Thursday, November 6, 2008

Triumph of the Cool

So, it's Obama by a landslide, at least in our anachronistic electoral college system, the popular vote always being relatively close even in the most lopsided of presidential elections. So, how did this come to pass? What lessons can be learned from the 2008 campaign for the presidency?

Well, for me, it always goes back to McLuhan's point about television, which remains our dominant medium, favoring the cool image over the hot one, and electronic media in general tending to be pretty darn cool. This time around, both candidates were fairly cool to begin with, both of them visually, having rounded, relatively indistinct features, and aurally, both of them having calm, relatively soft voices. Yes, both candidates had the potential to move towards the hotter end of the spectrum. McCain had a terrrible tendency to get heated up when losing his temper. Obama had a tendency to use a hotter oratorical or lawyerly speaking style rather than maintaining a cooler conversational tone. So, it was looking to be a battle of who would be best able to maintain his coolness. And Obama won.

Where did McCain go wrong? Well, first he thought it was a good idea to pick a hot chick for a running mate (not to imply that the relationship was anything but platonic). Maybe he got that idea from the Fox News cable channel, where they seem to have a policy that they should always have a hot Republican chick, usually a highly conservative young, attractive blonde with great legs, as part of every news program. This seems to work just fine insofar as Fox gets the best ratings of all the cable news channels. Heating up the cool medium of television gets you viewers, there's no question about it. Not surprisingly, the Vice-Presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden attracted a larger audience than any VP debate ever before. And hey, it's not like there had never been a woman VP candidate before. I well remember when Geraldine Ferraro was Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, and debated George H. W. Bush on television. The debate itself was unexciting and inconclusive, but elder Bush got into a little trouble afterwards when he bragged that he had "kicked a little tail" in the debate! But for McCain, Palin brought too much heat to his campaign, while Biden was largely able to maintain his cool in his role as Obama's Number One.

Then came the stock market meltdown. And I can't help but remember Bill Clinton's 1992 mantra that he repeated all the way to the White House, defeating a seated president in Bush the Elder: IT'S THE ECONOMY STUPID! It certainly was this time around, and I do think that the election would have been extremely close, and in my opinion would have gone to McCain, had it not been for the crash. It certainly took foreign policy and the military entirely off of the agenda, eliminating McCain's strongest areas as a candidate. I can't think of when an issue so central during the primaries and conventions so completely and utterly vanished during a general election. So, no doubt it hurt McCain significantly when the crash came. No doubt McCain has reason to be steamed, even boiling mad at the younger Bush for having screwed him up a second time, after taking the nomination from him in 2000 by playing dirty with rumors and accusations. But McCain's response to the meltdown was at first to play it cool to teh point of rigor mortis (as McLuhan might have remarked) by denying that there was a problem, and then by doing an about face and appearing to get overheated, saying he was suspending his campaign, running around to Washington, trying to solder together a quick agreement. From this point on, he was never able to regain his cool, and Obama slid into home with an historic victory.

So it's the triumph of the cool, stupid. Interestingly, Obama did it without recourse to the heavily cool cultural style of African Americans who are descended from slaves. Bill Clinton's style comes closer to that brand of cool than Obama's. And we should also realize that not all that long ago for most white Americans, and today still for a significant number of that demographic, Obama is not cool visually, that the color of skin comes across as sharp and hot, different and distinct. That so many of us could look at him and see him as cool enough to identify with (that is the source of charisma according to McLuhan), and not something entirely Other to us (as so many felt about John Kerry, for example), is a sign of great progress, progress that has been made over a relatively short period of time, certainly well within my lifetime.

For now, the rest of the world seems to think we're pretty cool again. No doubt, we'll spend so much time congratulating ourselves about how great we are that we elected an African American president, that the rest of the world will get irritated with us once more pretty soon. But hey, they would no matter what. It's the price you pay for being Joe Cool to the world.

Of course, there is another very important lesson to be learned here, about the amazingly potent combination of social networking media, the power of online communications, particularly when it's used to help organize people to take action in the real world on a local, grassroots level. Hey, that's nothing new about that, this is what people have been saying about these new media, digital media, cybermedia, interactive media, or whatever else you want to call them, for a long long time. This just drives the point home. And that's pretty cool, too!

So now what? Well, we did not elect a messiah or a miracle worker, no more than we elected a demon or radical. We elected a politician, and we need to be mindful of that. But maybe we can start to get things back to where they were when Clinton was president. You know, those were pretty good years for all concerned.

And somehow, the song U.S. Blues by the Grateful Dead comes to mind, with its wonderful lyrics by Robert Hunter, one of the great contemporary American poets in my humble opinion. They go like this:

Red and white, blue suede shoes, I'm Uncle Sam, how do you do?
Gimme five, I'm still alive, ain't no luck, I learned to duck.
Check my pulse, it don't change. Stay seventy-two come shine or rain.
Wave the flag, pop the bag, rock the boat, skin the goat.
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

I'm Uncle Sam, that's who I am; Been hidin' out in a rock and roll band.
Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan.
Shine your shoes, light your fuse. Can you use them ol' U.S. Blues?
I'll drink your health, share your wealth, run your life, steal your wife.
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

Back to back chicken shack. Son of a gun, better change your act.
We're all confused, what's to lose?
You can call this song, the United States Blues.
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

And for your listening pleasure, here's a version of the song off of YouTube. It only features a static image, but it has very good sound quality, and that's what counts, man, that's what makes it cooool!


Claire Voiante said...

I am certainly excited about what an Obama presidency will bring to our beleaguered nation. He is very articulate to be sure, and seemingly has the intellect and composure to be successful in the highest office of the most powerful nation on earth. However, I am a little skeptical about his level of experience, alleged ties to unsavory organizations and religious affiliations. I voted for him, primarily because of bitterness at the incompetence of the Bush administration. I remain disenfranchised with America so far in the 21st Century, and came across a political graphic that does a fairly good job in capturing this sentiment.

Robert K. Blechman said...

I really needed some Grateful Dead this morning! Thanks Lance!

I think that Obama is a media ecologist. He has carefully cultivated his cool image for the tv medium and at the same time found the right amount of heat to apply when addressing a crowd. McLuhan once wrote (and you probably know the exact source) that the chiaroscuro created by dark skin with a light background has a natural advantage on television. I don't know if this still holds in our era of HD TV, but it may be worth noting.

I personally don't think McCain ever had a chance, but assuming that a significant proportion of the population would be willing to edure four more years of Repubican policy, McCain has to have run the worst political campaign ever! You note his inability to find a hot/cold center. Beyond that McLuhanesque attribute, McCain couldn't find a compelling narrative to propel his candidacy. He never told us why we should vote for him, only why we shouldn't vote for Obama.

BTW, I thought his concession speech was wonderful, and had that aspect of McCain been more evident throughout the campaign, he might have done better.