Monday, December 29, 2014

Reagan's "Morning in America"

Critics have identified the short campaign ad “Morning in America” from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign as one of the most effective—and influential—campaign ads of all time. No doubt the ad stands out for not only the context, which was one the most successful presidential campaigns of all time, one that saw Reagan crush his challenger Walter Mondale by taking 49 out of 50 states, but also for its content, which presented a bucolic and peaceful view of regular American life, one that Reagan compared favorably to the social upheaval of the 1960’s and the economic difficulties of the late 1970’s.
            Reagan’s appearance at this juncture, positioned neatly between the upheaval that ushered in and undermined Richard Nixon but before the end of the Cold War, has been the subject of considerable scholarly attention. I want to here meditate on several different readings from critical scholars that often focus on one aspect of Reagan: his status as a simulation. Diane Rubenstein reads Reagan’s presidency as a kind of Baudrillardian simulation par excellence, a president who seemingly stood for nothing and in so doing could be the concept of America itself. While other leaders like John Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower could draw on the kingly residues of the nation’s higher office with either reference to bodily charisma (Kennedy’s sexuality) or military prowess (Eisenhower’s role as Supreme Allied Commander), the trappings of the old sovereign understanding of the king also constrained and threatened these leaders, subordinating their charisma and power to the Ego-Ideal of a perfect, universally powerful (and religiously designated) leader.
While I am often loathe to draw on his work, Rubenstein’s deployment of Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal wherein signs serve not a representational function but instead a self-referential one, ushers us into  an era where “territory no longer precedes the map but is generated by it” (p. 584).  This concept explains Reagan’s success in a way purely semiotic theory cannot: a representational account of language is often frustrated by a figure like Reagan precisely because the presence of “objective” indicators of his flaws as president—scandals, wars, an interest in astrology—did not in practice collapse Reagan’s presidency. Suspended between the subjective understanding of Reagan’s failures as a policymaker and his enormous symbolic political capital is this self-referential status of the Reagan presidency: Reagan and the America he was a part of were separated tautologically from the crisis and disasters that attended to his time in office.
          In this way Reagan can admit to the arms-for-hostages deal while remaining distant from any responsibility for it, as Rubenstein notes that Reagan’s statement “’I told the American people that I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that it is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.’” (p. 587). Even when there is a real problem, Americans continue to feel as if everything is ok. “Morning in America” produces—anticipates even—this sense of good feeling even in the face of still troublesome conditions. Hence Rubenstein’s point about maps generating territory; much the same could be said for political space, drawing a connection to theorists working in the area of publicity.
          Michael Warner focuses on how Reagan’s image made him the “champion spokesmodel for America” in Warner’s words (p. 173). The phrase “spokesmodel,” seems intentionally gendered here: a “spokesman” pitches a product while a “spokesmodel” is feminized, simply displaying , gesturing, and pointing to a desirable object, generating a symmetry between their own sexual desirability and the object. Reagans capacity to instill identification with his audiences, even where this identification was not selfsame with popularity in the public polls, was such that he could be said to have an immense amount of political capital in the sense that those who insulted him found themselves constrained, and those who opposed him politically found themselves the subject of public ire.  Like “the people” Reagan does not have speech, he simply stands in to point to America’s self-referential goodness, in much the same way that people simply living their lives in “Morning in America” provide the proof that America is a great nation. In having seemingly little agency or persona, Reagan mirrored the impotence of the public. Warner’s reading works similarly to that of Joan Copjec, who argues in Read My Desire that Reagan’s impotence was constitutive of his authority rather than evidence of a lack. Identifying with Reagan did not threaten one’s sense of self in the way that embracing a charismatic John F. Kennedy or a geographically-specific George W. Bush might. As an added bonus, such signifying does not invoke Ernst Kantorowicz’s theory of royal power, producing a president capable of living up to symbolic expectations, ones that merely ask for a president to be like “the people” rather than one who is above and rules them in a manner guaranteed to activate that traditionally American robust ideology of individualism.
            Citizens, Warner says, long for “privileged public disembodiment” (p. 176).  Abstraction is the key technology for producing the modern public sphere, and where consumerism substitutes for civic participation, citizens seek to consume in a way that reduces that anxieties associated with existing. Reagan’s befuddlement made him one of the citizens. Reagan could thus witness disasters with the citizenry. Moreover, he could, like cititzens, admit to some rational level of culpability for a disaster or scandal, but maintain his emotive, human distance from them. In line with Warner’s work, this model of present distancing from politics explains how citizens might routinely cathetic to a political system that rarely, if ever, serves their interests: they “rationally” know it to be true but feel otherwise, and feeling trumps.
