Theory Teacher's Blog

Obama/McCain: speculations on the psychology of symbols

In an interview a month or two ago, Obama was asked about the apparent ecstacy among his fans. Last spring and into the summer, some journalists were observing that political rallies for Obama almost looked like religious revivals and that becoming an Obama supporter was a bit like having a conversion experience. Obama made the very astute and self-aware observation that “people seem to see in me what they want to see.” And he admitted that this made him uncomfortable, perhaps because it distracted from the specific features of his political vision and from the very real challenges of negotiation and compromise that inevitably accompanies policy-making. And we can speculate further that the dreamy hopes projected onto Obama by his fans are fed by deep historic anxieties about who we have been as a nation and what we have become.  To speak more broadly, I think all of us who have been paying attention to the political rhetoric and media spin surrounding any presidential race, not just his one, have noticed that it appears to be as much about symbolic meaning as it is about policy differences. A similar point was made in a conversation that took place about the “meaning of Obama” for African nations on the Zeleza Post [here] by specialists in African literature, history, and culture, and it was this conversation that inspired the topic of my blog post today.

But it wasn’t only the Zeleza Post that inspired this blog. In addition, just yesterday I was reminded of the often contradictory nature of psychological symbols in our daily lives when I drove past a motercyclist who was wearing all the protective gear (special leather chaps over his jeans, special boots and gloves) EXCEPT for no helmet. The obvious question I was tempted to ask him was “what’s the point of the leather chaps if you’re not wearing a helmet?” And since I came across him on the suburban streets where the speed limit is 25 to 35, one had to wonder what any of all his biker accoutrement was for. But for the motorcyclist, just as for those suburbanites who own oversized pickup trucks, the black leather chaps are probably more about self-expression than about self-protection, and not wearing a helmet is meant to symbolize a sense of anti-authoritarian independence — and I know myself well enough to know that we are all a little irrational and fetishistic about the objects we choose to express ourselves with. Indulging this irrational side of ourselves is even a source of pleasure and escape from the weight of our daily responsibilities.

Before I continue with this blog post, I will admit that I intend to vote for Obama, and admire both him, his wife, and his running mate, Joe Biden, but the goal of this blog post is not to take a side for any political party. I belong to the Green Party anyway, which never wins. Rather, I’d like to just throw out some food for thought about how to analyze the psychology of political symbols. Since this is a blog, it certainly won’t be an exhaustive analysis, and I wouldn’t be able to give an exhaustive analysis anyway, since I generally find political hype to be annoyingly pointless and so I avoid it. (In fact, I probably know less about the hype surrounding McCain and Obama than any of my colleagues.) Whatever one’s political commitments, I think it is important to be circumspective and to work through one’s own unconscious — how certain symbols may be playing more of a role there than one would want to admit.

So, given my own political bias and lifestyle, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between that motercyclist I saw and the adoring fans of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Nobody can deny the powerful and surprising effect the choice of Palin had on the energy of McCain’s campaign. But here we have the case of somebody with very little experience and seemingly very little knowledge even about what the job of vice president would entail. Unlike the other candidates who tried their best to demonstrate their expertise and ability to articulate clear positions on various issues, Palin fans seem to delight in her ignorance and her stubborn unwillingness to answer questions about actual stuff. They imagine that she is a straight-talker, that she will represent them because she talks like them, that she connects to their values, and that she will reform Washington because she has no respect for it or for its laws and codes of conduct. In that sense, as a colleague pointed out to me, she resembles George W. Bush who (if you can remember his presidency before 9/11/01) struggled for the first few months of his term to appear “presidential.” At the time, even though Bush was the son of a Washington insider, his folksy demeanor convinced voters who felt alienated from the political machinery that he was actually an outsider, just like them.

And Obama fans like Obama for similar reasons — in a sense, his very racial identity communicates an outsider identity.

