Thursday, September 18, 2008

Political Double Acts

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dominated British politics for ten years. Two contrasting personalities, once apparently friends and allies, but long divided (at least in the popular imagination) by bitter arguments.

In my post on Political Friendship I wrote

"One of the constant topics of those watching the UK Labour Government over the past ten years has been the state of the personal relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. As if the well-being of the nation depended not just on the ability and determination of the two men, but also their friendship. The collective fantasy that the government - indeed the entire nation - would collapse if these two men were unable to sustain their supposedly fragile alliance - has merely reinforced their power."

Often repeated on British television is a shot in which Tony gives Gordon an ice-cream - "the pleasure food par excellence" (Menzies Lyth).

Following the disappearance of Tony Blair, the fantasies of the British people towards Gordon Brown have turned to disappointment. Perhaps Gordon Brown needs a new partner, a running mate, but it now seems too late for him to appoint one.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of the running mates chosen by John McCain and Barack Obama? What exactly is the purpose of the running mate in the American system?

That's not the same as asking about the role of the Vice President. The official purpose of the Vice President is to take over if the President gets shot or impeached. But most Vice Presidents haven’t actually done very much while in office – just played a lot of golf, waited for the phone to ring and planned their own bid for the top job.

While Bill Clinton was president, it sometimes seemed like Hillary Clinton was as powerful as Al Gore – another de facto Vice President. Now she too has had an unsuccessful bid for the presidency. In contrast to the usual pattern, Dick Cheney was so powerful he had a running mate of his own, namely Donald Rumsfeld.

Historians are unsure whether JFK really wanted LBJ as running mate (to help carry the Southern States), or whether he was on the wrong end of a party deal. LBJ was given no meaningful responsibilities as Vice President; then JFK visited LBJ's home state one fateful afternoon, and the rest is conspiracy theory.

Vice Presidents are rarely popular in their own right. After all, the president (or presidential candidate) certainly doesn't want to be upstaged. But on the other hand, the running mate has to be popular enough to bring in extra votes. So what is the logic of choosing a running mate?

Obama, who was running as a glamorous outsider, has chosen a boring Washington insider as his running mate. McCain, who was running as an elderly but wise maverick, has chosen a glamorous but inexperienced woman as his running mate. What do these choices mean?

Does having Biden on the ticket (or at least not having That Woman) make Obama seem wiser? Does having Palin on the ticket make McCain seem sexier? You'd have thought that these choices merely exposed the electoral weaknesses of the candidates, rather than compensating for them. But then maybe that's crediting the electorate with rather too much left-brain thinking.

In the real world, associating with Sarah Palin is hardly going to rejuvenate McCain. Even on Republican websites you can find articles such as this one by Steve Chapman, How Palin Subverts McCain. But in the unconscious fantasy world of the American electorate, a rather different story may be unfolding.

If the main purpose of the running mate is to reinforce the credentials of the candidate, then it doesn't seem to make sense to have a running mate who is diametrically Other. Man/Woman. Old/Young, Black/White, Inside/Outside. These choices of running mate only make sense in symbolic terms, or in some irrational dreamworld. (Interestingly, Bush 2 chose another Texan, much like himself but older and more devious. US election rules discourage running mates from the same state, so Cheney had to move his official residence to Wyoming to evade these rules.)

In Sarah Palin: Operation "Castration", Jacques-Alain Miller (Lacan's son-in-law) sees Palin as an archetype of the dominant woman - as the Republican response to the absence of Hillary Clinton from the Democratic ticket. In An Issue That Won't Go Away, Steven Shaviro complains that this misses the specificity of what is happening in this election.

"Palin was (quite brilliantly) chosen by McCain because — like any successful commodity product in the postmodern marketplace — she embodies what Alex Shakar, in his novel The Savage Girl, calls a paradessence: a “paradoxical essence,” a conjunction of contradictory qualities."

So according to Shaviro, Palin was chosen precisely because her persona was so rich with contradiction - and therefore potentially attractive to many different sectors of the electorate. Authentic but inconsistent - this is what Lacan (via Žižek) would call the Discourse of the Hysteric.

Shaviro ends:

"It is probable that, given how gender formations work in America today, so powerful a paradessence would have to appear in the form of a woman, rather than a (heterosexual) man. But the most valid categories for comprehending Palin remain those of media theory and political economy, rather than those of the metaphysics of gender difference."
It is not the metaphysics of gender difference, true. But difference all the same, if not différance.


A couple of years ago I read a very detailed article by Joan Didion about the Cheney and Rumsfeld double act. Cheney: The Fatal Touch. (New York Review Volume 53, Number 15 · October 5, 2006). Available online for NYR subscribers or for $3.

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