that we invent based on what we see and hear. That’s certainly not the only way, and by my lights definitely not the best way, to decide how to cast one’s vote. But it has an influence, often decisive, on millions of voters; disregarding it isn’t an option.
Conventions don’t determine the outcomes of presidential elections; in fact, both parties have begun considering the option of jettisoning them, so these may be the last. Be that as it may, judging by what I saw these past two weeks at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the Democrats had it all over the Republicans on every level, for whatever that’s worth. If I knew nothing about U.S. politics but watched these conventions and then somehow got offered my choice of a ticket to either party’s next convention, I’d take the DNC in a heartbeat. As Bob Dylan sings, “I’m going to sleep over here/that’s where the music’s coming from.” On that note, let me give the last word to Jimmy Fallon as James Taylor at the DNC.
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This post supported in part by a donation from George Malave.