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

A close-up

If you were to just pick up The Performance of Politics in a bookstore—perhaps attracted by the striking cover photo of Obama striding confidently to a podium in Denver to deliver his acceptance speech before a nearly delirious crowd—I’d point you to two brief sections.

One is a section called “The Hero’s Shadow” (pp. 84-87).  The other is the section entitled “Celebrity Pollution” (pp. 174-176).  In these two sections, you have in microcosm a discussion of narrative and symbol that define what my approach to the struggle for power is all about.

I mentioned earlier that candidates must be imagined to be world transforming heroes if they are to be elected.  In these two small sections I concentrate on a surprising boomerang effect of heroic narration: the problem of hubris.

All heroes have their shadow, a negative other whose inverted attributes the bright light of their glory keeps hidden in the shade.  Heroes must be modest.  They cannot be seen as overreaching, as wanting to be glorious instead of simply to be good.  For the Greeks, this was a matter of distinguishing heroes from gods.  When heroes try to become gods, they will be destroyed.  Hubris is the stuff of tragedy.  It reveals a fundamental character flaw, one that triggers an action that brings the hero down from the heady heights of victory to the numbing depths of defeat.

In late July, 2008, Obama interrupted his domestic campaign to take a daring foreign policy trip that carried him from the Middle East to Europe. Speaking to adoring crowds and deferential foreign leaders, the trip seemed like a smashing success—until Steven Schmidt, McCain’s campaign director, realized that Obama might have flown too close to the sun.  On the evening of July 29, McCain’s campaign places a 30-second advertisement on its website that calls out Obama as a “celebrity.” The ad goes viral and shifts the media’s narration of the campaign. For five weeks the Democratic campaign is back on its heels, and the polls show, for the first time, an almost even race.

Here is the power of metaphor!  A poetic action changes the course of a campaign, responding to the potential contradictions of a narrative.  Who says that only demographics, money, and organization determine the course of political campaigns?