On Modern Politics

Explaining disillusionment towards contemporary U.S. politics using David Foster Wallace’s book “McCain’s Promise” and theories of political sociology. This class helped solidify my as yet unexplained antipathy and distrust towards U.S. political rhetoric.

One of the most important themes of Wallace’s book is the tension between sincerity and marketing that goes into a modern campaign. He claims that political campaigning has developed a character he describes as “marketability”, “sales”, “spin”, or “pitch”. This nature brings an inherent disingenuousness to the political field that makes it impossible for the public to consider candidates as above self-interest or as sincerely altruistic. Thus, the fundamental rule of American politics (in particular, winning elections) is to create an image that appeals to either the masses or to the party establishment (that is, a political party’s financial resources and the guaranteed votes of a core of loyalists). For Wallace, the McCain2000 campaign presented an especially problematic understanding for this political rule. He states that “human genuineness and political professionalism is the great yin-and-yang paradox of the McCain2000 campaign” (Wallace, 99). It was difficult for Wallace to resolve McCain’s image of honesty and character with the fact that he wants to be elected. He believes politics and sincerity are innate contradictions, “humanity and politics” and “shrewdness and decency” (Wallace, 99) are both mutually exclusive concepts. In McCain’s campaign, other typical ‘rules’ of American elections that Wallace mentions (negativity, soft/bundled money) were subservient to one core rule – promoting and maintaining an image.

The necessity for image production in politics can be related to Bourdieu’s idea of political fields. Due to the inaccessibility of complicated politics, democracy manifests by the increasing trivialization of public political expression. That is, politics itself is hard to understand and participate in, but a democracy requires some semblance of the people’s input, thus the relationship has been made stupid and superficial in order to promote meaningless mass appeal. This meaninglessness is what Wallace would call a reliance on “candidate bullshit” (Wallace, 20) and Bourdieu would call “ordinary citizens reduced to the status of consumers” (Wacquant, 6). In elections, the candidate is ‘manufactured’ into a mere image for voters, that is, the candidate’s true nature or genuine political positions or policies are largely irrelevant.

Democratic appeal for elections is expressed by providing the public a ‘character’ or a ‘type’ rather than through policy or explaining the actual job of politics. Wallace illustrates this notion in his piece when he tells about how the media listen for snippets in McCain’s speech that could be used as “fighting words” or sound-bytes that portray more a story of dog-fighting (i.e. the Shrub is like Bill Clinton) but tell little of McCain’s political stances. This has the effect of reducing politics in the media to little more than a kind of soap opera or entertainment for consumption, in which candidates are judged by how well they do in the campaign story line instead of determined by actual support of their policies. The candidate is a construction, both “narrator and narrative” (Wallace, 88) of a campaign, instead of genuinely relatable. Bourdieu would claim this is because the political field has grown increasing complex, bureaucratic, and inaccessible to the average citizen. He says that political participation is contingent on “socially recognized competency and the sentiment of being founded to do so” (Wacquant, 6). Since the majority of people are not politically competent, the election campaign mode of discourse has become a simplistic and trivial reduction of candidates to figureheads of idealistic notions (Wallace would call them ‘clichés – “service,” “honor,” “duty”’).

The nature of image-based politics implies that a political candidate cannot relate directly and honestly to the people. The result is political apathy and disengagement or lack of meaningful involvement in politics. Bourdieu’s theories address this alienation the public feels towards politics. The political relationship, instead of being a reciprocal discussion, becomes one of ‘consumption’. In order to appeal broadly and democratically to an indifferent public, the political field has assumed a ‘commercial’ character. Both Wallace and Bourdieu would blame this market quality of politics on the increasing complexity of the political field. However, they differ somewhat on the root cause of political alienation. Bourdieu points to the increasing ‘unification’, ‘totalization’, and ‘concentration’ of politics into a field “governed by its own laws” (Wacquant, 8) as responsible for the exclusion of ordinary citizens from politics. Whereas Wallace believes that people’s political alienation is a result of cultural disillusionment brought on by corruption (Vietnam, Watergate, S&L scandals, etc.) and the emergence of a “science of sales and marketing” (Wallace, 112). He says that average citizens’ involvement with politics is in decline, not because politics as a field is inaccessible from the larger population, but because politics itself is corrupted and meaningless.

