The economy is sinking, an incumbent Republican president has abysmally low ratings, and the Democrats outpoll the GOP on virtually every issue. A Republican should have no chance at all to win the presidency. Yet the two-week political convention season has come and gone, and the polls still show John McCain well within striking distance of victory. How can it be?
To understand it, says McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis, you have to start with one basic fact: "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."
As a historian of religions I'd put it a just bit differently: This election is not a choice between two competing policy positions. It's a choice between two clusters of symbols. Each candidate tries to create a believable mythic drama, with himself as the hero. So the election as a whole becomes a mythic contest between two sets of symbolic images. Elections have probably always been like that. But today the question is what each candidate symbolizes, and which symbolic message will win the most votes in 2008.
What does McCain symbolize? Since the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, the most popular answer among the pundits is "anti- elitism." "Ordinary people," they say, hate the Democrats for looking down on them. They "may be struggling economically, detest President Bush and oppose the Iraq war," as an LA Times post-convention analysis put it, "but still may vote based on a visceral sense of which candidate respects their way of life."
But these "ordinary people" who feel alienated from the "elitist" Obama are largely creatures of imagination. When pollsters ask "Which candidate has values most like yours?" or "Which candidate best understands and cares about your needs?", Obama consistently comes out ahead. The McCain campaign's strenuous effort to make the biracial son of a single mom from Kansas a symbol of "elitism" isn't working very well.
What is working is McCain's focus on "experience" and on the realm of war, the military, and national security. That's the one area where McCain consistently bests his opponent in the polls. It's only his claim to experience on these issues that are keeping him competitive.
That does not mean the voters prefer McCain's war policies. Since last February, when it became clear that the Arizona senator would be the GOP's nominee, the pattern has not changed: Even when a comfortable majority of those polled support Obama's policy - withdrawing troops on a fixed timetable - more say they trust McCain than Obama to "do the right thing" in Iraq. Why? In June, a Pew Center for the People and the Press poll found that nearly 40% of the public didn't know McCain's position on troop withdrawal. Perhaps many voters don't care to know his stand on that issue, or any other. They care about the symbolic meaning of his experience in the realm of war.
Of course everyone - even if they know nothing else of McCain's experience - knows what his experience in war was: years of captivity and torture. In case they might have forgotten, McCain offered a detailed retelling of his horrific experience as the emotional centerpiece of his acceptance speech. From that spellbinding tale he launched into a rousing conclusion, whipping the audience into a frenzy as he shouted: "Fight with me. Fight with me. ... Stand up and fight."
What McCain symbolizes, above all, is patriotic toughness. He is the mythic hero who always puts "country first" and will "never surrender" to the nation's enemies and their evildoing. To millions of Americans - a minority, to be sure, but perhaps enough to tip the election - that image outweighs every other consideration as they decide how to cast their vote for president. Why should it be so? It's a huge puzzle, too complicated to settle for any simple answers. Let's try to put together some of the pieces.
One valuable piece comes from a recent column by the New York Times' (neo?)conservative pundit David Brooks. The root of Obama's problem with the voters, he suggests, is that Obama "has been a sojourner." His life journey has taken him to many places and many political positions. But he has never settled down in one place. And "voters seem to be slow to trust a sojourner they cannot place."
Brooks goes on to contrast the two candidates by their differing autobiographies: "McCain's 'Faith of My Fathers' is a story of a prodigal son. It is about an immature boy who suffers and discovers his place in the long line of warriors that produced him." He becomes a man by returning home. Obama, on the other hand, seems to have no home: "'Dreams From My Father' is a journey forward, about a man who took the disparate parts of his past and constructed an identity of his own. If you grew up in the 1950s," Brooks adds, "you were inclined to regard your identity as something you were born with. If you grew up in the 1970s, you were more likely to regard your identity as something you created." Hence the age gap, with older voters inclining to the Republican while the youngest voters eagerly rush to the Democrat.
