AS POLITICS has become more scripted over the decades, journalists have begun to sound like critics, discussing campaigns in terms of “memes” and “narratives.” Contests are analyzed on aesthetic grounds almost as though they are movies or Broadway shows. This summer, with Obama versus Romney still in previews, a consensus emerged among the critics that remains largely unchallenged: The show is a flop, a stupefying spectacle of triviality and negativity that may as well be titled Numb and Number. Under the headline, “Dullest Campaign Ever,” The New York Times’ David Brooks blamed “tit-for-tat” Web feuds, “ossified” ideologies, and ads directed at the “uninformed.” Peggy Noonan, in another pan, pinned the race’s alleged “lack of passion” on candidates wanting in “political genius.”
The problem with treating politics as stagecraft, particularly this year, is that it mistakes the production for the play and confuses theater with drama. Theater is shallow, drama deep. And it’s at the dramatic level that this campaign is singularly engrossing. Down in the catacombs of the group unconscious where elections really occur, where the spotlights don’t reach, and where the polls can barely penetrate, a mythological struggle is unfolding between two profoundly different archetypal figures: a lost boy who knew his father largely in dreams and grew up bedeviled by questions of identity, and a favorite son whose father’s support freed him from having to question much of anything. Barack Obama, a lonely meritocratic floater whose searcher parents met while on the drift and then wafted off in separate directions, fashioned a self from thin air; while Mitt Romney, from a family of pioneers who’d safely reached the promised land, hit the ground already in position.
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