January 17, 2008
At Christmas, a group of baby-boomers who had gathered for years to drive the cold winter away sat by a warm fire with eggnog and fruitcake, discussing — what else? — politics. We’re fairly like-minded people, mostly Democrats or sympathetic independents, and we marveled that a woman and an African-American had simultaneously risen as major candidates for president, and even more marvelously, without apparent acrimony. I ventured that the decades of struggle for equality may at last be paying off, that the country may have finally transcended the barriers of gender and race.
"I’m not sure that’s true," said Joanne, an advertising executive. "I believe there is both attraction and resistance to Hillary as a woman and Obama as a Black man. I’m leaning towards Obama because of his message of hope and collaboration, but because of my own experience with glass ceilings over the years, I identify with Hillary as a woman. Race and gender are not particularly evident now because nobody’s voted yet. People vote with their hearts more than their heads. Once the voting starts, things will be different."
She couldn’t have been more right, nor I more wrong.
Amidst the endless analysis of how much the tearful moment influenced the Clinton upset in New Hampshire last week, a key insight came from Melissa Harris-Lacewell, assistant professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton, who remarked in an interview on public radio here that Clinton’s show of vulnerability was a factor in the surprising shift because women finally saw her as "a symbol of themselves."
As much as any of us would like to think of our electoral decisions as a purely rational choice based on issues and positions, politics — like religion — lives to a great extent in the non-rational realm of symbol. The psychologist Carl Jung wrote that "a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained."
Symbolizing is a complex process of transference, the investing of an object, animal, or person with an identity derived from and mirroring one’s own. As with actors and other public figures, people establish relationships with politicians that are as real as those they have with people they personally know. Their love or loathing of them is passionate, though they are merely images on a screen or in print. In the intimacy of the voting booth, people make their choices intimately; they do not do this when answering questions from a telephone pollster. Programs and proposals count, of course, but the non-rational, symbolic relationship is stronger. This is not mere "likability." The candidate is endowed with the projection of the voter’s own self-image.
When it comes to presidential aspirants, the symbol is doubly potent, since the president is the symbol of the nation itself. A century ago, the sociologist Emil Durkheim observed that societies are not merely the aggregate of the individuals within them but something much larger, entities in themselves. They "exist outside the individual consciousness," he wrote, and have a consciousness of their own. Loyalty to the totem or to the flag, and to the chieftain or to the commander-in-chief, is, as Erich Fromm contended in Escape from Freedom, a way for the individual to relieve the sense of isolation by submersion in a collective identity.
Now the complex of symbols, so long suppressed, has begun to emerge, non-rational and thus exceedingly volatile. As we have seen this past week, the tiniest gesture or word can have grossly disproportionate effects. It is up to the candidates to walk the mine-field of symbol with great care.