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


My book illuminates the dramaturgy of the struggle for power in 2008, and candidate Obama’s success.  But the model of political performance can also illuminate President Obama’s fall from grace, and the electoral “shellacking” (his words) the voters gave his party in the Congressional elections this last November, 2010.

Reading media reports about the Obama presidency, we see repeated descriptions of the lack of “connection” between President and citizens, of a lack of “excitement,” of sparse crowds, of increasingly banal speeches.  These are descriptions of performative failure, of Obama’s increasing inability to symbolize.

Obama presented himself as a hero who would transform the crisis of our times.  But—sadly—the economic crisis has continued, and perhaps even deepened.  He presented himself as a leader who would draw enemies into negotiation and replace military force with civil power.  He has, so far—again, quite sadly in my view—been able to do nothing of the kind.

As Obama’s hero stature is diminished, the power to resolve the crisis has shifted to the Republican side.  His conservative challengers have succeeded in building up their own dramatic movement, one that is equally embedded in American political myths, e.g., the “Tea Party.”

It’s a time of deep crisis for the Obama character and the narrative driving his presidency.  But defeat, by itself, does not unmake a hero.  Even a debilitating setback can become the middle of the hero’s story, rather than the end—a new mountain for the gutsy and determined protagonist to climb.  Of course, that requires that the hero climb his way back.  It is up to Obama and history to decide.

© 2010 Jeffrey Alexander