Of course, like Bush and Obama, Palin is no outsider. Her political agenda is quite in line with the interests of large corporations, not the average working American. But what Democrats fail to understand is that there is a real power in her rhetoric for people who simply don’t express their identity in terms of the principles of “equal opportunity” and “social safety net.” (Honestly, who would want to express their identity that way?) For most of us, in actual practice, it’s almost impossible to know what is truly in our best interests, economically speaking, and for all I know, McCain-Palin’s policies might do the greatest good for the greatest number (though I doubt it.) Almost always, in the face of our own inability to understand the totality of our world and our inability to predict the future, we look elsewhere for something meaningful. To put it another way, we all have commodity fetishes (to uses Karl Marx’s famous phrase) that link indirectly to our political identities, and for some, these commodity fetishes are big cars and big guns, not organic vegetables and hybrid cars.

It is surely obvious to anyone reading this blog that I have no respect for Palin, but ironically, the concern I have about the possibility of her vice presidency is actually very similar to the concern I have when I imagine the future of an Obama presidency. There is a gap between the many symbolic spaces Obama and Palin occupy and the economic reality they participate in. Now, of course, this is true of all political candidates, but the gap here seems significantly larger.

Symbolically, Obama means quite a lot — perhaps too much. To some, he embodies the American dream and the hopeful belief in the possibility of change that has always been at the core of that dream; to those living in the third world or descended from third-world immigrants, he symbolizes new global and even Pan-African identities and horizons; and to others he symbolizes the end of racism in America — the end of its painful history. He is, in a sense, an embodiment of what the neo-con philosopher Francis Fukuyama has called the “last man,” meaning the archetype of mankind after the end of the ethnic conflict that has characterised world history, an “end” supposedly brought into being by a new world order of liberal democracy and socially responsible capitalism. Thus he has become a focal point (or cathexis, to use the Freudian psychoanalytic term) for the energy and desire of those frustrated and angry at the Bush administration. I would even go so far to say that Obama symbolizes redemption for a barely conscious collective guilt we all feel as a nation — guilt over the lawless violence continuously inflicted on the world since that horrible day, October 7, 2001, when we killed many innocent people in our bombing of Afghanistan. In a nominally democratic country, American citizens have only themselves to blame for this evil, as well as the evil of our recent economic crisis. It’s not honest to scapegoat the president — at least not 100%.

It is perhaps worth noting that Obama’s ability to symbolize all these things goes far beyong the borders of America, as politicians world-wide celebrate him. Here, for instance, is a political YouTube video made by an Oromo artist (and I have blogged on the Oromo desire for cultural and political independence from Ethiopia earlier here.)

But in reality, Obama is essentially a pro-business Democrat, and not an especially progressive one. His political vision beneath the symbolism exhibits the same old contradictions as McCain’s — the same contradictions that have persisted at the core of American economics since the mercantilist seventeenth century. On the one hand, expanding a universally free market. On the other hand, arbitrary ad hoc protectionism. This is the contradictory core of the European and American political economy, and it is a core that has caused incredible damage to Africa for hundreds of years. To give you an example of what I mean, Obama genuinely wants African countries to succeed in the global economy, but he is also very much in the pocket of the corporate agribusiness lobby and is one of the biggest supporters of its protectionist farm policies, which — it is well known — make it harder for African countries to succeed. Every leader of America since it was just little colony has followed a similar contradictory political agenda, an agenda that is covered up by a blanket of patriotic ideology and a tenacious faith in the market. However, in practice, these economic contradictions have historically been managed not with diplomacy, democracy, universal rights (including economic rights), or smart business practices, but with violent force.

And of course, most “third world” people are astute enough about this. For instance, a couple months ago, at the Oromo Studies Association conference, I was chatting with a young Oromo-American woman who actually works in Obama’s Senate office, answering phone calls from the “public” (many of which are simply racist crank calls, unfortunately), and even though she shares some of Obama’s ethnic heritage and even though she works for him, she knows full well that he will not be able to do anything for the Oromo people’s struggle in Ethiopia even if he wanted to.

