Campaign 2012 Is the Most Compelling Election in Years
AS POLITICS has become more scripted over the decades, journalists have begun to sound like critics, discussing campaigns in terms of “memes” and “narratives.” Contests are analyzed on aesthetic grounds almost as though they are movies or Broadway shows. This summer, with Obama versus Romney still in previews, a consensus emerged among the critics that remains largely unchallenged: The show is a flop, a stupefying spectacle of triviality and negativity that may as well be titled Numb and Number. Under the headline, “Dullest Campaign Ever,” The New York Times’ David Brooks blamed “tit-for-tat” Web feuds, “ossified” ideologies, and ads directed at the “uninformed.” Peggy Noonan, in another pan, pinned the race’s alleged “lack of passion” on candidates wanting in “political genius.”
The problem with treating politics as stagecraft, particularly this year, is that it mistakes the production for the play and confuses theater with drama. Theater is shallow, drama deep. And it’s at the dramatic level that this campaign is singularly engrossing. Down in the catacombs of the group unconscious where elections really occur, where the spotlights don’t reach, and where the polls can barely penetrate, a mythological struggle is unfolding between two profoundly different archetypal figures: a lost boy who knew his father largely in dreams and grew up bedeviled by questions of identity, and a favorite son whose father’s support freed him from having to question much of anything. Barack Obama, a lonely meritocratic floater whose searcher parents met while on the drift and then wafted off in separate directions, fashioned a self from thin air; while Mitt Romney, from a family of pioneers who’d safely reached the promised land, hit the ground already in position.
Not since John F. Kennedy faced Richard Nixon, a golden boy pitted against a five o’clock shadow, has U.S. presidential politics united such constitutionally different beings. One man is singularly literate, the other exceptionally numerate. One educated himself by reading books, the other by scrutinizing balance sheets. They’re further divided by what they have in common. Both are outsiders, heirs to persecution, one because of the color of his skin, one because of the nature of his faith. (And both are descended, strangely, from polygamists.) Both have an overdeveloped sense of duty, one because he came from nothing much, the other because he was born with everything.