In Jeffrey C. Alexander’s book, The Performance of Politics, he emphasizes the rhetoric a candidate must use when referring to the voting public, at least the rhetoric a candidate must use in order to have a successful campaign. The democratic “performance,” according to Alexander, is ultimately directed at the voting public. It is because of this that power seekers must characterize the public as rational, honest, independent and qualified to make educated decisions. Alexander argues that this is best exemplified when examining presidential primary campaigns. Alexander also describes the way in which candidates must “work the binaries,” making sure they appear “civil” to voters because, as Alexander says, “Making oneself pure, polluting one’s opponent—this is the stuff of which political victory is made.” Alexander’s argument is centered on the 2008 presidential election, however, many parallels can be drawn between the 2008 presidential election and the one in 1968, where many elements of Alexander’s argument are applicable.
In March of 1968, following the New Hampshire primary, Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president of the United States and began a historical primary campaign that is still discussed to this day. The brother of the assassinated president was challenging the incumbent president (his brother’s running mate and successor) for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Kennedy entered the 1968 Democratic Primary late, and after President Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election all eyes were on Kennedy. Kennedy was only able to participate in a handful of state primaries before he, like his brother, was assassinated. However, even in these few states, one can see Kennedy using both Alexander’s ideas of the presumptively rational voter rhetoric and of working the binaries to use.
Kennedy’s first campaign speech took place at Kansas State University. This speech is a prime example of the type of language Alexander says candidates must use when referring to the voting public. Kennedy says, “We as a people are strong enough, we are brave enough to be told the truth of where we stand. This country needs honesty and candor in its political life and from the President of the United States.” Here, Kennedy is describing the voting public as both brave and strong, and by doing so is establishing both the public and himself in the binary terms of civil sphere that Alexander argues are at the center of political campaigns and that are key to victory.
In a speech at Ball State University in Indiana, Kennedy describes the important role of the voting public. For example, he says, “We must look honestly at our policies abroad.” Even in this simple statement Kennedy is characterizing the public as honest and qualified to make decisions. He also encourages a sense of solidarity by using “we,” as if the American public and Kennedy are in this together, once again emphasizing his civil characteristics.
Solidarity is also a common theme in one of Kennedy’s most famous speeches entitled “The Mindless Menace of Violence,” which he gave the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which occurred in the middle of the primary elections. This speech is unlike any other Kennedy delivered during the campaign because it is not about his candidacy, at least not explicitly. In the speech Kennedy discusses the American public by saying, “But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.” In The Performance of Politics, Alexander describes the idea of solidarity that connects those to the public sphere. This speech shows how this idea was just as relevant in 1968 as it was in 2008. Alexander would argue that this “performance” by Kennedy was an indirect way for him to reiterate to the American public that he was a civil candidate, and therefore, deserved to win.
Although The Performance of Politics was published in 2010, Alexander’s arguments about working the binaries and the rhetoric used when addressing the voting public can still be made when looking at Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign over 40 years prior in 1968. Although many things have changed in political campaigns since the Sixties, there are still fundamental elements that have remained intact and that were as relevant 40 years ago as they are today.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print
Clarke, Thurston. The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America. New York: Henry Holt, 2008. Print.