So, we have the symbol and we have the real. My concern is that once the gap between these two becomes apparent, then faith in Obama will plummet. To be clear, the symbol is in no danger. The symbols of the American dream will continue to be the center of American political rhetoric, but Obama will no longer be the living embodiment of that symbol. What makes Obama unique here is the excess and intensity with which he embodies that symbol. All politicians try to do it. But Obama’s intensity evokes a sense of his purity, a sense that one quickly discovers in a conversation with one of his devoted followers.

The McCain-Palin campagin is based in a similar rhetorical purity — their ability to embody an American mythology — though less so than Obama. Unlike his campaign in 2000 against George W. Bush, McCain has made strong use of his own personal mythology this time, and it has worked. What’s remarkable about both campaigns is that their symbolic capital has little to do with any pragmatic political vision. The high principles, the outsider status, the purity, the standing firm are all contrary to the business view, yet both have gained support from the business community precisely because of the business community’s perception of Obama and McCain’s pragmatic willingness to work with the infamous corporate agenda and to buy into what they imagine to be “the real.” (And I say “what they imagine to be the real, because this pragmatic agenda is as much a symbolic construct as any “idealistic” or “radical” position. Pragmatism is too often a convenient position for those who occupy a position of economic and political privilege, not for those who don’t.) Of course, the recent economic disaster so clearly caused by the Republican agenda of anti-regulation has made McCain’s so-called pragmatism far less tenable, which is why he is desperately tryint to appear to be someone who will “work toward a solution.”

So, to briefly sum up, the moral of the story (the the goal of this brief psychonanalysis) is to begin to work through the symbolic and the imaginary nature of our political world, so that after the election is over, then we can begin the real political work of solving problems.

But before I sign off, I should also add that the psychology of symbols works against candidates as much as for them. Although Obama certainly appeals to those who desire an end to America’s racist history, the very real fact is that racism still subsists in the American unconscious (if not in its social consciousness), and that fact should have been readily apparent to anyone watching the debate last Friday. As even the moderator of the debate (and many commentators) observed, McCain was simply rude and dismissive of Obama and refused to even look at him. And Obama was overly cautious and careful, instead of being his usual dynamic self. For me, watching Obama being so polite in the face of McCain’s rudeness was a painful experience. As Brent Staples has recently observed in an editorial for the NY Times [here], the deep structure of American racism may not be visible to most, but it is still in effect. Nobody likes to admit that they are a racist, and likewise, nobody likes to admit that their political commitments are as just as often irrational and emotional as they are logical, but until we admit this, we can never work through the weirdness of our culture and work towards real solutions to our problems.


September 28, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Thanks, as always, Professor Steve, for giving me something to think about. I liked your bit on the presidential debate — I’ll look for that when I get around to watching it.

    Comment by Megan G | September 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. Steve,

    A friend of mine referred me to your blog. Kudos! Anyway, I couldn’t agree more with your assertion that as Americans we mustn’t get too caught up in the mythology and symbolism rife in American politics. It’s unfortunate that political campaigns on all levels cater to the same trends that dictate the duke-it-out style marketing one finds in our consumerist culture– or as I prefer to call it the “now” and “self-gratifying” culture that is corroding the very world that sustains our existence! Thus ends my spiel.
    Johnny Alum ’07 Ben W.

    Comment by Ben | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  3. Ben,
    I think I should clarify. We shouldn’t blame political campaigns and the media for using symbolic language. So, my point wasn’t to say that we (as intellectuals) should dismiss all that stuff and pretend that we are above it. We aren’t. Rather, we need to acknowledge how symbols are always working in our consciousness and even our unconsciousness, and by acknowledging this, we can BEGIN to work through it. And I say “begin” because working through the psychology of symbols is never a completed task.

