April 2014, Polity
In this short and brilliant book, Jeffrey Alexander and Bernadette Jaworsky argue that neither money nor demography can explain this dramatic turnaround. What made it possible, they show, was cultural reconstruction. Realizing he had failed to provide a compelling narrative of his power, the President began forging a new salvation story. It portrayed the Republican austerity budget as a sop to the wealthy, and Obama as a courageous hero fighting for plain folks against the rich. The reinvigorated cultural performance pushed the Tea Party off the political stage in 2011, and Mitt Romney became fodder for the script in 2012. Democrats painted their Republican opponent as a backward-looking elitist, a “Bain-capitalist” whose election would threaten the civil solidarity upon which democracy depends.
Real world events can spoil even the most effective script. Obama faced monthly unemployment numbers, the daunting Bin Laden raid, three live debates, and Hurricane Sandy. The clumsiness of his opponent and his own good fortune helped the President, but it was the poise and felicity of his improvisations that allowed him to succeed a second time. Converting events into plot points, the President demonstrated the flair for the dramatic that has made him one of the most effective politicians of modern times.
While persuasively explaining Obama’s success, this book also demonstrates a fundamental but rarely appreciated truth about political power in modern democratic societies namely, that winning power and holding on to it have as much to do with the ability to use symbols effectively and tell good stories as anything else.
Preface and Acknowledgments
Chapter 1: The Interpretation of Politics
Chapter 2: Symbolic Deflation
Chapter 3: Reflation
Chapter 4: Setting the Stage
Chapter 5: Unfolding the Drama
Chapter 6: Pulling Ahead
Chapter 7: Harrowing Home Stretch
Chapter 8: Making Meaning
Appendix: Performing Politics
BERNADETTE N. JAWORSKY is a postdoctoral researcher and member of the faculty at Masaryk University in Brno, the Czech Republic, under a grant for the Employment of Newly Graduated Doctors of Science for Scientific Excellence.
"Jeffrey Alexander and Bernadette Jaworsky have written a rigorous, concise book on Barack Obama's enactment of his presidency. In a deep analysis of a narrow theme, Alexander and Jaworsky meticulously chart a clear examination through the political froth. It is highly readable."
"Alexander and Jaworsky recreate, in a completely accessible manner, the dramatic roller-coaster ride that was the 2012 campaign for the presidency. The result is a highly entertaining narrative that returns us to the improbable events of that year and puts us right in the middle of what feels like a cinematic political thriller. High marks for both storytelling and scholarship."
Stanley Fish, Florida International University
"In a post-policy world, symbols matter more than ever, making Alexander and Jaworky's thoughts on the symbolism of Barack Obama both relevant and insightful.''
Alan Wolfe, Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College, MA
"Obama Power is a rare book. It is a page-turner, so well written and engaging that it is difficult to put down. But it also presents a compelling narrative on the performance of politics in Obama’s reelection campaign, which resulted in a decisive victory. Jeffrey C. Alexander and Bernadette N. Jaworsky’s illuminating and captivating study is a must-read."
William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University
"In late 2010, following an overwhelming Democratic setback in the off-year elections, political pundits of all stripes predicted Obama’s probable defeat in 2012. Why didn’t this happen? Standard accounts emphasize improvement in the economy, superior organization, demographic shifts, Republican in-fighting, and Romney’s inept campaign. While Alexander and Jaworsky do not directly challenge these explanations, they do convincingly argue that they are incomplete. All of them fail to consider the power of the cultural narratives, symbols, and beliefs that Obama successfully evoked in his messages in the two years after 2010 that resulted in his victory in November 2012. This short book provides a fine-grained analysis of how Obama offered voters culturally resonant narratives to reframe how the country viewed his presidency to rekindle the enthusiastic connection he developed with voters 2008 that had been significantly diminished during his first two years in office. As Alexander and Jaworsky compellingly demonstrate, effective explanations for the outcomes of political contestation require including the central role that culture plays in them."
Marc Howard Ross, William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus, Bryn Mawr College
"In Obama Power, Jeffrey C. Alexander, our most influential social and cultural theorist of the last thirty years, and his co-author Bernadette N. Jaworsky deploy performance theory to explain Obama’s unexpected landslide in the 2012 Presidential election. This highly readable and accessible book skillfully draws on social media as well as standard forms of political communication. The authors demonstrate how Obama’s conservative opponents failed to derail his focused performance of ‘univeralism and solidarity’ that swept him once more to victory. Alexander and Jaworsky’s exciting new take on the 2012 US presidential election is a must read for concerned citizens as well as academics interested in evolving practices of American democracy."
Mabel Berezin, Cornell University