OK. McCain is experienced as a tough, patriotic, self-sacrificing warrior hero and as a man of the '50s, with a fixed identity, defined by a home that he knows and eventually embraces. Obama is seen as a man of the '70s on an endless journey, always seeking new ways to construct his ever-changing identity. But why should this symbolism of life as journey lead many voters to accept the Republicans' pejorative image of Obama as a self-seeking young dandy, too weak to stand up against the evil enemy, too selfish to sacrifice all for country?
The missing link comes from another consistent finding in the polls. The best indicator of how someone is likely to vote is church attendance: The more often non-Hispanic whites go to church, the more likely they are to vote for the Republican. And the percentages, which have held steady all summer, are almost exactly what they were in the 2004 election.
Of course going to church means different things to different people, as the eminent sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow discovered when he set out to trace the history of recent American spirituality. In his book After Heaven he lays out the pattern he found, and it's strikingly similar to Brooks' take on this year's election.
The 1950s was an era dominated by "the spirituality of dwelling," Wuthnow contends. Churchgoers were likely to feel very much at home in their houses of worship. A church was an emotionally comforting dwelling place, Wuthnow wrote, because it offered "a sheltering canopy that protects people from chaos. ... The Soul was deemed to reside in a sacred space that required geographic fortification. ... Spiritual sanctuaries were fortresses whose walls needed to be protected."
By the 1970s, a new mode of spirituality had grown up alongside the old - a "spirituality of seeking" that offered endless new possibilities for spiritual growth, as long as the seeker never settled down in one church, which meant never feeling (or wanting to feel) at home in any one. The seedbed of the spirituality of seeking was, of course, the era we call "the sixties," the time when so many young people asked passionately: "How does it feel to be without a home, like a rolling stone?" Many commentators have noted that forty years later our presidential elections are still ways to refight the continuing culture battles that began in that tumultuous time. The Republicans keep it that way because they reap such huge political benefit from attacking cultural symbols of "the sixties."
Every new round brings new symbolic issues, however. In 2004, much media attention was focused on social issues like abortion and gay rights. In fact, though, more careful post-election studies found that the key to Bush's success was the voters' fear of terrorism. Yet for the many churchgoers who voted Republican because they were still seeking the spirituality of dwelling, the difference between the social issues and the national security issues may not have been very important. Those were merely two different ways to symbolize the ongoing battle waged by those inside the sanctuary walls to fend off those outside.
In 2008, many American still flock to their sanctuaries as fortresses protecting them against uncertainty, especially moral uncertainty. They want what Wuthnow calls "sharp symbolic boundaries" demarcating good and evil. And their fundamental goal remains the same: "erecting boundaries around the perimeters of one's life ... so that life inside could be kept under control." For the ultimate threat to spiritual "dwellers" comes from their own unruly human desires and the uncontrollability of life.
In the '50s, as today, the spirituality of dwelling was directly linked to the discourse of national identity. The entire nation was treated as a dwelling place, its protective walls coterminous with its geographical borders. If churches "were sacred fortresses," as Wuthnow says, "the nation in which they lived was even more in need of being inviolable.... Being a good American was a way of exhibiting faith, and both depended on keeping intruders out. Communism, of course, was the most feared intruder of all."
"The cold war symbolized [rather than caused] American's concern to have a safe nation in which to live," according to Wuthnow. Since the true threat came from within American life itself, it is hardly surprising that the communist threat was seen as much inside as outside the nation: "Americans feared that their fortress could be invaded at any time. They spent increasing amounts on national defense [and] built bomb shelters," while at the same time they "searched for subversives in their midst."
It could hardly have been otherwise. Whenever people shelter behind walls for protection, they reinforce the fears that sent them behind those walls in the first place. Their sense of their own virtue comes to depend on keeping up the fight against the evil enemy, which means that they must have an enemy to fight. Its name hardly matters, as long as it effectively symbolizes a threat of moral disorder. But since what they are fighting is ultimately the fear born of their own uncertainty, the enemy must always be within as well as without.