    And here’s why. Symbols and culture do not just “corrode” our existance as you say. Without symbols and culture, we would have no meaning to our lives. In other words, it is impossible to speak at all without speaking with symbols. Some of those symbols may be the symbols of consumer culture (and money itself is a symbolic exchange) and some of those symbols may be the symbols of religion or democratic ideals, but we can’t just get rid of money or ideals and pretend that by getting rid of such symbols we now truly understand reality. As Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek point out, reality is what we think we understand, but reality is determined by the “Real” (capital letter R), and the Real is in a dialectical relationship with the Symbolic.

    Let me try to explain the relation between the Real and the Symbol. We know, for instance, that much of our lives are affected by economic relations we can’t see. For instance, recently, the housing market crisis has affected the reality of many people, but even the most skillful economists admit that the housing market crisis is impossible to fully fathom. So, beyond the reality of the housing market crisis that we can see, there is the Real that actually determines is — a Real that we can not see.

    On to my next point, how is the Real in dialectical realtion with the Symbolic? Clearly the Real of this housing market crisis is a Real that was produced by a system of symbolic exchange — the stock market. The functioning of the stock market depends upon millions of imaginary relations among people and things, and each person or thing acquires value according to his, her, or its position in a larger symbolic order, the Symbolic according to Lacanina theory, also called “the big Other” with a capital O. (I intend to blog more about the recent economic crisis soon, by the way.)

    How do we, then, work through this symbols, when we recognize their importance for our existance, but we also recognize they they don’t simply reflect reality (as you rightly say), but in strange ways that are always incomprehensible to us, determine reality? The Real is always changing, and therefore, so also is the Symbolic’s relationship to it. There lies the challenge, and I don’t think we rise to that challenge when we pretend that we have already risen above it.

    Comment by steventhomas | October 11, 2008 | Reply

  4. Steve,

    Thank you for the additional insights. I will have to read up more on the Lacanina theory…

    I would like to rebut on a few things, though, to ensure I don’t present myself as narrow-minded as I may have appeared in my last post!

    Yes, my previous comments may have been a tad nihilistic concerning a sliver of Western culture (“corroding” may be too harsh a word, but in defense of that idea, I was alluding to the paradox of human progress), but perhaps I didn’t express myself fully on that issue. Culture, being a never-ending culmination of what was and is, symbolic and “Real,” is not something to be cast aside, and please understand that I take it all in! I couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of discerning truth within a variety of frameworks–linguistic, moral, political, economic–as we go about our daily lives and making decisions about how we live.

    My main concern, and I’ll make this as concise as I can (I teach and my planning period’s almost up!!), is endowing Americans with the ability to draw the Real from a sea of symbols and language that we take in nearly every waking hour, and to make some real important decisions, from choosing what to consume to choosing political leaders. Hey, I’m all about acceptance, in fact, I champion it every day in my classroom. But acceptance of what?

    You point out well the challenge of relating symbols and language to our existence. That being said (and understood;)), now we face the challenge of endowing Americans with the tools to do that, a challenge that I feel is becoming more and more difficult to achieve in a culture where the line separating reality from fantasy, fact from fiction, is becoming more and more indiscernable to the average citizen.

    Your humbled reader,

    Comment by Ben | October 13, 2008 | Reply

  5. Steven, when reading your blog this line really stuck out to me:

    “It is perhaps worth noting that Obama’s ability to symbolize all these things goes far beyond the borders of America, as politicians world-wide celebrate him.”

    I cannot tell you how very true this is. I am currently living and teaching in Japan and it has been quite interesting to watch the Japanese reaction to Obama. If anyone really makes Obama a symbol it is the Japanese. They see the flaws in their own governmental system and instead of seeking to change them they project their hopes onto Obama, watching and waiting for him to change America and then subsequently hoping Japan will follow suit. The Japanese hope that the changes Obama may bring to American will then positively effect their own nation. If he succeeds he can be their hero; if he fails, well, it’s America’s problem.

    Comment by Megan | February 2, 2009 | Reply

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