What Obama Must Do To Win:
Or, McCain and Substance
The word “substance” is used in politics today to capture the difference between reality and political theater. Since all our politics takes place in the media, we never really get to see substance; we see the political theater where it’s mentioned.
This fact is important. Apart from the odd documentary where “substance” makes an appearance, still garbed in media form, there is no way for the citizen to really touch the “substance” within politics unless he is a researcher at some non-profit thinktank.
Yet we’re told that there are “substantive” differences between McCain and Obama. As we watch Sen. Obama’s campaign sag and start to fail, his supporters might want to hear the question raised: how can he still win?
The answer is: substance. Let’s look closer at the meaning of this word to understand the secret of Sen. McCain’s appeal and devise a meaningful strategy for Sen. Obama.
In philosophy, substance is “the underlying something or other which is supposed to give support to the properties that inhere in it.” (Hamlyn – Metaphysics – Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984 p. 60.) Hamlyn continues:
“Indeed the Latin etymology of the term ‘substance’ will suggest to anyone having a sensitivity to it that notion of something standing beneath the properties. Locke thus called it a ‘something I know not what’ — a suggestion that is not conveyed by either of the other two usages.”
The above should be read closely — it’s not a pedantic starting point for an argument. Substance is said to be an underlying support to “all” other properties. It’s what makes all other properties possible. It’s also something “beneath” the properties that is almost mysterious by definition.
Let’s consider this in relation to McCain’s campaign. It is fair to say that McCain wouldn’t have the support he does had he not been a POW for five and a half years. Many times he has told the truth, and as a politician, to many that’s a sign of bad character — “erratic”. And he is called this by many.
But the unspoken answer to this view of McCain as an independent, “willful”, and erratic politician is his POW time. His experience as a POW, gives him what we call “weight”, “authority”, and “credibility”; in fact, it endows him with a mysterious, sacred, and inviolable substance, which most of us have never experienced, and most of his political opponents lack.
Consider that for the last sixteen years, under two presidents and two parties, draft dodgers have ruled the White House. Clinton, Bush, Cheney. Gore was in the Army, briefly served in Vietnam as a reporter/journalist who never saw combat. In this current context of incredible lies at an all-time high and a world gone mad, the independent voter quietly asks himself: what yardstick can I use to measure how good a president so-and-so will be?
Many in middle America are making this quiet calculation and coming up with McCain. The fact is, whatever his flaws as a person, McCain’s experience as a POW lends a tangible substance to his identity, and when so many other politicians are two-dimensional political actors, McCain is viewed as a savior in this regard, a savior from the devastating universal dominance of the empty politician.
Today’s political class has evolved into a very different type of humanity. And today’s “everyday American” would rather be dominated and oppressed by one of his own, not the strange, alien types coming out of the politico-media. Sarah Palin’s preeminence is proof of this fact — American’s would rather have “one of their own” who believe dinosaurs are a couple thousand years old than someone different. (Wars of Independence have been fought for the same reason.)
Obama’s “difference” with the voting population is well-known. But his campaign is losing right now not because of that “difference”. Just as McCain’s appeal and personality can’t be separated from the POW issue, Obama’s appeal and personality can’t be separated from his life as a political and ethnic minority. Until recently, he’s been ahead in the polls, so we know he is electable. What’s changed?
Obama is suddenly running as the traditional Democrat candidate. Aloof, marching awkwardly to a different drummer than “middle America”. When Democrats become aggressive or run aggressive ads, it’s hard not to notice that they never pull it off, as if getting aggressive is a mathematical limit is something they have to approach but can never achieve. Probably being the party that’s pro-Woman, pro-Gay has something to do with this: the aggressiveness that is the natural provenance of the male has been under attack from the Democrats for decades. The saying about Democrats always “bringing a knife to a gunfight” is well-known.
Democrats are all policy, no substance. There is nothing visceral or recognizable in a progressive party that places its home somewhere in the future. Modern political history shows that Democrats only get elected with a Southern accent — and it is that accent which is all they need to to be rooted in the visceral and the earth.
So what visceral experience should Obama appeal to in this election? Fear.
Fear of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Fear of another war like the one in Iraq. Fear of the pendulum swinging all the way in the direction of the corporations and another Great Depression resulting. Fear of environmental collapse. Fear of an aging President with old ideas.
The campaign about “Change” — now that McCain has co-opted the mantle — should become the campaign about “New Ideas”, which McCain can’t plausibly co-opt without questions about his age. Obama needs to come out as the fount of all new ideas; not traditional Democratic Party ideals redeployed. He needs to explicitly say that without radical new ideas, the environment will collapse — and say what those ideas are. Without radical new ideas, there will be a new major unprovoked war every generation fed by a military-industrial complex that won’t take any real hits under McCain. (Vietnam? Historians now realize that the Gulf of Tonkin incident wasn’t what we thought. Likewise, in about forty years, there will be whispers that 9/11 wasn’t what we thought.)
“Change” needs to become “New Ideas” in order to give hope some substance. McCain’s new idea to fix healthcare — a tax credit — is laughable. Contrasts made on each of the points, provided “new ideas” comes to dominate the last two months of the campaign, will help paint McCain into a corner.