"Getting Real" Versus "Getting Fantastic": Clinton, Obama, McCain and the Politics of Imagination in the 2008 American Presidential Election
The following article by Michael Vannoy Adams is a psychological analysis of the 2008 American presidential election.
In a psychological analysis of the 2004 American presidential election, I argued that the way for liberal Democrats to defeat conservative Republicans and win the 2008 American presidential election was not to "get real" but to "get fantastic." I advocated that Liberal Democrats employ what I call the "fantasy principle" rather than what Freud calls the "reality principle" (Adams 2001). Liberal Democrats did not need more reality, I said, they needed more fantasy - more imagination. As a campaign slogan for liberal Democrats, I recommended "Reimagining America" (Adams 2004).
The different strategies and tactics that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have employed in the 2008 Democratic primaries and caucuses confirm what I said in 2004. "Fantasy-based" politics tends to defeat "reality-based" politics. Candidates who employ the most images and the best images win elections. I do not mean only the personal images of candidates - for example, how "presidential" they appear. I mean also the cultural images that candidates employ in an effort to persuade people to campaign and vote for them - for example, how they appeal to images of the "American Dream."
The quantity and the quality of both personal and cultural images are what win elections. Victory is a success of imagination; defeat is a failure of imagination. In contrast to the word "reality," the word "fantasy" has a pejorative connotation - but only to those who lack imagination.
Obama has won more delegates in the Democratic primaries and caucuses because he has been more imaginative than Clinton, and if he wins the presidential election, it will be because he is more imaginative than John McCain. The 2008 American presidential election is about fantasy versus reality. It is about who has the most and the best imagination.
Reality has an existence independent from fantasy, but when people relate to reality, they do so in and through fantasy. Fantasy mediates the relation to reality. Politics is an exercise in fantasy about reality - or, more accurately, it is a competition between alternative fantasies about reality. Politicians do not replace fantasy with reality, although they may say that they do and even believe that they do. What they do - or attempt to do - is replace one fantasy about reality with another fantasy about reality. Obama has won more delegates than Clinton because he has offered a more persuasive fantasy about reality than the "realist" fantasy that she has offered about reality.
After Clinton lost eleven consecutive primaries to Obama, she congratulated him in remarks at Hunter College in New York City. Then she said: "But it's time to get real. To get real about how we actually win this election and get real about the challenges facing America" (Clinton, H. February 20, 2008). The implication, of course, was that, in contrast to Clinton, Obama was "unreal." Obama, Clinton said, was merely rhetorical. He was the candidate of "good words"; she was the candidate of "good works." He was the candidate of "sound bites"; she was the candidate of "sound solutions" (Clinton, H. February 20, 2008). He was style; she was substance.
Clinton did not apply the word "fantasy" to Obama, but she applied an equivalent word to him - "dream." She acknowledged that dreams are necessary, but she argued that they are not sufficient: "The results that I've been part of producing for the last 35 years are rooted in my dreams for a better future. We all carry dreams in our hearts and we need to keep dreaming. Dreaming keeps us hopeful, it lifts our spirits, it sets our sights high. Without dreams we can't aspire to be great, but without action we cannot turn those dreams into reality" (Clinton, H. February 20, 2008). Obama, Clinton implied, was merely a "dreamer." In contrast to her, he was all dreams and no action - and no results.
Clinton then repeated "Let's get real" six times for emphasis. "So yes, let's get real. Let's get real about this election. Let's get real about what it is we can do together. Let's get real about whether or not our young people learn because teachers can teach and not just test. Let's get real about whether our brave veterans are given the care and the respect they deserve. Let's get real about not just talking family values but valuing families by strengthening the middle class, creating good jobs, providing real health care, making college affordable, taking care of our senior citizens" (Clinton, H. February 20, 2008).
In the Democratic presidential debate at the University of Texas at Austin, Obama responded: "Senator Clinton of late has said: Let's get real. The implication is that the people who've been voting for me or involved in my campaign are delusional" (Obama February 21, 2008). The word "delusional," of course, has a pathological connotation. Clinton did not employ the word - it was Obama who did that - but when she implored Americans to get real, she implied that people who supported Obama were, if not delusional, at least "unreal."
To Freud, all dreams, not only those that occur in the night but also those that occur in the day - that is, daydreams - are wish-fulfillments. When we cannot satisfy drives in reality, Freud says, we fulfill wishes in fantasy - in dreams. When Clinton employed the word "dream," she did so in this Freudian sense. She implied that to vote or campaign for Obama was to indulge in a wishful fantasy - a mere figment of the imagination.
Any American politician who criticizes another American politician - especially an African-American politician - because he has a dream inevitably evokes a free association to Martin Luther King, Jr. In effect if not intent, when Clinton criticized Obama as a dreamer, the tacit allusion was to King, who famously proclaimed "I Have a Dream" (King August 28, 1963). The dream that King had was, of course, the "American Dream," that all Americans - among them, African-Americans - have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that all Americans have an equal opportunity to make that dream come true. For Clinton to criticize Obama as a dreamer was to run a considerable risk that she might appear implicitly to criticize King as a dreamer who merely indulged in a wishful fantasy.
Clinton did say that Obama was not the only dreamer - she said that she, too, was a dreamer - but she said that the difference between them was that she was in a position to make the dreams of Americans come true. In contrast to him, she was in a position to make the fantasy a reality. Why was this appeal to the politics of "realism" so unpersuasive?
The 2008 Democratic primaries and caucuses have been an exercise in what Freud calls the "narcissism of minor differences" (SE 11: 199). Freud says that in relations between groups the minor differences between them often assume more importance than the major differences. As candidates, Clinton and Obama are both liberal Democrats As the Democratic presidential debates have demonstrated, there are no substantive differences between them. In that situation, stylistic differences, which in other circumstances would have been minor, have become major. Images, not issues, have become the decisive basis on which to differentiate the candidates and to prefer one to the other.
