Students, welcome to the final exam for POLI 1019.666: Introducing Artificial Controversy Into Political Campaigns. Now that we’ve spent the semester talking about misdirection, partisan spin-doctoring, and focus-group nitpicking, we’re ready to evaluate what you’ve all learned.
Our topic for today’s exam:
Barack Obama’s political career.
Honestly, students, this shouldn’t be too hard. Don’t be fooled by Obama’s overwhelming media presence, because like all sudden celebrities, a good deal of his coverage is ambiguous, confused, or downright negative. And don’t be intimidated by his well-rounded background and his refreshingly honest approach to politics either… this isn’t some high school debate where issues and substance actually matter. This is the strange, pliable world of public discourse.
Really, students, there are two specific, tried-and-true directions you could take this assignment. I’ll go over them briefly below, so you can get a head start elaborating on them in new and creatively useless ways.
It’s important to dwell on special-interest issues, even when they don’t figure significantly into the candidate’s platform or politics. Is Obama black? Certainly. Is he from Africa? Maybe. Is he a descendant of American slaves? That depends on your definition of “descent.”
As you can see, we have here a perfect opportunity to over-complicate a newly-announced presidential bid. Just take Debra Dickerson of Salon.com, a magazine whose content is usually annoyingly substantial. She discusses Obama thusly:
“I honestly can't look without feeling pity, and indeed mercy, at whites' need for absolution. For all our sakes, it seemed (again) best not to point out the obvious: You're not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves. You're replacing the black man with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened” (Colorblind, Jan. 22, 2007)
She demonstrates seamlessly what we’re trying to get across in this course. She discusses Obama’s politics lightly, in passing, in order to come down hard on what she sees as the essential issue: his racial and cultural heritage. Despite being a proud Democrat, she uses these traditionally leftist concerns to undermine a Democratic candidate. That’s EXACTLY what we want to see!
This type of discussion is good in its own right, but it’s even better in that it draws other, more positive feedback into the same discussion. This is what certain political theorists called framing the debate, and Dickerson does a smashingly good job. Take a look at some subsequent posts on PopPolitics.com, like this one, which stutters on the same vague topics without ever looking at the actual source of Obama’s appeal.
This is an excellent starting point for crippling any promising left-leaning candidate. But it’s not the only direction to take this exam. Let’s look at another.
The nice thing about Obama’s experience is that it sounds more important and more legitimate than his race. Discussing race, Republican critics are treading on thin ice because they always risk revealing racist tendencies. However, left- and right-leaning critics alike can discuss his experience and sound “objective” without actually looking at his platform, his issues, or his convictions. It’s an ideal red herring that looks like it’s right at the heart of the debate.
Now, experience isn’t as important as it looks… after all, arguably, the oldest politicians are the farthest out of touch, and the most mired in corruption. The most experienced politicians say the stupidest things, like Joe Biden’s tragically bad phrasing in his recent statements on the other candidates. Yet, "experience" is universally emphasized by the most important critics. This kind of paradox is what you have to focus on to mobilize genuine confusion.
What you should probably do is find clever ways to compare Obama’s campaign to Bush’s, despite the clear difference in platform between them. And you might even find a way to compare Obama with John F. Kennedy, and to make that comparison seem like a negative one, despite the ultimately positive influence Kennedy had on politics at home and in Vietnam. These kinds of comparisons can bring an extra level of debate to the table… debate that seems to bear on Obama’s campaign, even though it’s actually about other historical personalities with completely different perspectives on politics.
What you’re going to have to avoid, at all costs, to keep this question sufficiently complicated: the actual issues at stake, and the actual platform that makes Obama appealing to his constituency. I’ll mention two things here.
First: You don’t want to mention the attempts he makes to communicate personally with the public, through podcasts and cross-country travel. You’re also going to want to avoid talking about his attempts to make government finances public.
Second: it’s important to avoid discussing Obama’s diplomatic approach to the two-party system. You’ll want to stay away from his real-world approaches to family values and religion, and you’ll want to keep quiet about his policy of open discourse and reasonable conversation between groups with different, or opposed, agendas.
These two platform positions are called transparency and diplomacy, and they’re the principles we’re trying to get away from in this class. It’s important that we recognize them as the enemy and squash them.
Luckily, both the left and the right are getting a good head start on this, in both journalism and politics. Your obfuscation, misdirection, and confusification should be an easy task overall. This refreshing, well-argued, political campaign, based on genuine popular support and established political principles, can be squashed before it even begins.
Let’s get started. I recommend going straight for the comments on this article.Powered by Sidelines