Wallace says the political process is “in this era in which politician’s statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their truth or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, marketability” (Wallace, 13). The disconnect stems from the lack of faith in the political institution to do anything in the people’s interest. For Bourdieu, the political institution is disconnected from the people because the field has become a self-involved organism unto itself. He says that in “democratic politics, the act of delegation, whereby professional politicians pursue strategies aimed chiefly at one another”, there is the “possibility of dispossession and even usurpation, all the more as the group represented is more deprived of economic and cultural capital” (Wacquant, 6). This means in a democracy, the concepts of representation and delegation, tend to take the act of politics out of the hands of the people, resulting in decoupling their interest in it. To sum, the institution of politics lacks depth, becomes a superficial image, due to both the cynicism of the population (Wallace) and disconnect from their concerns (Bourdieu) and this construction of candidate image is a rule necessity because modern politics has become a thing unto its own, not accessible or directly representative of the people or their interests.

The reinforcement of this image rule is due to the institutionalization of this type of politics. That is, made natural through the media and the group of political professionals who have been ‘educated’ or ‘socialized’ into treating politics in this manner. The strategies and tactics that political specialists, advisors, and journalists use in bringing a candidate to office all contribute to sustaining the need for a certain candidate image and the need to appeal to the people and/or to the establishment. This stance on what the political process is about is normalized, codified, or embedded into the collective consciousness. This is because the rule of political image created what Bourdieu would call an “organizational necessity” (Wacquant, 5). Bourdieu was talking about how party discipline and state management sacrificed debate, critique, and alternate policy options for the sake of efficiency. However, this logic could also be applied to campaign machinery. Campaigning operates according to image, and attempting any other route becomes infeasible. McCain’s stance was one of anti-politics as usual, that is, being honest and of character. Yet, all his actions and strategies proved that he was still playing under a notion of image politics. Once Bush challenged two aspects of his image (being above dirty politics and being tough and courageous) with an attack on his character, McCain was compelled to respond in a conventional political manner, that is, negative.

For one to even participate in politics, it becomes necessary to follow the rule of image and appeal to voters or the establishment. It became this way because of what Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence” [Wacquant, 7]. An established pattern of elections, based on superficial image-based candidates, has become ‘dominant’ and followed without any conscious or active analysis on the part of either the political players or their targets (the media and constituency). Bourdieu says “cognitive structures are not forms of consciousness but dispositions of the body. The obedience we grant to the injunctions of the state cannot be understood either as mechanical submission to an external force or as conscious consent to an order” (Bourdieu, 14). Thus, applying to modern politics, superficiality and image focus has become a kind of ingrained tradition, embedded in society’s consciousness. Wallace addresses this idea when he says “they can swallow and spew whole mountains of noble-sounding bullshit and convince themselves they mean it…we’re beyond not believing the bullshit; mostly we don’t even hear it now, dismissing it at the same deep level, below attention” (Wallace, 14). Bourdieu states “the state incarnates itself simultaneously in objectivity, in specific organizational structures and mechanisms, and in subjectivity in the form of mental structures and categories of perception and thought…it makes us forget that it issues out of a long series of acts…and hence has all the appearances of the natural” (Bourdieu, 3). This means that the disingenuous in political campaigning has become so naturalized that its own universe with its own mechanics (consisting of political specialists, news media, and voters adapted to it) was created. This universe can be seen in campaign strategies and its relationships with other fields (like journalism). The process of campaigning has become institutionalized in its relationships with external forces. That is, how the candidate relates to the people, to the establishment, and its strategies and tactics all have become a sort of ‘art’ that can be learned and manipulated.

Bourdieu would say that this naturalization came about by a kind of inertia or force that, once put into motion, is difficult to change. He would call this a ‘structural’ phenomenon. The tendency towards image-based campaigning has been “universalized”. Bourdieu says “all social universes tend to offer material or symbolic profits of universalization (those very profits pursued by strategies seeking to “play by the rule”). It also implies that the universes demand with utmost insistence that one submits to the universal, are particularly favorable to obtaining such profits” (Bourdieu, 16). This means that to even participate in politics, one has to follow its rules. Thus, the candidate has to partake in image-based campaigning to even be considered as an option, even if the candidate was campaigning on the idea of sincerity like McCain. When applied to election politics, it means that, whoever has the most relevant image, whoever seems most in line with popular sentiment wins.

