Jeffrey C. Alexander


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

Cover Interview of December 29, 2010

The wide angle

We need to move away from a mechanistic, materialist, interest-based view of political struggles.  Every class, every ethnicity, every gender—and every political campaign—has a fair amount of free space to tell its story in different ways.  The broader ambition of this book is to conceptualize—to put into context—the “irrational” dimensions of modern politics.

Among social critics, journalists, and your everyday citizens alike there is a strong sense that we are inundated by mass media symbolism and that this is a dangerous new development that undermines democratic deliberation.

My own strong sense is that democratic dialogue is carried via the symbolic, rather than opposed to it.  I believe this both on theoretical and on empirical grounds.

My theoretical conviction is derived from the growing discipline of cultural sociology, which holds that social action, no matter how rational or emotional, cannot be entirely divorced from apriori symbolic grounding, from taken-for-granted assumptions about oneself and one’s speaking partner.  These cultural predispositions are like the background language within which each of us strategizes and speaks.

My empirical conviction is derived from my studies in how democratic politics actually works on the ground: not in the idealized speculation of political philosophers like Jürgen Habermas, but in the rhetorics and conflicts of everyday life in civil society.

What I have discovered in everyday life is a “discourse of civil society,” a deep and largely shared language that forms the background to particular disputes over interests.  This language, which goes back to the Greeks, codes human motives and relations into rather simple binary forms, of rational-versus-irrational, honest-versus-deceptive, open-versus-secretive, autonomous-versus-dependent, critical-versus-coerced.

Democracy, in other words, is a symbolic language, one that provides the vocabulary for us to define our selves and our cause as democratic and pure and our opponents’ as anti-democratic and polluted.

But the performance of democratic politics, though always symbolic and dramatic, undergoes profound transformations over historical time.

In the first democracy, in ancient Greece, there were no political campaigns.  Athenians chose their governors by lot in regular rotation.  Today, states are immense and intricate, and the struggle to control state power must, of necessity, be much more indirect.

Rather than actual political candidates, the voters who referee the struggle for power have available only symbolic representations of candidates, which the mass media supply.  Projected to citizens over vast space, these symbolic representations are interjected into the campaign by politicians and pushed this way and that by journalists.  Politicians are compelled to enmesh themselves in a devilishly complex and unpredictable process of symbolic representation, projecting images of themselves not only to voters who are close at hand but also, and primarily, to those who are far away.

For all of these reasons, the struggle for power becomes theatrical.  It is the success of these performances that determines how whites, blacks, Jews, Catholics, the young, old northerners and southerners, women and men distribute their precious votes.

The opinions of these supposedly demographic groups shift significantly in response to coding, narrative, tone, metaphor, setting, and performance in the course of campaign time.

Certainly, demographic position is significant.  But in a democratic society it is the attribution of meaningfulness that determines who will be allowed to exercise power in the state.

More than half a century ago, in his massively influential book The Making of the President 1960, Theodore “Teddy” White already recognized how the candidate “sits at the center of a web of affairs so complex as to be dehumanized,” how “his ideas, his phrases, his finances, his schedules, are all prepared for him by others.”

Today, the dehumanized apparatus of the message giver, the political candidate, has expanded exponentially.  The campaign has become a floating crap game of press secretaries, spinners, speechwriters, advance personnel, poll takers, focus groups, lighting and stage designers, personal assistants, and bodyguards.  Arrayed against this effort is the opposing candidate, who sits at the center of an equally large and depersonalized political apparatus.

Each side wishes to appear authentic and sincere—and in fact they may well be.  Inspired by democratic ideals, “we” present ourselves as embodying freedom and liberty.  “They” seek to undermine the power of our performance by making it seem artificial, denaturalize it by declaring it to be only a performance, make our human candidate seem like an automaton reading a script from a machine.