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Muddling Through

Andreas Hess

Obama Power, by Jeffrey C Alexander and Bernadette N Jaworsky, Polity Press, 140 pp, £11.90, ISBN: 978-0745681993
The Confidence Trap. A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, by David Runciman, Princeton University Press, 408 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-0691148687

The new cultural sociology, of which Yale’s Jeffrey Alexander is the most productive and inspiring representative, is not a special academic subfield like the sociology of culture or the sociology of sports. It purports instead to see culture as something that runs through all societal action and systems. Cultural sociology’s latest turn has produced a number of studies that look particularly at aspects of performativity and iconicity and how they relate to gaining and maintaining power in modern democracies.

In a string of articles and in two more recent books, The Performance of Politics (2010)  and Performance and Power (2011) Alexander has argued that winning elections in modern democracies is not just about access to financial means or to mere media presence but rather that it is the quality of the performance that matters. Is the performer ready to read the script of the regularly enacted power play and its associated rituals (elections and election campaigns) and to become a democratically chosen collective representation of the people (a president, chancellor or Taoiseach)? Cultural sociology might have a point here: we all know that it is more often not the better argument that matters most but how a candidate performs and articulates his programme. Modern elections are as much about appearances as they are about content. If you can manage both then success is all the more likely.

However, politics is also about contingencies and unforeseeable circumstances, and it is often the quality of the politician’s unrehearsed reaction that makes all the difference. In The Performance of Politics, Alexander used the toolkit of cultural sociology to show how Obama overcame various obstacles and managed to beat McCain. Then it had been the communicative skills of Obama and his campaign team’s ability to read the script and to deal with surprising moments – in particular the circumstances of the emerging financial crisis – that explained his victory. In 2008, right won over might; however, it was uncertain that Obama could gain a second term in office, particularly since the 2010 mid-term elections produced a more conservative House of Representatives.

In Obama Power, Alexander and Jaworsky look at the second Obama campaign in 2012 and how the president managed to overcome various disadvantages to win a second. As cultural sociologists, they say they are not interested in “structures but in processes”, “not the why but the how”. Indeed, if the authors had chosen to look at structures and why-questions this would not be a good start: “objectively” speaking, Obama was not in a great position to win a second term: he won very much against the odds. What needs to be explained and understood is how he managed to get from a position of “deflation” to the “re-inflation” of Obama power.

While the state of the economy and long-term demographic changes are important matters, they themselves cannot serve as explanations for Obama’s astonishing comeback; instead it is the ability to make use of cultural symbols and dramatic performances which allow for successfully fusing the voting public and the presidential candidate. In terms of cultural symbols, the aura of the presidency always made this a moral choice of civility and civil solidarity over their opposites. However, such moral components have their own rationale and logic. As Alexander and Jaworsky note, “this is trickier than it seems, because political morality is Janus-faced. It’s about not only the civil-good but also anti-civil evil … The performance of politics is about wrapping yourself in the bright canopy of democratic values and painting your opponent in darkly anti-democratic colors. Political campaigning tells a story about purity and pollution. About who is qualified to protect and extend solidarity and who would narrow it and endanger it … Successful political performers plant their feet squarely inside the civil sphere.”

One of the big problems for a president in office is that political campaigns are usually “conducted in the future tense”. This runs very much against a sitting president, who has “to tell his stories in real time”. To recall briefly, by 2010 the economy was far away from making a full recovery; and as for healthcare, Obama seemed to have won the battle but perhaps not the war (until today there remain problems with the bill’s implementation). On both accounts the president made serious efforts to reconnect but, as opinion polls and other media reports have shown, was unable to re-establish a connection with the larger public. What finally did the trick was a simple change in performance strategy. Obama reconnected by changing the timeline of his narrative: the here-and-now became the middle of the story of transformation instead of the end. Alexander and Jaworsky note that “Obama … discovered the power of storytelling”. How exactly this was done is narrated grippingly by the authors in an almost day-by-day, week-by-week account in the chapters “Setting The Stage” “Unfolding The Drama”, “Pulling Ahead” and “Harrowing Home Stretch”.

