The Preacher and the Pitbull

comparing tones of the rnc and dnc.

You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick. – Sarah Palin, RNC Speech

On that path to freedom, Harriet Tubman had one piece of advice. …If you hear the dogs, keep going. – Hillary Clinton, DNC Speech

What was so striking about the Republican and Democratic National Conventions was the difference in their tones: the DNC was full of the rhetoric of uplift and solidarity, while the RNC kept returning to bitterness and divisiveness.

Of course, there were plenty of policy differences. But since both campaigns have turned to the same rhetoric of change and transformation, the contrasts in style became increasingly marked.

Obama and others at the DNC in Denver drew upon the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom “I Have a Dream” to strike a stern but hopeful tone. Even critics noticed the cathartic power of this style of politics.

Meanwhile, the Republicans trotted out every stale tactic in their playbook — accusations of elitism, insinuations of lack of character, grandstanding references to war heroism, and claims of self-righteous outsiderdom that bordered on outright lies. Their speeches (and the audience’s responses) displayed a kind of cruelness. This was the politics of bitterness, but even more than that it was the politics of meanness.

What’s intriguing about this RNC tone is that it brings together those who glory in their privilege (the kind of dismissive teasing by those with power of those less fortunate who would dare to complain) and those who feel a kind of rage and humiliation at their shortfalls (the infamous working class who supposedly cling to their guns and religion). The tone of shrill cruelty performs enormous political work by bonding those together who share common emotions but lack the same material interests.

Nowhere was this tone more on display than in the style and presentation of Sarah Palin. The pitbull in lipstick brought together in one figure a kind of celebrity display of perfected success and hints of awkward, failed dreams.

* * *

The tonal differences between the DNC and RNC seemed, in the end, to revolve around competing visions of individualism.

Democrats struck a tone of uplift to emphasize that individuals need each other in order to thrive as individuals (“we cannot walk alone” Obama announced, paraphrasing King). Republicans repeatedly argued that the individual is under continual threat by forces beyond his or her control and might only bond together in a kind of fearful anger, pent-up rage, or militarized aggression (“This world of threats and dangers is not just a community, and it doesn’t just need an organizer,” according to Palin).

If political candidates act out collective visions of the American individual in their presentations and personas, then the question of the election at this juncture seems to be: should the American engage in community organizing or bear the marks of being a tortured prisoner of warfare? Is the American individual a figure of fulfillment in community or fear in isolation? Is the American individual to be like the preacher or the pitbull?

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