Jeffrey C. Alexander


On his book The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power

Cover Interview of December 28, 2010

In a nutshell

The Performance of Politics offers a new explanation for Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.  Rather than demographics, strategy, and money, the argument focuses on cultural meaning making, symbolic creativity, and dramatic performance.

I have created a new theory of the democratic struggle for political power: candidates for the presidency struggle to become “collective representations,” social symbols; citizens constitute critical audiences for their performative efforts.

Politicians present themselves as heroes standing on the hinge of history, and they solemnly promise to resolve “the crisis of our times.”  Each political side presents itself as sacred and pollutes its opponent as profane.

Politicians walk along the boundaries that separate the civil from the non-civil spheres, representing themselves not only as good democrats but as good fathers or mothers, men or women, competent economic managers, and as “kosher” in racial, ethnic, and religious ways.

The first six chapters of Performance of Politics develop this new cultural-sociological model of politics—illustrating it with rich empirical examples from print, blog, and television media from June 2008 until the end of the campaign on the 4th of November.

The last three chapters of the book develop a chronological explanation of victory and defeat.  I define and trace the three critical crises that engulfed the campaign from late July, analyzing how they were resolved—or not—by the Democratic and Republican sides.  “Celebrity Metaphor” extended for five weeks, until the end of August; “Palin Effect” lasted from the end of August until mid-September; “Financial Crisis” extended from September 15th until early October.

In an Epilogue to this account I suggest the difficulty of sustaining symbolic power after an election, as the candidate moves into the White House and confronts more mundane institutional tasks.

A final “Note on Concepts and Methods” lays out the broader intellectual framework.