Thursday, November 8, 2012

Obama's Victory and the Rhetoric of the American Journey


When you look at the results of the elections, you might conclude that the nation is still highly divided and the new Congress is looking very much like the old, which may not bode well for future (necessary) compromises. And it is. (WP here)
The electorate reflects the national divide: rural vs. urban, white vs. minorities, old(er) vs. young(er), male vs. female, protestant vs. other religions (such as Catholicism but also increasingly atheism and agnosticism).

It's the Demography, Stupid! 
These elections have confirmed a historic trend: demography is changing this nation. The United States of America is becoming more diverse and this is happening more quickly than many strategists had anticipated. 
The rhetorical and political polarization that we have been witnessing simply reflects the fight of a dying WASP majority who has become more extreme as they have felt dis-empowered  This is, in my opinion, the very essence of the Tea Party movement.  Unfortunately for the Republican Party, this is bad strategy as these elections have shown. (herehereherehere or here)

Despite much disappointment, and arguably poor economic records, President Obama has one major advantage: not only is he the very embodiment of diversity, but he is also a great master at embracing diversity in his discourse. Inclusiveness has been his trademark since he worked as a community organizer.
His victory speech is the perfect illustration of his rhetorical mastery. (see video of the speech below)

Of course, victory speeches are expected to be unifying and reach out to the adversary and reflect a gracious tone, especially when you know you'll need partisanship to govern.
But it was more a classic Obama speech than a classic victory speech precisely inclusiveness has been one of his most consistent themes:
black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight. 
It was also a classic Obama speech because in order to re-enforce his message of unity, he used one of his favorite rhetorical device: the extended journey metaphor.  

The Journey Metaphor
Journey and movement metaphors are commonplace in both English and politics, but they have a particular resonance in American culture for historical reasons. Journeys and movement are at the heart of the American experience.
The very first sentence of Obama's speech is precisely about movement and it nicely links the future to the past "more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward", thus combining the idea of movement with the idea of continuity. "Forward" was incidentally (or not!) the slogan used for his campaign (for which he was accused of being a communist by some right-wingers who saw in it a reference to Mao's Lead Forward, see here).
The journey metaphor is a powerful tool because it allows for the recognition of obstacles and difficulties...
our road has been hard,
while our journey has been long
It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path
the roadblocks that stand in our path.
despite all the hardship we’ve been through,
..., but puts them into perspective. For, unlike simple movement, a journey implies a destination and so it is purposeful and directional, even if you might not know exactly what lies at the end of the journey. It gives you something positive to focus on, and so, it brings hope by being forward-looking: "the best is yet to come", says Obama.
The journey metaphor is also a great way to unify the American people around a common familiar theme as it taps into the common myth of origin: the voyage across the Atlantic or the historical frontier motif of settlers who traveled westward.

E Pluribus Unum
It even goes beyond racial divisions: the Exodus story of the Old Testament has permeated black narrative in America since the day of slavery, as best exemplified by Martin Luther King's discourse.  
So when President Obama says "through every hill, through every valley.", what comes to mind is not only the bible (Luke 3:5 or Isaiah 40:4) but also MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech. The form of the speech itself with its cadences and repetitions (I've seen it... I've seen it...) is similar at times to the sermon of a preacher in a black church.
Through the journey metaphor, Obama reconstitutes the American people who become one family: "we are an American family " (The Nation as a Family is also a common political metaphor) but it strikes a good balance between individuality ("pursue our own individual dreams") and community("we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people").

Moving On:
A journey also implies action, and not "to just sit on the sidelines". It fits the American view that action is better than passivity (and sometimes diplomacy): we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back", and the Judeo-Christian view that history is progressive..  
As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. 
It may "not always (be) a straight linebut it is a line nonetheless.

The New Joshua and American Leadership
Finally, the journey metaphor entails the need for a leader who is implicitly the president and explicitly God: with your help and God’s grace we will continue our journey forwardThe need for leadership is twofold as it works not only for the nation but also for the world. Therefore, it is very coherent with the classic presidential discourse on American exceptionalism: the United States is to be "admired around the world," not for its might, even if it has "the strongest military on earth and the best troops this — this world has ever known" but for its unity in diversity through a shared vision:
"What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth"
(.../...)
That’s the vision we share. That’s where we need to go — forward. That’s where we need to go.
"The belief that our destiny is shared" is not unlike a sort of new Manifest Destiny, which also implies a journey ('destiny' has the same root as 'destin-nation' after all). Just like Moses or Joshua, America is a leader who is aware of her responsibility and obligations:
...this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.
This is the essence of American heroism: the hero is not heroic because of his deeds, or his power (supernatural or not), but because of his character and values.

In this speech as in many others, Barack Obama is able to reassure Americans about their future and their identity. He uses a unifying metaphor to turn what can be seen as source of division into a strength and an asset, and the very essence of the American identity. This, in my opinion, is what makes Barack Obama a post-modern president in tune with his time as well as an exceptional speaker.

What remains to be seen is whether enough people are willing to take on the journey and build bridges to avoid the pending "fiscal cliff": another very appropriate metaphor.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great Analysis.

Quique Sanchez said...

Wonderful analysis! Congrats!

J. VG said...

Thanks. Always appreciated.