All American politicians should read "The Conservative," an essay that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841. Emerson distinguishes between two parties that "divide the state." He calls them the party of "Conservatism" and the party of "Innovation." The dispute between the two parties, Emerson says, is "an irreconcilable antagonism." It is, he says, "the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope" (Emerson 1841).
In American politics, Republicans are the party of conservatism, the past, and memory, and Democrats are the party of innovation, the future, and hope. If America has a tradition, it is what Harold Rosenberg calls, paradoxically, the "tradition of the new" (Rosenberg 1959). Traditionally, Americans tend to privilege the new over the old, the future over the past, and hope over memory. In American presidential elections, the tendency is "out with the old, in with the new." In this sense, the Democratic party has an implicit advantage over the Republican party. Although the advantage is relative, not absolute, it is a definite advantage. Democrats are more immediately in accord with the tradition of the new than Republicans are.
Americans do not want the old and the same - they want the new and the different. What they want is "change." From what, to what, is not so important to them. They tend to assume that any and all change is for the good, the better, or the best. In the 2008 Democratic primaries and caucuses, it is Obama who has appreciated this fact and employed it to advantage.
Although Clinton and Obama are both liberal Democrats, she appears to be more of the party of conservatism, the past, and memory, and he appears to be more of the party of innovation, the future, and hope. The irony, of course, is that in the 1992 American presidential election, the appeal of Bill Clinton was precisely that he appeared to be more of the party of innovation, the future, and hope. He was, as he emphasized, from Hope, Arkansas. The final sentence of the acceptance speech that he delivered at the 1992 Democratic national convention was: "I end tonight where it all began for me: I still believe in a place called Hope" (Clinton, B. July 16, 1992).
"Hope" is what Jungian psychoanalysts call an archetype. One of the images of this archetype appears in the Greek myth of Pandora. In the myth, Pandora opens a box that contains evils. Pandora quickly closes the lid of the box, but not before she releases all the evils into the world. All that remains in the box is hope. In the myth of Pandora, the one archetype that remains in the possession of humanity to employ against the evils of the world is hope. Hope is, in that sense, one of the most formidable of all archetypes.
In politics, hope has a long history. Dum spiro, spero - "While I breathe, I hope" - was the motto of the Roman senate.
In contrast to George H. Bush, what Bill Clinton offered to Americans in the 1992 presidential election was hope - and that is what Barack Obama, in contrast to Hillary Clinton, has offered to Americans in the 2008 Democratic primaries and caucuses. Obama appreciated the appeal of the archetype of hope for Americans and, ironically, appropriated it from Bill Clinton and employed it against Hillary Clinton - with impressive effect.
The title of the book that introduced Barack Obama to Americans as a presidential candidate is, significantly, The Audacity of Hope. In contrast, what Hillary Clinton has offered to Americans, Frank Rich says, is the welcome that greeted Dante at the entrance to hell: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" (Rich February 24, 2008).
After Obama lost the New Hampshire primary to Clinton, he said: "We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope" (Obama January 8, 2008). The politics of America is not realpolitik. In the improbable narrative that is America, all hope is true. To Americans, nothing is impossible - everything is possible.
"Memory" is also an archetype. Hope is about the future, memory about the past. The archetype of hope is a version of what George H. Bush called the "vision thing." In contrast, the archetype of memory is a version of the "experience thing." In the Democratic primaries and caucuses, what Hillary Clinton has emphasized is experience. In contrast to Barack Obama, she possesses the experience, she has said, immediately to assume all the presidential responsibilities. In American politics, however, it is not experience but vision that tends to prevail. What appeals to Americans is the politician as visionary. Americans are prospective rather than retrospective. They do not look backward to the past - they look forward to the future. Americans are not pessimists who believe in the politics of impossibility - they are optimists who believe in the politics of possibility.
That is why, if Obama wins the Democratic nomination, and if vision and experience, the new and the old, the future and the past, hope and memory - that is, fantasy and reality - are the alternatives in the 2008 American presidential election, the probability is that Obama will defeat McCain. It is possible, of course, that McCain will dash the audacious hope of liberal Democrats and defeat Obama. If McCain wins the 2008 American presidential election, it will be because he employs more and better images than Obama - for example, images of "individualism" and "integrity."
McCain is nominally a Republican, but he is not ideologically a conservative, except on selective economic and social issues, and even in that respect he is not consistently and uncritically conservative. Conservative Republicans are suspicious that McCain is surreptitiously a liberal Republican. The "Freudian slip" that McCain committed at an event in Texas hardly allayed this apprehension. He said: "I'm a proud conservative liberal Republi ... (audience laughter) ... hello, easy there! ... conservative Republican. Let me say this: I am a proud conservative Republican" (McCain February 29, 2008).
McCain is a Republican, but in the strict sense he is neither a conservative nor a liberal. As the slip of the tongue proved conclusively, he is a Republican who is both conservative and liberal. On most issues he is conservative, but on some issues he is liberal. In contrast to conservative Republicans, McCain does not disdain or eschew cooperation and compromise with liberal Democrats. He is pragmatic rather than dogmatic. He is not a partisan.
McCain is an independent. That is why Michael Bloomberg, another independent, who has been both a Democrat and a Republican, ultimately decided not to become a presidential candidate (Bloomberg February 28, 2008), that is why conservative Republicans are so dubious about McCain, and that is why McCain might win the 2008 American presidential election. It is possible that the "independence thing" will prevail over the "vision thing." The politician as independent might appeal to Americans even more than the politician as visionary.
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