AS POLITICS has become more scripted over the decades, journalists have begun to sound like critics, discussing campaigns in terms of “memes” and “narratives.” Contests are analyzed on aesthetic grounds almost as though they are movies or Broadway shows. This summer, with Obama versus Romney still in previews, a consensus emerged among the critics that remains largely unchallenged: The show is a flop, a stupefying spectacle of triviality and negativity that may as well be titled Numb and Number. Under the headline, “Dullest Campaign Ever,” The New York Times’ David Brooks blamed “tit-for-tat” Web feuds, “ossified” ideologies, and ads directed at the “uninformed.” Peggy Noonan, in another pan, pinned the race’s alleged “lack of passion” on candidates wanting in “political genius.”
The problem with treating politics as stagecraft, particularly this year, is that it mistakes the production for the play and confuses theater with drama. Theater is shallow, drama deep. And it’s at the dramatic level that this campaign is singularly engrossing. Down in the catacombs of the group unconscious where elections really occur, where the spotlights don’t reach, and where the polls can barely penetrate, a mythological struggle is unfolding between two profoundly different archetypal figures: a lost boy who knew his father largely in dreams and grew up bedeviled by questions of identity, and a favorite son whose father’s support freed him from having to question much of anything. Barack Obama, a lonely meritocratic floater whose searcher parents met while on the drift and then wafted off in separate directions, fashioned a self from thin air; while Mitt Romney, from a family of pioneers who’d safely reached the promised land, hit the ground already in position.
Not since John F. Kennedy faced Richard Nixon, a golden boy pitted against a five o’clock shadow, has U.S. presidential politics united such constitutionally different beings. One man is singularly literate, the other exceptionally numerate. One educated himself by reading books, the other by scrutinizing balance sheets. They’re further divided by what they have in common. Both are outsiders, heirs to persecution, one because of the color of his skin, one because of the nature of his faith. (And both are descended, strangely, from polygamists.) Both have an overdeveloped sense of duty, one because he came from nothing much, the other because he was born with everything.
One reason their rivalry may try our patience is that the candidates speak such different languages that they seem to be talking past each other, like separate halves of one lobotomized brain. This is more than a breakdown of civil discourse; it’s a failure of mutual comprehension. Ideological divisions account for some of it—ours is an age of politicized everything, in which even chicken sandwiches cause controversy—but the breakdown is also a matter of linguistics. Obama’s poetry and Romney’s prose arise from disparate intellectual faculties and address incompatible sensibilities. When the president tried, with figurative rhetoric and multidimensional moral reasoning, to demonstrate that building a business requires a sturdy social platform, legions of linear thinkers took offense. When Romney asserted, flatly and reflexively, that “corporations are people” because, presumably, they’re composed of people, his insufficiently nuanced metaphor caused sophisticates to snicker. For those who process speech with the wrong lobe, the president expressed himself too fancily, his challenger too literally, and both statements seemed tone deaf in a way. No wonder there have been so many gaffes: Between the candidates’ clashing stylistic instincts and the electorate’s partitioned brain, utterances that seem succinct to one camp strike the other as nonsensical.
The candidates are campaigning in mirror worlds. Simple partisanship and ideology cannot fully describe the split; it seems to originate in competing modes of cognition and perception. Obama is the man of connotation, ambiguity, and complexity, forever reminding us not to be deceived by apparently simple truths. In a letter written in his youth concerning the “ambivalence” and “fatalism” of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Obama discerns a conflict in the poem “between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order.” He may as well be describing the election. His base has marked euphoric tendencies and a proven tolerance for paradox. The idea of “soft power” makes sense to them, as does the notion that going into debt can sometimes help lift a sinking economy. His constituency also distrusts rigidity, particularly as it’s embodied by his rival, whose orderly, mechanistic temperament is evident both in the way he combs his hair and the way he dismisses raising taxes.
Romney’s mental syntax runs smooth and straight, a spire pointing up to heaven, a graph line separating gains and losses. Chaos holds no ecstasies for him; his vision of bliss is a balanced checking account, a decisive missile strike, a running mate who’s identical to him minus a couple of decades and 20 pounds. He’s even precise in his inconsistencies, repudiating the same health care scheme that he instituted as a governor and insisting that to balance a budget, one need only alter one side of the ledger. He honors his Mormon faith by strictly suppressing it, while lavishing praise on the evangelical bigots who dispute its very legitimacy. If his opponent deals in shades of gray, believing that reality is pixilated, Romney traffics in bold silhouettes, as though an image flipped were the same image. He’s always decisive, even in his reversals, which accords with the history of the Mormon Church, a champion of one-man-one-woman marriage that used to define the institution more liberally.
Obama is interpretative, Romney analytic, and their contest strikes us as garbled and annoying because these two kinds of mental music don’t mix; together on the same stage, they just make noise. Recently, with the appearance of Paul Ryan, some of those who’ve deplored the race’s vulgarity have started predicting a lively fight on substance, or at least on Medicare, but it remains to be seen if the two sides are capable of finding the shared grammar that might allow them to spar coherently. Theirs is not an internecine dispute like those our politics was designed to handle and the five senses are able to comprehend. This is a cross-dimensional struggle, homo subjunctive (Obama) against homo imperative (Romney), a Mars and Venus sort of thing—not as theatrical but more dramatic.
This article appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the magazine.