The last two chapters of the book are reserved to take stock. In “Demography, Money, and Social Media” Alexander and Jaworsky criticise some of the traditional sociological and political approaches to presidential campaigns. Against the assumption that demographic shifts and revolutions and the new prominence and attention given to the representation of women, Latinos, gays, urban young people etc, leads automatically to a vote for the Democratic ticket, the two authors point out that “demographic voting is not born but made … it is a matter of meaning-making”. Obama was successful in such meaning-making through a number of important symbolic performances (such as addressing Latino voters in Spanish) and other communicative strategies such as appealing to and using networks by relying on social media, a strategy which became known as the “ground game”, just that this time around it became a “play-within-a play, a powerfully choreographed, face-to-face performance”. The same applied to financial resources, which were not treated as constituting an end in themelves but were instead cleverly invested in the meaning-making machine. As Alexander and Jaworsky point out, money facilitates and enables stage performances but it cannot guarantee the desired outcome entirely. In the end “how the big issues were dramatized is what mattered. It was about form, poise, narrative, and timing, about keeping your own side pure while dusting up your opponent’s, making your own team sacred and the other profane”.

Alexander and Jaworsky’s analysis of how symbols and symbolic action work in politics is sound and provides a much needed corrective to the number-crunching, bean-counting campaign analysts and media pundits who purportedly just deal in “hard facts” and in percentage numbers, in short, in political algebra. However, questions remain. How universisable is Alexander and Jaworsky’s analysis? Does their cultural sociology toolbox also work in other national contexts? And, perhaps even more importantly, can this kind of analysis serve for more comprehensive purposes, beyond campaigns and ritualistic struggles for democratic power as in political elections? Perhaps Alexander and Jaworsky’s analysis is just geared towards normal functioning democracies and not to moments of deep crisis; actually, what counts as a deep crisis in democracy is never discussed in Obama Power.

It is indeed instructive to look at another study, coincidentally published just a few weeks before Obama PowerThe Confidence Trap by Cambridge political theorist David Runciman. In this study we find powerful hints that perhaps might not answer all our questions but which, when read in combination with Alexander and Jaworsky’s study, might give us some important clues about how modern democracies respond to real or perceived crises. In contrast to Alexander and Jaworsky, Runciman does not use a sociological “microscope” but a politics “telescope”. Bracketed by a gripping introduction and an equally readable epilogue he looks at a number of historical constellations, all but one of the twentieth century, in order to discuss possible lessons that can be drawn from moments when democracy seemed either in deep crisis or in a transformative state. Runciman doubts very much whether democracies can actually know such a thing as collective learning curves or outcomes. He questions the very notion of democracies being capable of learning from experience.

While established democracies fared well in the twentieth century, it has not always been good news for them in the last decade. New types of wars, finances, the environment and new competitors have all called into question whether established democracies are able to cope successfully with serious challenges. Runciman makes us think again. What can actually be called a crisis in a modern democracy? And, to complicate matters even further, he draws our attention to the fact that the very advantages of a democracy can produce blind spots. The assurance that in the long run democracy will prevail could turn out to be an illusion. How can we tell whether the right moment for corrective action has come? It might be too early, or the right moment might never come. Runciman reminds us that, after all, there are no endpoints in history.

For Runciman, the case of American democracy is particulary instructive. He follows Tocqueville who insisted more than 180 years ago that the Unites States is “the place where it [democracy, AH] can still be seen most clearly”. This is not because America is synonymous with democracy, but because the US – as the oldest new democracy – can serve as a lens through which to observe and judge other ones. Logically then, “if the American model is being undone by its own success, that has significant implications for democracies elsewhere”.

Runciman also follows Tocqueville in stressing that American democracy has hidden depths. It’s easy to identify its faults; however, “its qualities are only discovered at length”. The US’s main problem was, and continues to be, that the idea of the sovereignty of the people often produces policies and, occasionally, outcomes that cater to the popular will but that do not always necessarily pursue the right ends. The assumption that democracy was a new form of government, one which according to radical thinkers like Tom Paine “laid bare its inner workings”, and that it was thereby in a position to “correct its own failings”, didn’t help. Tocqueville was sceptical about such assumptions. In contrast to Paine, he had serious doubts as to whether democracy was really able ever to reveal itself fully. For him, much of its functioning was rather based on a special faith, a form of secularised religion.