In the late '60s, the internal chaos of rapid social change - forever after known as "Liberalism" - joined communism as the prevailing symbol of evil in conservative circles. The Republican party presented itself as the guardian of a familiar, dependable, eternally true moral order on both the domestic and foreign fronts. Indeed, the cold war became primarily a way to symbolize and whip up fervor for the culture war. The enemy became an enormously complex, protean, malleable, and thus easily manipulated compound of many symbolic elements.
The prime threat was ultimately spiritual seeking itself, since it undermined the possibility of any permanent certainty in the realm of values. With the spirituality of dwelling the central bulwark against the uncertainty of change, every kind of spiritual seeking could look like a threat to the nation, as dangerous as the communists and their nuclear arsenal. Every seeker would be, by definition, an enemy to "the American way" and thus guilty of lacking patriotism. Since seeking was so often the product of education, higher education (especially at elite institutions) fit neatly into the pattern.
When "seeking" became the enemy, the connection of "dwelling" with fighting for national security became more complex. Seekers proudly boasted that they were on a journey of self-realization, looking for their own unique identity and ever new ways of self-actualization. Dwellers, always intent on restraining the evil inside themselves as well as outside their walls, feared that the growing focus on self would soon break down all restraints and trigger the social chaos their walls had been built to stave off. So they reaffirmed self- restraint as the axis of their value system.
Conversely, they condemned all the newly-linked evils - spiritual seeking, liberalism, communism, and elitism, along with sex, drugs, rock 'n roll and all the rest - as just so many manifestations of self- indulgence, a loosening of all internal restraints against selfish desire. With the inner bulwark against evil gone so slack, every external bulwark was weakened too, they feared, so that the whole nation stood in danger of being overrun by its enemies. The whole diabolical stew was ultimately a spiritual failure - a straying from, or perhaps even a rebellion against, the ways of God. In the conservative worldview it all made perfect sense. It still does. That's why a smart conservative like David Brooks can pounce on Obama's rootless life of sojourning as the root of his political (and presumably spiritual) problem. It's why the seeming rootlessness can be so threatening to many voters. It's why some voters who agree with Obama's view on the Iraq war still trust McCain more to do the right thing in that tragic conflict. It's why many more trust him most to be commander-in-chief and wage the war against terrorism, our modern-day substitute for the communists of the cold war era.
McCain gains all that trust because of his experience, not in government, but in prison, where he seems to have sacrificed the most basic human desire - the desire to escape physical pain - in order to serve his military comrades, his sense of honor, and his beloved country. For the "dwellers" who fear the breakdown of restraints all around them, he is a precious symbol of self-restraint and thus a symbol of hope that the threats which seem to impinge from every side can ultimately be held off forever. Even among "dwellers" who recognize the folly of the Republican war policy in Iraq, some will find that symbolism overriding their policy concerns and pushing them to vote for McCain.
It won't always be this way. History is on the side of the "seekers." Eventually they will dominate public life, including the political process. The "dwellers" sense that they are fighting a rear-guard action, which is why their counterattack is so ferocious. For now, though, the Obama campaign feels forced to play "me too," trying mightily to convince the "dwellers" that their candidate is just as deeply commited as any Republican to a permanent structure of American values.
But they are fighting an uphill battle. The spirituality of dwelling requires a threatening enemy to fight against. Democrats can hardly cast Republicans as agents of cultural change who would undermine the stability of "the American way." Too few voters would buy that. Nor can the Dems cast the many "seekers" under their big tent as a threat, lest they fracture their growing but still fragile coalition.
That leaves them with two options. They can continue to muddle through as they are doing, hoping that economic distress is indeed, as Obama suggests, deep and wide enough to outweigh all the cultural factors working against them. That's a big risk; it may not be true.
Or Obama could use his extraordinary skills as a communicator to explain the difference between pragmatic national security and the emotional security provided by symbols of "dwelling." He could warn the nation about the perils of conflating the two and provide a program for meeting the cultural needs of "dwellers" that does not venture onto the dangerous terrain of national security.
That's a big risk too - perhaps, in an election this close, too much of a risk to ask any candidate to take.