At Labyrinth Books Thursday, sociology professor Jeffrey Alexander said that Barack Obama did not just win a presidential election in 2008 — he also won the title of “best performer” in the race leading up to it.
Alexander, director of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale, discussed his new book, “The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power,” before an audience of about 25. The discussion, which also featured Ron Jacobs, a sociology professor from the State University of New York, Albany, touched on Obama’s presidency and modern political theater. While Alexander praised Obama’s campaign strategy, he said the president’s energy has flagged over the last two years.
“There is a poetic and aesthetic element to political life,” Alexander said, adding that Obama’s campaign from the start was a “cultural performance infused with energy” reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1996. Obama’s ability to perform well in response to campaign challenges — including public denials of his American citizenship by members of the “birther” movement, who contended that Obama was not a citizen because he was born in Kenya — was a major advantage in the race against John McCain, he said.
But Alexander said this week’s midterm elections were “a disaster,” as Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives. He explained that in the next two years, Obama “needs to start a new narrative” and increase his presence on the national stage.
The April 20 BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast was a turning point, Alexander said, because it damaged the Superman-like image Obama had built just one month after Congress passed health care reform. Obama stayed away from the situation, he added, which rendered him powerless.
“Obama promised to be a hero and in general to transform society and he didn’t,” Alexander said.
That Obama “withdrew from performative processes” over the past two years raises the question of whether he cares that much about the political game. Unlike Bill Clinton — who Alexander described as narcissistic — Obama is a “Buddhist about popularity.”
While the basic structure of performance politics has remained unchanged from antiquity on, Alexander said, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and blogging has led to increased publicity of performance and a shorter performance cycle. When exploring the New York Times’ coverage of elections from 1960 to the present, Alexander said he noticed that the media exposed more of the backstage world in political performances, which is why modern politicians believe that journalism gets in the way of their job.
“All politicians hate, hate, hate journalists,” he said, to laughter from the audience.
The majority of the audience was composed of Alexander’s sociology graduate students, many of who previewed sections of the book in a cultural sociology workshop last year. Elizabeth Breese GRD ’13 said it was exciting to see Alexander’s book in print after reviewing it last year. Though Breese said Alexander’s focus is sociological theory, the “public intellectual” approach used in his latest book makes the book accessible to a broader audience.
Alexander warned the audience during the talk that some might find the idea of politics as theater to be jarring. While Timothy Malacarne GRD ’14 said he agrees with Alexander’s arguments, he said they complicate his view of politics.
“It’s difficult to be engaged in politics if looking at the whole process as a performance,” Malacarne said.
“The Performance of Politics” was released in October 2010.