Thursday, August 14, 2008

Atlantic Stuff

This piece in The Atlantic has some of the most insightful commentary I've read on how this election has demonstrated a radical evolution in the dynamics and strategy of a successful electoral campaign. Excellent.

Sure, we all know that this is the “YouTube election.” The Web has replaced TV, and e-mail has replaced direct mail, as the current modes of wholesale campaigning. Hillary’s tone-deafness has been well explored and mocked, but her comprehensive misapprehension of how rapidly mutating media alter the way people communicate has not. The digital living room she was once going to fill with listening and sharing as she cakewalked to the nomination has become an altogether more dissonant gathering place. Thanks to some sort of undead-like invincibility, she is surviving, but certainly not to have the sort of chummy conversation she envisioned in those innocent fall e-mails. Like watching Nixon sweat on television in 1960, to read Hillary’s e-mail today is to experience an old dispensation crashing headlong into the new.

There’s a serious point here. For all the focus on position papers, and process, and even likability, what gets lost is that elections are ultimately about making connections; about showing the largest number of voters that you care about them; about, as they say in my world, relatability. Relatability is a function of discourse, which requires the candidate to speak in the vernacular of the moment. And what the era of YouTube and social media prizes is authenticity, improvisation, rough edges. Whether these values are genuinely held or brilliantly mimicked is immaterial. You have to bring the realness.

John McCain and Barack Obama turn out to be fantastic at realness; each offers up a kind of linguistic meta­narrative that says—screams—“I am not a politician,” or at least, “I’m not only a politician.” Obama’s admission in his 1995 autobiography that he did “a little blow” as a teenager may in retrospect have been his most brilliant campaign gambit, one that makes him of this moment (confessional, flawed, post-Boomer, ultimately untouchable on questions of honesty because he already admitted to something no candidate has ever admitted to before) the way Bill Clinton’s “I didn’t inhale” nonadmission (Boomerish, entitled, prone to sanctimonious deployments of situational ethics) made him quintessentially of his. Authenticity now is more coded, in the sense that the politician needs to have an intuitive understanding of how to converse, what to concede, what to hide, and what the Web hive will and will not validate.

As we contemplate Hillary’s persistent outrĂ©-ness, it’s worth dwelling on the ways in which she so misunderstood this moment. She is a politician who can never get out of the way of her politicianness; even her efforts to recast her campaign as a “conversation” reeked of politician. Last summer, the Clintons’ YouTube quasi-parody of the Sopranos finale initially seemed audacious, a witty surfacing of the repressed subtext of the couple’s Mob-dynastic ambitions and less-than-fully-intact marital status, until it devolved to more shtick about Bill’s diet. Perhaps the Clintons didn’t get their own joke? The campaign proceeded to become more and more obtuse about the Bill-Hillary dynamic until the subtext—was Bill undermining his wife’s candidacy?—drowned out the official text. Despite those grasping and un-fun appearances on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live (required stops on the political self-flagellation circuit), it remains hard to find the human being inside, to break through Hillary’s carefully wrought positional scrim.

We understand intuitively why this discourse comes off as so wooden, so content-less, even in its relentless gravitas, but why is it so off-putting now? The answer has to do with how digital culture has made us all skeptics, all Swift Boaters. There is not one affectation, one biographical detail, that now can survive the relentless interrogation of bloggers, oppo researchers, amateur videographers, data miners. This digital Panopticon has in turn bred a culture of preemptive self-revelation, a race to bare body and essence: Hey, I did a little blow!

On the other hand, I think the author profoundly misses the boat in proclaiming that McCain's candor still passes for authentic (and in suggesting that McCain has a legit shot at the presidency; he will be crushed in the biggest landslide most Americans have ever witnessed), but it was a ploy that once worked exceedingly well for him. In fact, McCain was much admired by staunch liberals like myself simply for the fact that he did not --or at least convinced us that he did not-- bullshit us. Anyways, those days are over and Obama brings an even more refreshing form of hopefully sincere self-revelation to the table.

Frankly, this is my great concern about Obama. He is lovable to liberals for many of the same immaterial reasons that Bush was so appealing to conservatives. McCain made a strong run on his platform of honesty, and it turns out that he probably would have been nearly as disastrous a president as Bush. So I'm not so much worried that Obama's "authenticity" will turn out to be of the same quality as McCain's, but rather that authenticity does not ensure a successful presidency. In my heart I believe Obama will be pretty good, but a decision this important needs to be made with my head. (Not that there's really an actual decision here; I'll vote for Obama. It's just a question of how strongly I truly support him.) In any case, I still have a nagging fear in the back of my mind that he could be the Democrats' Bush: a perfect figurehead of incomparable incompetence. Let's hope not.

Here is another fantastic article in the same issue of The Atlantic. I read it just before going to Israel and it profoundly enhanced my appreciation of the political situation there. On firsthand inspection of the situation (Among other things, I had an incredible experience touring Bethlehem, a Palestinian settlement, with a christian Palestinian who claimed with credibility to have been one of Arafat's bodyguards for several years. Needless to say, we discussed the politics and prospects of peace among Israelis and Palestinians.) I found much of it to be uncannily accurate. Important reading if you care about what's going on there.