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15 December 2008

Ritual and Power in U.S. Elections



In my last post I put up a Wordle of Barack Obama's DNC acceptance speech, and I said I'd explain why later. The following is an excerpt from a paper that I recently wrote for my Intro. to Cultural Anthropology class on the ritual purpose of the presidential election. In it I analyzed the role of ritual in the election process from an anthropological standpoint. Essentially, I found that the function of the election ritual is to renew our vision of America and our sense of national identity. However, looking deeper, I found another explanation as well - it's still largely in the philosophical stage, but it's an interesting approach that I hope to pursue further someday.
Let me know what you think - perhaps a little discussion will help me flesh these ideas out a bit more.


Ritual, Values, and the Oppression of the American People

For those of us who view the world with a more cynical eye, the election ritual can present another, somewhat more sinister face. Behind the ritual sociodramas in which values and ideals compete for dominance, lies another motivation: the pacification of the American people, and the redirection of energy for change into a predictable and institutionalized format. This is accomplished through the ritual performances in a sort of symbolic slight of hand. Following his own unique interpretation of Marxist economics, David Graeber argues that value which is created in the domestic or industrial spheres – that is, either human beings or useful goods – is co-opted by the economic elite through the symbolic manipulation of money (Graeber 2001). Money is an abstraction and reification of value, and it obscures the human relationships involved in the creation of that value (Graeber 2001). Many economic interactions are highly ritualized themselves, and it is through these transactions that the economic elite is able to manipulate value in the abstracted form of money (Graeber 2001). A similar thing can be said to occur in the election and other political rituals. The symbolic values that politicians project and manipulate in the ritual theater are abstracted and reified forms of values that were created in the mundane world of ordinary human relationships (i.e., family values, community, hope, freedom, prosperity, democracy, compassion). These ordinary human relationships are obscured by the abstracted values, and politicians can claim those values as their own and offer them back to us in exchange for votes, service, and loyalty, despite the fact that we were the ones who created them in the first place. This effectively usurps our ability to take initiative to implement values on our own because we think the politicians will do it for us. That's not to say that all politicians are malicious and consciously try to disempower the people. For the most part they are merely taking advantage of a structure that has been in place for a long time to achieve other ends – the pursuit of personal status, power, money, or even out of a genuine desire to make America a better place.
In this election, the recurring theme was change, and both candidates took on that mantle for themselves. Indeed, the desire for change has permeated American society in recent years, to the point where even supporters of the Bush administration are uneasy. However, by symbolically identifying themselves with the abstracted value of change through the medium of ritual, both Obama and McCain have implied that they are the change for which Americans have been searching. Obama was the candidate who projected this value most effectively, and this, more than anything, got people out of their houses and into the voting booth resulting in the highest voter turnout in 40 years and a win for Obama. However, the president is not a miracle worker, and the legislative process is extremely slow and conservative; even if Obama wanted to implement real changes, it's doubtful that he would be able to.
Certainly, there will be differences between Obama's administration and that of George W. Bush, but the kinds of deep structural changes that many people have been hoping for are not likely to happen under Obama. Obama himself hinted at this in the days following the election, when he downplayed the hope that had permeated his campaign until then, and his choices for the leaders of his administration are anything but signs of change. Real, substantial change in the fabric of American society does not come from the government or elected officials, it comes from ordinary people taking a stand for their values. This was the case in the civil rights movement, in the women's suffrage movement, in the anti-war movement, even in the Revolutionary War itself – they may have ultimately resulted in legislative changes, but they were all started by ordinary people and ordinary actions. It remains to be seen if the current desire for change will bear fruit, but it certainly won't if people believe that electing Obama President is the change they were seeking.

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