Dualing political tones on television
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!
Filed under: Academia, Media Politics | 4 Comments
Tags: election, maddow, MSNBC, obama, olbermann, political ads