But Runciman takes Tocqueville even further: Yes, we want closure, we want a good end – but alas, there is no such thing obtainable or achievable in functioning democracies. If Runciman is right, this throws up all kinds of problems, such as the ones analysed by Alexander and Jaworsky in Obama Power: There are constant disjunctions between the story of democracy as having a successful end (an end that never comes) and the stories of the reality of democracy. Tocqueville knew that “democracy was best served when individuals had a personal faith that could undercut the general truths of political science. This meant that secular history was a particularly dangerous subject for democracy.” The real kernel, as Runciman sees it, is that democracies are in need of a story that the future is open and that choice matters and has real consequences. He warns though that such knowledge does not derive from book learning but from directly experiencing the democratic process, including making and correcting mistakes.

Runciman adds that the belief in the endless malleability of American democracy can lead to the wrongful perception that mistakes don’t really matter since there seems to be an endless capacity to correct things: “If you don’t fear the consequences of your choices, how can you learn to take your choices seriously?” This is where in the past Europe differed from America. In Europe fear of consequences was real, at least if we follow Tocqueville. In contrast, America passed the “confidence threshold” – it could do no wrong. In short, America had all the democratic arrangements in place but no serious crisis (Tocqueville wrote before the American Civil War) while Europe had plenty of crises but not the democratic arrangements necessary to solve them.

As it turned out, in the long run democratic drift became indeed the greatest thing preventing crises from being dealt with in more serious ways. “Democracies,” Runciman argues, “are not good at recognizing crises. They overreact, they underreact; they lack a sense of proportion.” He notes further: “all the surface noise of democratic politics makes them insensitive to genuine turning points …Crises need to get really bad before democracies can show their long-term strengths, but when they get really bad, there is more scope for democracies to make serious mistakes … When democracies survive a crisis, they may not learn from the experience.” This means the moment of truth never comes; actually, the very moment of truth revelation might be an illusion: “Democracy muddles on through war and revolutionary change, its confusions ineradicable and its progress inexorable. It never fully wakes up and it never fully grows up.”

How democracies got to this stage is analysed in seven instructive and enlightening historical constellations: the configuration at the end of WWI (1918), the rise of fascism and national socialism (1933), recovery and reform after WWII (1947), the world at the brink of nuclear war (1962), the oil crisis and its repercussions (1974), the Fall of the Berlin Wall and western hubris (1989), and the credit crunch, the most recent economic crisis (2008). Running through these historical configurations like a thread are various versions of the confidence trap: “The knowledge that democracies can adapt encourages delay; delay encourages drift; fear of drift encourages precipitate action; precipitate action encourages mistakes; mistakes encourage caution. So it goes on. There is always reason to try the piecemeal approach and there are always reasons to reject it. We muddle on because we know that muddling on has been sufficient in the past; we also know that muddling on increases the risk that we will lose control of events.”

Runciman warns us not to put trust in the fact that democracies managed to muddle through in the past. As the British historian EP Thompson once remarked, there are no regular verbs in history. Noting, as Alexander and Jaworsky have done in their study, that genuine capacity of Obama Power to reinvent itself in the midst of crisis is absolutely no guarantee that democracy is out of its latest crisis as yet, nor that we have learned. It could actually serve the self-belief that any crisis can be solved if only the president or successful presidential candidate puts in a decent performance. While cultural sociology is indispensible for looking into how-questions, focusing entirely on them could come to haunt the field. Zeroing in on the means of the democratic process and its rituals, and attempting to link them to the sole purpose of finding a collective and more democratic representation independent of what end that representation will serve would be fatal. At the same time a Runciman-like approach may not give enough credit to such important confidence-building democratic rituals as elections and campaigns. After all, it is they which allow for muddling through in the first place.

Andreas Hess teaches sociology at University College Dublin. He is the author of The Political Theory of Judith N. Shklar. Exile from Exile, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.



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