I felt early on, from age ten or so, that a big part of politics was emotional, and had everything to do with the collective imagination and memory. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated when I was ten, and those images remain indelible. My first electoral politics excitement came from the insurgent candidacy of Bobby Kennedy, and those images too have never faded. When Martin Luther King and then Bobby were assassinated in 1968, I was 15, and I never stopped mourning those losses, until November 4, 2008. Forty years later, I feel that excitement again. Electoral politics seems possible again. That’s a long time to wait, a long time to be outside, and I’ll admit it feels very strange to be back after all this time.
If Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were still alive, they would be 79 and 83 years old, respectively. Think about how much different the intervening years would have been if they hadn’t been killed. As a political tactic to influence democratic process, terrorism doesn’t work—but assassination does.
The politics of fear and resentment that has largely determined electoral politics in America for the last forty years just lost. Nixon and Reagan lost. Lee Atwater and his protégé Karl Rove lost, decisively. “Triangulators” like the Democratic Leadership Council lost. The change—and in American democracy, change is still a choice—is palpable. People are moving differently on the street, and sounding different when they speak.
A few days after Obama won, some people began to publicly wonder whether this was “only a symbolic victory,” or constituted real change. This question seems to me to reveal a singular misreading of the present moment. Yes, this is a symbolic victory, but it is one in an environment where symbols matter more than ever. Symbolic change is real change.
It was necessary, in this campaign, to change the way people thought about electoral politics, to create a new image of it. In the recent past, right-wing Republicans had gotten themselves into position to govern by seizing the public imaginary and by controlling images. They turned out to be extremely good at this.
To defeat them, it was necessary to reclaim the public imaginary, to change the symbolic order. Now Obama and his team are in position to govern, to change policy, and they must do so swiftly and decisively, but they must continue to pay attention to the image. In their second term, Bush & Co. neglected the image, gave up on the public imaginary, and ruled with brute force and fiat. Obama can never do that. There are hard times ahead, and we are going to need images to unite us.
In the campaign, Obama had a particular problem that few politicians ever face: he became too popular. At one point, the level of public adulation rose so precipitously that it threatened to get out of control. The opposition (first Clinton, then McCain) took note, and their image of Obama as a callow celebrity—all style and no substance—briefly took hold.
Then, in Denver, in a stadium filled to bursting with 84,000 of his most ardent supporters, high on their own rightness and growing strength, I saw Obama dial back the charisma and cool the image, to make it more convincing for the forty million people watching the speech on small screens in living rooms, many of whom did not know him well and had not yet made up their minds. He controlled the image, in order to get into position. When this kind of understanding and self-control comes together with great intelligence and a genuine will to change things for the better, many seemingly impossible things become possible again.
If Obama continues to honor this confluence, he will become not just the most unlikely candidate ever to win an American presidential campaign, but one of the greatest presidents we have ever had.
Filed on Monday, November 17, 2008, after the 60 Minutes interview.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.