McCain the Ironist

in Barack Obama, irony, John McCain, postirony

Neal Gabler has written an interesting analysis of the McCain campaign for the NYT:

Seeming to view himself and the whole political process with a mix of amusement and bemusement, Mr. McCain is an ironist wooing a group of individuals [journalists] who regard ironic detachment more highly than sincerity or seriousness. He may be the first real postmodernist candidate for the presidency — the first to turn his press relations into the basis of his candidacy.

Gabler’s analysis does not seem entirely right to me. Journalists do love McCain–and have consequently let him get away with many gaffs and misstatements, and (more seriously) have not questioned his open, nonmisstated, nonironic militarism.

But to say the press’s esteem is the result of a shared love of irony–perhaps true enough–seems extremely simplistic and misses the bigger story. An ironic Democratic candidate could not, I suspect, get away with McCain’s “candid” style; he (or she) would be pecked to death by the pundits. Moreover, many journalists seem to love Barack Obama precisely for his openly postironic style of political engagement; this seems to me a more plausible claim than that journalists love McCain for being ironic.

Obama perfectly well understands how our media system operates, and he can manipulate it just as well as McCain, albeit by means of a different strategy. Many pundits like Andrew Sullivan support Obama precisely in the terms of marketing theory (even if they don’t realize it); Obama is a hip brand, a product line that makes a corrupted and ironic America feel good about itself again, a celebrity politician whose election will redeem us, etc. etc. Whether this idiom of support is an invention of the media itself or a cultivated strategy by the Obama camp remains unclear to me.

Whatever its other merits, the conceit of Gabler’s argument gives me license to post it here and to write this silly slogan: If Barack Obama wins his party’s nomination, as it seems he will, America will behold its first national political contest between irony (McCain) and postirony (Obama). For the sake of my academic career–obviously the only criteria relevant here–I sincerely hope that Brand Obama wins both the party nomination and the national election.