Barack Obama and John McCain are running lines for a battle of narratives in the next months of this presidential election. As Daniel Nichanian pointed out on this page Tuesday, both Obama and McCain are running similar kinds of campaigns based on symbols, images and personal stories.
Nichanian observed how McCain’s first general election ad seeks “to drag the election onto the nationalist turf.” McCain’s decision to place the Iraq War at the center of his campaign is central to this point. It’s a decision that to most seems horrendously misguided given the war’s unpopularity. Nichanian writes that McCain’s “myopic confidence that his life story will counter the unpopularity of his war-mongering will only make the coming Democratic ads featuring McCain professing his interest in staying in Iraq for 100 years while bombing Iran more damaging.”
I have argued, however, that if we don’t understand McCain’s unique ability to reassert American hegemony at the moment of our supposed global decline, we fail to understand why his campaign is relying on this strategy.
Furthermore, I believe that McCain’s message is in dialogue with Obama’s as it seeks to displace it.
The Obama campaign has been able to weave a complicated narrative for its candidate, ultimately advancing him as a globalized figure. This identity has itself become an argument for his candidacy. Strikingly, that argument has been staked on claims of Obama’s origins, and not on new policy sensitive to the realities of globalization. He’s the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. He’s lived in the third world. And, as he put it in his recent speech on race relations, “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents.…”
To liberals who wonder, “can we ever heal a broken world?” Obama’s family signifies, “yes, we can.” The idea that — because of the simple fact that he has a multinational family — he can have empathy toward all other nations abounds in public discourse. The argument is that he is uniquely able to get “them” to stop hating “us” and thus restore America’s Global Position. This reflects a liberal genealogy of prejudice that sees geography and lack of cross-cultural contact rather than global economic inequality as the root of international conflict, anti-Americanism, racism, etc.
This argument is in no way minor. Think about the emphasis made on his willingness to “talk to anyone” in diplomacy, and the way his racial identity is seen as something that can overcome his American identity in global dialogues. In a recent New York Times column, Stanley Fish wrote, “It is his ability to bridge universes that is central to his appeal — particularly to Americans under 40, a post-baby-boom generation that has intuited how interconnected the globe has become and thirsts for a new American lexicon, a new approach to a transformed world.”
At the same time as Obama stakes his claim on globalist grounds, he also emphasizes his American roots, and it is this tension in his argument which is potentially problematic. For example, while his speech asserted his family as a global family, it also hewed very closely to a dominant national framework of race relations as a white-black problem. In doing so, Obama’s speech failed to engage with the ways that post-1965 immigrations from Asia and Latin America have transformed the racial map of the U.S. and, in turn, have reconfigured American race relations.
The absence of reference to these changes in Obama’s speech reveals a broader failure of his campaign to speak to the injustices of globalization. That failure is reflected in his continued support of free trade regimes — the biggest factor in the wave of immigration from Latin America since 1994 — and demonstrates that despite having a global family, Obama has been all too willing to support policies that have hurt his “brothers and sisters.”
What makes me nervous about this lack of engagement, particularly in the wake of increased immigration, is that we’ve seen a nationalist anti-immigrant backlash unparalleled in recent memory. Ironically, immigrants are blamed for the crisis of plant closings and job losses caused by US trade policy.
The current national crisis over a decline in American hegemony is not just about losing the war — it’s also about the recession and the panic and hatred immigration has caused. And so, in his attempt to shift the election to more explicitly nationalist terrain by asserting his unquestionable white Americanness and our country’s ability to win the war, John McCain is making a strategic bet: that his fierce commitment to keep America strong and dominant in world affairs and reverse its seeming downward spiral can also speak to the insecurities around the effects of globalization, and reshape American opinions on withdrawal from Iraq.
Progressives who brush off the larger implications and context of McCain’s nationalist claims will find themselves ill-prepared to pull ahead as we enter the general election.
Hugh Baran is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.