The universe created by this image rule consists of and is reinforced by campaign strategies designed around it. An expert group of advisors, the campaign’s targets (establishment and populace), and the news media are interrelated in an overarching campaign strategy based on image. Wallace speaks of “boxes” that describe an American political campaign. He says one can “conceive a campaign’s events in terms of boxes inside other boxes…national voting audience, electorate audience, inner layers of national and local press, insulating boxes of McCain’s staff who plan and stage events and spin stuff for the layers of press to interpret for the layers of audience…”(Wallace, 34). This ‘packaging’ contributes to the image of a candidate, which makes a candidate inherently contrived. Thus, campaign advisors orient themselves towards promoting or attacking a candidate’s contrived image. One strategy that Wallace refers to is “going Negative”. This means that if the opposition is appealing to the popular vote, the proper strategy is to attack that candidate’s image in the eyes of the voters. Nothing about image politics is technically relatable to the constituency. They have no real or material interest in the characters of the politicians. However, a field revolving around image (media, markets, spin advisors, public relations) has grown to make these things important and reformatted the discourse into image-based language.

According to Bourdieu, political fields have the habit of absorbing things into its domain. He says “social science itself has been part and parcel of this work of construction of the state which makes up part of the reality of the state itself…social sciences can increase their independence from the pressures of social demand only be increasing their reliance upon the state…losing their autonomy from the state, unless they are prepared to use against the state the (relative) freedom that it grants them” (Bourdieu, 3). Applying Bourdieu’s logic to the media as social science and the campaign event as the state, one can discern parallels. The journalistic field, because of its dependence on access (capital), must follow go along with the campaign rule of image. In Wallace’s piece, the most prominent news providers, the Twelve Monkeys, are the ‘social science’ and the campaign is the ‘state’. The news media is supposed to be objective, but they are part of the political field, which is increasingly bound by institutionalization, exclusive access, and establishment of rules. Thus, these journalists do not provoke anything that would disrupt established political conventions. Wallace describes the Twelve Monkeys as identical and describes how they ask only “vapid and obvious questions” who “never seem to look out the window” (Wallace, 45) of the campaign bus.

Schudson & Waisbord address this relationship between the media and the government. They claim that “politicians have grown increasingly oriented to communicating with the public through the media” (Schudson & Waisbord, 359) and “the news media are a kind of quasi-official institution of government…part of the daily operation of government because officials are oriented to it and make plans, policies and strategies in relation to it” (Schudson & Waisbord, 351). Thus, image politics largely define a political campaign’s relationship to the media. Rather than using news as an objective informational source or as a way to relate directly to the public, the media is a political strategic device. Wallace says “it is the media who are the true object and audience for whatever strategy these sessions come up with, the critics who’ll decide how well it all plays” (Wallace, 89).

The negative repercussions of the image-based rule of politics on citizens’ political investment are seen in the strategies taken by campaigners. The problem with this nature of politics for both Wallace and Bourdieu is that other, more inclusive or genuine, ways of participation becomes ‘devalued’ when it comes to political campaigning. A political election strategy actually includes trying to make less people vote. The rule of image created two possible strategies towards office: popular vote and/or establishment support. This dichotomy created the effect of encouraging public disinterest as a tactic if one has establishment support (i.e. Bush trying to discourage public involvement). The only point of entry into politics for the average population, the vote, is seen as a tactical enemy for some candidates. The vote becomes increasingly meaningless. Wallace says “it’s in their interest to draw as few voters as possible…nothing substantive ever gets done to make politics less ugly or to induce more people to vote” (Wallace, 82). For Bourdieu, this exclusion stems from what he calls “universality”. It becomes an accepted, established, and largely immutable way of doing things. He says, “by rising to universality, all others fall into particularity”. In this case, an isolated political field is the universality, and the people’s input is mere particularity. Wallace’s ‘folk theory’ states that in politics “lies are chronic, systemic, just a game based on lies” (Wallace, 56). He says that once McCain had a real chance at winning, complications ensue. That is, telling the truth and being genuine would necessarily have been subsumed into the larger rule of image politics.

McCain’s specific paradox is that he is both candidate and anti-candidate. He wants votes and marketed his image designed to capture as much votes as possible. McCain wanted “political benefit out of his indifference to political benefit” (Wallace, 117). McCain’s image strategy was that he would be honest. His political slogan and sign off – “He will always tell you the truth even if it hurts him politically”, his publicized phone call with Chris Duren, and his refusal to accept soft/bundled money were all designed to portray an image of his character. Thus, McCain could claim he was above politics and campaigning, but underneath it all he was still playing an election game and following the fundamental rule of image.


Bourdieu, Pierre; Wacquant, Loic J.D.; Farage, Samar. Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field. 

Schudson, Michael; Waisbord, Silvio. Toward a Political Sociology of the News Media.

Wacquant, Loic. Pointers on Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics.

Wallace, David Foster. McCain’s Promise.


One comment

  1. “…spin stuff for the layers of press to interpret for the layers of audience…”(Wallace, 34)

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