The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power

The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power

The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power

The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power


Contemporary observers of politics in America often reduce democracy to demography. Whatever portion of the vote not explained by the class, gender, race, and religious differences of voters is attributed to the candidates' positions on the issues of the day. But are these the only--or even the main--factors that determine the vote?

The Performance of Politicsdevelops a new way of looking at democratic struggles for power, explaining what happened, and why, during the 2008 presidential campaign in the United States. Drawing on vivid examples taken from a range of media coverage, participant observation at a Camp Obama, and interviews with leading political journalists, Jeffrey Alexander argues that images, emotion, and performance are the central features of the battle for power. While these features have been largely overlooked by pundits, they are, in fact, the primary foci of politicians and their staff. Obama and McCain painstakingly constructed heroic self-images for their campaigns and the successful projections of those images suffused not only each candidate's actual rallies, and not only their media messages, but also the ground game. Money and organization facilitate the ground game, but they do not determine it. Emotion, images, and performance do. Though an untested senator and the underdog in his own party, Obama succeeded in casting himself as the hero--and McCain the anti-hero--and the only candidate fit to lead in challenging times.

Illuminating the drama of Obama's celebrity, the effect of Sarah Palin on the race, and the impact of the emerging financial crisis, Alexander's engaging narrative marries the immediacy and excitement of the final months of this historic presidential campaign with a new understanding of how politics work.


Why another book about Obama and McCain when there have been so many and after all this time? That was 2008, after all. It was only yesterday, but it often seems so long ago, almost ancient history. the answer, I hope, is that this book is different from other “campaign books” in ways that are more likely to stand the test of time. the Performance of Politics is very much about that 2008 presidential campaign, but it is about a lot more as well. My ambition is to provide a new explanation of victory and defeat in 2008, but also a new way of looking at the democratic struggle for power in America and beyond.

Three types of books are written about presidential campaigns. One is by insiders, the people who organize and run them. Another is by journalists, the people who report on them as they unfold. the third is by academics, who make claims for greater objectivity because they have observed the campaign from the outside. the best of each genre has its virtues that make them essential reading for every student of political life, but in their more conventional forms they fall short. Books by insiders often become too personal, veering from game plans to bragging and score settling. Books by social scientists often become too objective, putting what are nuanced and uncertain events into neat and tidy conceptual boxes, passing off broad demographic correlations as causal explanations, and presenting outcomes as if they were determined in advance—by “society.” Journalistic accounts too often focus on individuals and their biographies. They can veer from recounting to gossip, turning off-the-record interviews into juicy nuggets that make news for a day.

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