In chapters 5 and 6 of Jeffrey Alexander’s book, “The Performance of Politics”, Alexander talks about how campaigns “work the binaries” and “walk the boundaries” in order to win elections. According to Alexander, in order to win an election, the campaign must present its candidate as being the “most civil”. This is done by appealing to concepts that lie in the civil sphere, such as liberty, equality, justice, democracy, etc. If your candidate fails to present him/herself as representative of these “traditional American ideals”, then the candidate is seen as “anticivil” and therefore, not qualified to hold public office.
On the other hand, Alexander refers to this idea of “walking the boundaries”. This concept refers to bringing more focus to themes outside of the civil sphere, such as gender, race, religion, economics, and foreign policy. If a candidate is unable to successfully “work the binaries,” he or she must look outside of the civil sphere and focus on one or more of these ideas to differentiate him/herself from the other candidate.
As I was doing this reading, the religion boundary came to be of particular interest to me. This boundary is interesting because one of the foundations that the United States was built upon is the freedom of religion. Despite this idea of religious freedom being so ingrained into American society, a candidate’s faith is still a huge factor when voters are determining who they will cast their vote for. An interesting case study for this idea is the 2008 U.S. Senate election between Elizabeth Dole and Kay Hagan, when Senator Hagan’s religious identity was brought to the forefront of discussion.
During the 2008 campaign, Elizabeth Dole released an ad titled, “Promises” in which she attacked Kay Hagan for attending a fundraiser party and accepting money from the “Godless Americans PAC”. While Dole didn’t explicitly question Hagan’s faith in the ads, the connection was clear. Kay Hagan was not completely supportive or on board with Christianity.
The paradox is interesting because as Americans in a land of religious freedom, one would assume that our representatives would be held to the same standard. Not so. Especially in the South, it is very difficult for a candidate’s religious beliefs to remain private.
Interestingly, shortly after these ads were released, Dole’s popularity drastically decreased. Kay Hagan publicly stated that the entire ad was, basically, untrue. The fundraiser had many other guests including then Senator John Kerry. It should also be noted that the voiceover at the end saying “There is no god,” which is assumed to be Kay Hagan, is not. Kay Hagan even went so far as to file a lawsuit against Elizabeth Dole for defamation in response to this ad.
This case is interesting because in the attempt to walk the religious boundary and associate her opponent with an atheist group, Elizabeth Dole ends up as appearing “anticivil” because she essentially lied to voters. Dole’s plan was to associate her opponent with an atheist group, much like McCain’s campaign attempted to associate President Obama with Islam. Even if it wasn’t true, the simple association was enough to do damage.
In Dole’s case, her plan completely backfired as it made voters question her civility. “What kind of candidate openly lies to voters?” “We don’t want someone like that representing us.”
In Dole’s attempt to walk the religious boundary, she made a serious miscalculation in not realized how defamation could stop her from effectively working the binaries.
Alexander, J. (2010). The Performance of Politics. Chp. 5-6. Pg. 89-160.
Brown, R. “Senate candidate files lawsuit over ‘Godless’ ad.” New York Times: The Caucus. Web. 30 Oct 2008.
Mooney, A. “Dole’s ‘Godless’ ad causes stir.” CNN Political Ticker. Web. 29 Oct 2008.