By the time you read these lines, John McCain or Barack Obama will have been elected president of the United States. If it’s Obama, we can assume that the decisive turning point in the election campaign came when the American financial system began melting in September on a mountain of bad debt. For some reason, few of them convincing, the Democratic candidate was perceived as “being better on the economy.” In fact, neither McCain nor Obama by the end seemed to really know what was going on.
And who could blame them, when the greatest minds in the world financial markets were not themselves quite clear on how rotten the credit crisis was? But that mattered little. Election campaigns, like politics in general in the US, have increasingly become a question of presenting a compelling narrative — a rousing story that candidates can offer up to voters that makes it more likely they will be elected. This strategy provokes a reflex among voters not so very different than the one felt when they consume a product. With narratives so central to American politics, candidates have effectively defined their identity in the way they feel they can make headway, regardless of where the truth lies.
So, if the economy was responsible for bringing John McCain down, then that was partly because his narrative left not enough room for a public perception of his financial expertise. A war hero who endured great suffering in Vietnam, McCain’s image was nevertheless never viewed by voters as adequate for someone who could lead an economic revival. As a Republican, he was also perhaps tarred by the brush of the Bush administration’s financial errors (though the Democrats were just as responsible for the credit mess). Finally, a wealthy man, McCain must have lost ground in the eyes of those who felt he would be unable to understand what economically vulnerable Americans were going through.
And if Obama happened to lose, then that’s because the narrative he managed to create was somehow undermined by McCain in the month after the financial crisis hit. McCain had managed to score points against his rival when the discussion was about national security experience. But Obama may have nipped that in the bud with the appointment of Joseph Biden as his vice presidential candidate. And even in key battleground states, for example Michigan, McCain was showing signs of surrender in early October, as he shifted his strategy to discrediting Obama personally.
The politics of narratives are interesting, and disturbing, because the candidate who wins is not the one who necessarily has expertise in what it takes to be president; he or she wins by managing to create an impression of such expertise through the shaping of the personal narrative, then hoping to compensate by learning on the job. For example, what made Obama a more credible “economic” candidate than McCain? The Democrat had no particular qualities as an economist, nor did he play a key role in preparing Senate finance legislation. By the same token, McCain displayed great toughness as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, but the candidate never looked like he had an especially strong grasp of foreign affairs and security policy because of that experience.
Narrative politics are not new, whether in the US or other countries. The essence of politics since the era of modern media, and even at times before, has been the ability to fashion political programs to mobilize the masses. In authoritarian systems, especially those based on populist leaderships, the narrative tends to be centered around enmity and a sense of victimhood, with violence lingering never far away. In democratic systems, however, the latitude for personal choice is far more pronounced, so that candidates have a need to persuade, therefore more room to reinvent themselves. And like all products on the market, considerable imagination is allowed in the marketing.
The months ahead will allow the purchasers — sorry, the American voters — to see if they bought the right thing. It will also allow the rest of the world to determine if they backed the right candidate with respect to their own interests. But an irony stands out: as the capitalist system takes a major hit, one that has prompted states to intervene in the market from the US to Western Europe, one place where the free market remains alive and well appears to be in the realm of narrative politics. Every politician has a story to sell and the nonsense debt just keeps growing. It may all be sub-prime, but consumers are demanding more and the markets are not soon about to collapse. Where can we buy some shares?