October 2, 2008
The Hansen Report: Modern versus Postmodern Politics
Can differences between McCain and Obama be explained by worldview categories?
You can listen to every stump speech and read every position paper, but nothing compares to evaluating presidential candidates side-by-side during a debate. Their contrasting styles and views emerge in ways you hadn't noticed during the long primary season. The candidates practice their lines and prepare their strategies, but the format allows for precious moments of spontaneity and even humor. The best candidates deftly address issues in ways that lodge them in the public consciousness.
Perhaps the best example of this is President Reagan, who in 1984 famously said, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." His 56-year-old opponent, Walter Mondale, could only look on in laughter.
The first debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama provided no such memorable moments. But it did highlight important distinctions between the Republican and Democratic candidates. Namely, McCain and Obama represent key differences between modern and postmodern cultures. Analyzing their debate through this lens reveals similarities to the church's own debates about how to respond to shifting cultures.
Obama spoke with empathy about the personal effects of the current financial crisis on Main Street America. He advocated greater oversight for Wall Street. McCain, too, said he wants oversight, but he emphasized different reasons for the crisis. He spoke of individual greed and said the government needs to hold the failed executives accountable. As the debate progressed, McCain spoke passionately about members of Congress who perpetuate the "evils of this earmarking and pork-barrel spending." McCain underscored personal morals where Obama accentuated communal values.
Obama consistently drew attention to points of agreement with McCain. He credited McCain for opposing President Bush on torture, for example. By contrast, McCain chided Obama for not understanding the issues and for displaying naïveté. He perpetuated the Right vs. Left dichotomy by describing Obama as the most liberal member of the Senate. While Obama sought to build consensus, McCain pointed out their differences.
The debate's most contentious moments came when Obama reiterated his intent to "meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing, if I think it's going to keep America safe." Despite taking a political beating for this view from Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama willingly contrasted himself with McCain:
But we are also going to have to, I believe, engage in tough, direct diplomacy with Iran, and this is a major difference I have with Senator McCain. This notion--by not talking to people we are punishing them--has not worked. It has not worked in Iran, it has not worked in North Korea. In each instance, our efforts of isolation have actually accelerated their efforts to get nuclear weapons. That will change when I'm president of the United States.
"So let me get this right," McCain responded. "We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No, you're not'? Oh, please."
McCain is a man of action and frank talk. Obama sees intrinsic value in engagement, which may even produce unexpected tangible consensus. You could plug in certain pastors and see the same differences.
Nationalism is a key reality of the modern world. But postmodernism prioritizes the global community. McCain hammered Obama for advocating precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, which McCain said would result in a host of horrendous consequences for America and the Middle East. He promised to seek American "victory and honor." Obama was more concerned about America's global reputation. Near the end of the debate, he shared a story about his Kenyan father writing letters so he could attend an American college. At the time, Obama said, America offered hope that hard work could pay off. "The ideals and the values of the United States inspired the entire world," Obama said. "I don't think any of us can say that our standing in the world now, the way children around the world look at the United States, is the same."
In their exchanges, Obama called McCain by his first name, drawing attention to his personality. McCain never reciprocated, indicating respect for Obama's office but not necessarily for Obama himself. This difference highlighted Obama's preference to question McCain's judgment and prudence as McCain drew attention to his own experience and record. McCain even mocked intuition and President Bush when explaining his views on Russia.
"I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes, and I saw three letters, a 'K,' a 'G,' and a 'B,'" McCain said. "And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior."
Not everything in the debate can be framed as the difference between a modern and postmodern worldview. But like our church debates, a little awareness about perspective goes a long way toward understanding. The November election's results may help church leaders gauge the mood of their own constituencies. A tougher challenge is knowing when and how to confront those cultural assumptions for our own good and for the sake of the gospel.