Dualing political tones on television

03Nov08

One aspect of the campaign that I’ve been tracking is the comparative emotional tones being struck by Obama and McCain, especially via their negative ads. McCain’s commercials have been overly negative and brutal in their attacks of Obama, mostly by aiming for fear and suspicion. A couple of examples – first, a web-only ad linking Obama and Ayers, the second a TV spot framing Obama’s foreign policy as dangerous:

This is familiar ground on terrain mapped by the Bush campaigns: Democrats threaten your freedoms, hate America, and are not like you. The style of the ads all work to foster fear, a strategy with the added resonance of Obama’s “otherness” marked in a few images in these ads. None of this has surprised me, as this is well-worn Republican strategy, and as McCain has fallen behind, the emotional attacks have been ramped up along with the race-baiting and fear-mongering at the Palin rallies.

Obama’s campaign has been more balanced in its strategies, offering positive image ads and policy prescriptions along with its attacks. What has surprised me most is the tone of Obama’s attacks – no fear mongering, but more of a light and sarcastic mockery of McCain. Some examples include “Rearview” (highlighting the Bush connection via a light visual metaphor), “Delighted” (trotting out Cheney as an albatross), and “His Choice” (my favorite, using an almost Apple-like style):

Michael Bérubé identifies this tone in Obama’s rhetoric as “serious snark,” and I think he nails how Obama manages to fight back and dismiss McCain’s attacks without coming across as too angry, too condescending, or too weak. Bérubé compares this tone to Rachel Maddow, and I think this an apt comparison – both Obama & Maddow manage to make their objections to McCain engaging and enjoyable, not just dismissive or divisive. This stands in direct contrast to Maddow’s MSNBC peer Keith Olbermann, whose style is red meat for attack dogs, alienating for everyone else – and ultimately more akin in tone to the Bush/McCain/Fox News style, albeit with reversed politics and a more highbrow set of reference points.

What are the differences here that might explain these differing tones? Certainly one is identity – if Obama or Maddow snarled like Olbermann, they would be dismissed as “angry black man” or “man-hating lesbian feminist.” Obama’s campaign has masterfully avoided coming across as extremist, repelling the attempts from the rightwing to paint him as “too dangerous to lead” – he’s too cool and even-tempered to appear dangerous to anyone outside the paranoid wingnut fringe. And Maddow has embraced a casual, self-deprecating mode to temper her striking attacks on right-wing claims.

Another potential source of these tonal differences is the professional backgrounds of these figures. Olbermann comes out of sports broadcasting, where the game is first and foremost, and testosterone-fueled competition is embraced by viewers. Obama and Maddow both hail from the halls of academia (Obama as a law-school professor, Maddow as a Ph.D. in political science). While there are certainly a wide range of rhetorical styles within academia, I recognize the mode of “serious snark” as one common pedagogical mode: respectful mockery of competing ideas as a way to dismiss them, while building up good will toward your own position. This is an approach that Bérubé himself practices in his writings, although he admittedly takes it over-the-top at times that neither Obama nor Maddow could afford to.

Based on their rhetorical styles, I have no doubt that both Obama and Maddow would be fabulous classroom faculty. Siva Vaidhyanathan defended the slighting of Obama being “professorial,” but I think this mocking style might be the hidden benefit of Obama’s academic background: he knows how to talk to people in a way that is convincing but not demonstrative, making a strong argument while appearing to be simply stringing together a chain of shared ideas. And the way to dismiss opposition in such a style is lightly and humorously, not via fear or demagoguery.

And to conclude, a few related bonus videos. The first two are Obama’s performance at the Al Smith dinner – while many lauded McCain’s performance, I actually thought Obama was funnier and more effective in downplaying his seeming liabilities. (My favorite line is toward the beginning of the second video: “to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humilty; to name my greatest weakness, it is possible that I’m a little too awesome.”) Of course I don’t claim objectivity here!

