The Magazine

The Pomo Primary

From the March 15, 2004 issue: Postmodern candidates talk like handlers, and voters talk like pundits.

Mar 15, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 26 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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There was a purity to the moment. As I watched it transpire, all commentary, all punditry, indeed all politics, seemed to fold in on itself and become perfectly, pristinely self-contained, utterly separated from, completely unsullied by, the outside world--the world, that is, in which normal, nonpolitical people live. This was commentary distilled to its essence; commentary on commentary, commentary for its own sake. And so it has continued up to now, it seems to me, more than four years later, as we few Americans who remain interested in politics have watched this odd primary campaign unfold into a kind of postmodern performance piece.

Return to President Bush's famous declaration of his message in 1992. In retrospect it looks quaint; at the time it seemed genuinely transgressive, a real boner. Back then the word "message" still had the vaguely disreputable odor of the flack clinging to it. A politician wasn't supposed to self-consciously declare his "message," he was supposed to demonstrate it: make it come alive through indirection, by means of anecdotes or images or ideas, and persuade his audience of its plausibility. Then, suddenly, in 1992, here was the candidate just asserting it: You wanna message? Terrific. Here it is. Suck on it. In the normal transaction between speaker and hearer, persuader and persuaded, pol and voter, some crucial piece of connective tissue was being weirdly elided, in the best postmodern fashion.

Yet now, in the pomo primaries, the elision doesn't seem weird at all. In fact it's become customary for a presidential candidate to "get his message across" by simply announcing that he's getting his message across. Attending a rally for John Kerry, or watching one of his TV ads, or drifting through his website, a voter will hear the candidate say: "My message isn't for just part of America, it's for all of America--a message about how we're going to put Americans back to work." The voter will wait in vain for particulars, such as how this message is to be realized and Americans put back to work. (I do know it has something to do with raising taxes on rich people.) Nevertheless, when asked, the voter will tell an inquiring reporter that he "really likes Kerry's message about jobs." At a rally for John Edwards a few weeks ago, in South Carolina, I heard the comely Carolinian announce: "Let me tell you something. My message of hope and optimism is resonating all across America." And the crowd applauded! He might as well have hollered "applause line!" to receive the same reaction. "My message works," Edwards told an interviewer not long ago. "And it's going to continue to work." In South Carolina he said: "My message is optimism. My message is about hope." Marshall McLuhan was wrong. The medium isn't the message. The message is the message.

The key to postmodernism is reflexivity, when words no longer seem to refer to anything outside themselves. Reflexivity set the tone for this primary season. In his stump speech, as well as in interviews, Richard Gephardt said he was "energizing the base," by which he hoped to energize the base. Howard Dean said he would be nominated because he "was bringing new people into the process"--a remark that was designed to bring new people into the process who would then guarantee his nomination. It is an odd experience, watching politicians campaign using the same language their campaign managers use giving a backgrounder to political reporters. But the popularity of this new mode of discourse led several reporters and commentators to say that voters had become "more sophisticated." What it really showed, though, was that voters were starting to think like political reporters, which is not at all the same thing.

THE NEW SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS did serve the salutary (and long overdue) goal of breaking down the division between journalist and voter; people who pay attention to pundits suddenly realized that anybody can be a pundit. Maureen Dowd is a pundit. Twenty years ago the futurist Alvin Toffler, a herald of postmodernism, predicted that pretty soon producers would become indistinguishable from consumers: Everybody, Toffler said, would be a "prosumer." And sure enough, in the hermetic world of politics, everybody--voter, pundit, reporter, consultant, politician, news junkie--has become a prosumer, consumer and producer all in one. I should have seen it coming in that lobby in San Diego eight years ago, in the feedback loop of received wisdom that existed between Dean Broder and his viewers, who were also his sources.