            It is telling that “Morning in America” includes no disasters, no threats, only a happy and bucolic nation rising to meet the day. It also includes no persons of color. The ad opens in the morning hours, showing people either working or on their way to it. Amongst the various occupations depicted are paperboy, farmer, firefighter, and white-collar work. The first twenty seconds of the advertisement are dedicated to commerce:  folks either go to or are at work, or engage in acts of commerce: a voice over mentions increasing volumes of home purchasing while the ad shows some presumably new homeowners marching a large, just-purchased rug into their new house. Meanwhile the voiceover reminds that “more Americans will go to work this morning than ever before in the nation’s history” while commenting on the remarkable drops in interest rates, contrasting the Reagan recovery with the difficult days of Jimmy Carter. These are not just the conditions that facilitate prosperity: they are prosperity.
Following these displays of commerce, the video transitions into the scene of a smiling, elderly woman watching a young, heterosexual couple getting married, while the narrator adds that today “6500 young men and women will be married.” The narrator then notes that, with today’s lower inflation rates, these married couples can anticipate economic prosperity will remain stable. Out of 53 seconds of content in the advertisement, fully 15 seconds are dedicated to the events of this marriage, which include not only the walk down the aisle but the smiling procession into wedded bliss: not to mention, a prosperous future. The closing embrace between the grandmother and her newly-married granddaughter, both clad in white, transforms into the US Capitol building in a screen transition, symbolically producing these ordinary Americans living their life with a prosperous future, emphasizing how the center of American life is the population itself, rather than the government. In fact, this appearance of the Capitol—along with a brief shot of a firefighter schoolchildren, and some soldiers raising the American flag—are the only shots of government agents in the entire commercial until Reagan’s face appears at the end. It is of course notable that the shot is of the Capitol: the building that houses a multitude of, rather than one, of America’s leaders, creating a kind of relay of multiciplicity that reinforces Reagan’s version of populism.
            Indeed, after this brief shot of the Capitol we repeatedly see American flags, being raised in the morning in a variety of different contexts like schools and military bases. This, we are told, is the daily life of America: marriage, work, learning, symbolic acts of patriotism. We see a carpool taking someone to work, the hug from grandmother to granddaughter, people smiling and waving. The message is clear: the American people are doing very well, very well indeed. And this happy shared living mirrors the economic prospects of the nation. If Reagan’s “Time for Choosing” could manufacture anxiety our of prosperity, and if Nixon’s silent majority gave Americans a way to make sense of the chaos of the 60’s without indicting themselves,  “Morning in America” made the fact of living, of going about one’s quotidian business into tactile proof that America was on the right path.
            Indeed, this calm morning exists in part because of one major absence, the absence of the government.  Though the ad is for Reagan’s presidential campaign, Reagan himself does not appear until the last few seconds of the advertisement. While there are agents of the government present, it is almost always figures who represent either local government—firefighters and schoolteachers—or civic necessities, like the aforementioned firefighters or officers of the military. Government here is mostly absent, present only when there is threat to life and property (fire, war) or when so localized that it can be directly connected to the community will, as in the schoolhouse. Otherwise the life of the community is defined by their own acts: commerce, labor, love, with no government present.
            It bears noting that this population is industrious, virtuous, hardworking, and finding fulfillment in their relations with one another. The absence of inflation and the reduction of other economic negatives, combined with the felt positivity of the Americans living their lives in the ad campaign suggest an America where prosperity of the population mirrors the economic prosperity generally. That these are achieved in the absence of the state is no accident. After all, the idea that the default character of the American “people” is that of a peace and prosperity is a very old notion, but politicians have maneuvered around in it in a number of different ways. Nixon’s silent majority worked by producing peace and prosperity as the desire of most Americans, and used the appearance of instability, protest, and dissent throughout America to confirm and reassure those who felt anxious and troubled that what was occurring was not the “real” America. Nixon, of course, was fighting a pitched battle against a more-or-less openly legitimate social welfare state. By Reagan’s time, this consensus had begun to crumble, and so Reagan’s production of calm as the appropriate character of the movement works to suggest America is on the right path.

            Establishing that the American people were in the process of returning the nation to its greatness helped to create conditions felicitous for American conservatives to rewrite American civil space as a site for pitched battles between on the one hand a peaceable, hardworking and family-driven—and flatly, white—majority of Americans one one side against “political” individuals who attack and threaten to undermine “traditional” American cultural mores by pointing out asymmetries in power and existing injustices. Cindy Patton argues in “Refiguring Social Space” that the new right articulated a neutral concept of “civil rights” as the simple right of individual—here conflated with cultural—existence. In this way groups begging for “special rights” like the Equal Rights Amendment were fracturing and violating American civil rights by watering down the “real” struggles of the Civil Rights Movement through particularizing identity maneuvers that performatively eradicate the consensus even as they testify to the attraction attendant to the fantasy of a smooth and consensus-ridden democratic public. Conservatism needed these particularizations to threaten something, and that something was Morning in America. The other step in this process was for conservative rhetors to matriculate state-phobia from its Cold War context into a more useful mechanism for understanding domestic politics, a theme I will soon return to at length.