And finally, a great impression of Olbermann that nails his rhetorical mode (much better than Ben Affleck did on Saturday Night Live):

Double meat, sir! One day left in the eternal campaign – be sure to vote if you’re able!



4 Responses to “Dualing political tones on television”

  1. Agreed. Since the primaries (in which Hillary proved that her comic delivery is truly awful), I’ve found Obama’s way of being funny very impressive — intelligent and cutting, yet warm. Indeed, if the press got excited about McCain’s Al Smith appearance, it’s largely because this was more unusual for his campaign — from verbally backhanding Romney to growling at Obama, his campaign has been more fierce in its humor from the start, whereas Obama’s performance was something we’ve seen a fair deal of. And we’re not the only ones to notice — I was watching Fox and Friends on Sunday morning in Cordele, GA (when in Rome…), and the McCain cheering squad were all bemoaning his lack of warm humor in the campaign, pointing out — correctly — that it’s all the more of a pity given how very funny he’s proven himself in the past (till this year, he’s been a wonderful Daily Show guest. (This was ironic, too, of course, since they’ve often been the ones cheering his anger along). Hence, amidst all the discussion of economic plans, foreign policy, sitting down without preconditions, the many Joes, Ayers, Wright, Keating, and so forth, one reason that the press have rarely explored for Obama’s success is precisely that he’s funny, and funny in a smart, insightful, yet friendly way.

  2. Another factor I see at play here is the idea that a negative campaign necessarily lowers turnout, which in turn benefits Republicans. It’s really cool to see that the Obama campaign has managed to do both what is morally right and politically expedient at the same time. By not coming out with McCain style attack ads, they both prevent the campaign from getting really ugly (benefiting the GOP) and the campaign does its small part to help our political discourse.

  3. George – I know (and have taught!) the conventional wisdom that negative ads depress turnout, but I think that might be changing. I’ve seen some data that question this link, and my more qualitative instincts would note that the blanket term “negative ad” is too broad to account for varying effects on turnout.

    Ads that are simply personal attacks and lowblows would logically drive down turnout, especially in tandem (the “pox on both their houses” effect). However, fear is a good motivator, as seen in 2004 – ads that aim to make viewers fear the “what if” scenarios of the opposition seem like to drive positive turnout, highlight the worst-case scenario of inaction. So I don’t see either the McCain or Obama brand of negative ads dampening turnout – the “kindergarten sex ed” ad is the closest to the traditional form of negative ad that has been seen as creating the dampening effect.

  4. Thanks for your response.

    There is no doubt that Bush won 2004 on fear (“security Moms”). Also, I agree that “negative ads” is way too simple a term to use, but I still do believe that McCain used some negative ads that were low blows in the old sense and in an effort to depress turnout (granted the results don’t seem to support this, but my [biased] impression is that turnout should have been even greater and Obama should have won even bigger (especially with what is now coming out about Palin)).

    Examples of McCain’s old style attack ads that were meant to add to the fog of voter confusion and frustration are the infamous robocalls linking Obama to Ayres, robocalls he released in Florida about Castro, the NRA’s gun rights campaign in New Hampshire and the list goes on.

    Furthermore, I think there is a difference between McCain’s attempted fear mongering and Bush’s in the ads you posted. In comparing “wolves”– the Bush/Rove attack on Kerry with the wolves running around the forest and “Preconditions,” I think there is a bit of a different tone. Bush was going for absolute fear– if you don’t vote for me, wolves will eat your babies. The tone of McCain’s add is a lighter (with Obama and the yellow graphics behind him) and the open question at the end “tough questions.” In my opinion, this is because McCain is playing on the more complicated fear of Obama’s “otherness.”

    Basically, I still think [to the extent McCain had a unified strategy] that he was going for the old play of lowering turnout by going negative in the traditional sense of lowering overall turnout. Thankfully that failed for him.

    (Also as a side note: the strategy of going negative really seemed to work for Coleman in Minnesota.)


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