Anthropological Analysis of U.S. Political Culture and Rituals
The word “culture” in general entails a concept that attempts to describe human behavior patterns free of value judgments, such as what is good or bad. Political culture, specifically, is defined by Lowell Dittmer (1977, 566) as “a system of political symbols, and this system nests within a more inclusive system that we might term ‘political communication.'” There is no one concise, agreed-upon definition of the term, however, for the purpose of this paper culture, but more specifically political culture, is defined as a system of political symbols within an integrated system of learned patterns of behaviors and ideas that are characteristic of a society.
The paper examines a practice associated with U.S. American political elections in the twenty-first century, the Presidential Debates. The Presidential Debates operate as a symbol of the “culture wars” that is part of the American political culture.
The first part of the aforementioned definition is political symbol, and one political symbol in the United States is that of the presidential debate.
The presidential debates this fall came in three forms: a podium style, a townhall meeting style, and the sit-down face-to-face style. The podium style debate consists of the two candidates standing behind a pole and waiting in turn for each to provide an answer and then a rebuttal. The mediator sits in front of them, and guides them via the questions posed and by keeping tracking of time. The audience is behind the mediator, and is quiet throughout the duration of the debate. In the townhall setting, the speakers have no podium to stand behind but a simple chair, which at the same time seems to expose them to the audience but provides a bit of freedom so as to examine the candidates closer. The mediator again sits in the center directing the course of the debate. The audience is closer, however, and participates in the debate by asking the questions. It is the mediator who chooses the person to ask the question and again keeps track of the time. The face-to-face debate involves the candidates sitting down, face-to-face so that they can direct each other as opposed to the audience like they do in the townhall debate. The mediator sits directly in front of them, much closer, and again chooses the questions and the keeps track of the time. The audience is once again behind the mediator and sits quietly throughout the duration of the debate.
The interpretations of a Presidential Debate form a shared cultural system of meaning, i.e., their understandings are shared, albeit to varying degrees, among members of the same society. (Des Chene, 1996, 1274). The Presidential Debate acts as a symbolic process (ritual) by which, according to Spencer (1996, 535), people of a given society assign meanings to these symbols in order to address the elemental questions about their political, social life. This coincides with what Geertz (1973a, 45) claims, that is that people are in need of symbolic “sources of illumination” to orient themselves with regard to the system of meaning that is any particular culture, and in this case, political culture. In furtherance of this notion, Turner (1967, 36) claims that symbols motivate social action and are “determinable influences inclining persons and groups to action.” This latter notion is supported by Des Chene (1996, 1274) who furthers the idea that actions are indeed guided by interpretation, which allows symbolism to help in the interpretation of the ideal and material activities. When given these definitions of symbolism, it becomes clear that indeed Presidential Debates are symbolic. It is a ritual that occurs every four years and offers a forum where the people can ask questions whether directly or indirectly through a mediator. In doing so, they are addressing the “elemental questions” about their political life. The debates act as a “source of illumination” by using this same forum to highlight the candidates political beliefs so that the people can orient themselves to which candidate they prefer, and then they will act accordingly. Their actions may be in the form of campaigning for their chosen candidate, or simply voting on election day for that candidate. The Presidential Debates help people whose beliefs may first be “unintelligible, [but] become comprehensible when understood as part of a cultural system of meaning.” (Des Chene, 1996, 1274).
The operational part of this definition is learned behavior patterns. Learned behavior patterns are determined by observing and listening. In U.S. political culture, during presidential campaigns there are a series of debates, and we may ask ourselves: What is so interesting about a presidential debate? Surely debate is a natural human characteristic as where individuals and/or communities may express their opinions and desires. Debate, however, is not natural. It is not something that all societies engage in, or would indeed like to engage in. Further, the two presidential candidates’ debating styles are learned behaviors, and there is a pattern: to attack the opposing side in a divisive manner so as to indirectly contribute to the so-called, and recent phenomenon, culture war in the United States political environment. The debates since Nixon and before, to most recent Obama and McCain debates have exemplified this learned behavior pattern. The Republican candidate, John McCain, in the first debate uses key words, such as “maverick”, and then in the second debate, “my friend”, “experience” as well as “maverick”, among other key words, to ignite the emotions of the audience. He emphasizes topics that the audience wants to hear, particularly Republican party members, such as the need to drill oil and that he has more foreign policy experience and is a war hero so he knows how to conduct a war and knows the need – as he is a Vietnam veteran – for the military to win the Iraqi war rather than, as he says, withdraw in a shameful manner as Obama would have it. After being “attacked” from McCain, Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, goes on the attack as well in all three debates by pointing out issues that are most important to many Democrats, and that is for instance healthcare, where Obama attacks McCain for his proposal to tax healthcare benefits “for the first in history”. It is not simply the words they use, but their actions. McCain, during the townhall meeting in particular, paces back and forth while Obama speaks. McCain rolls his eyes when he is in disagreement. He clenches his fists and tightens his jaw. Obama, on the other hand, interrupts repeatedly when in disagreement but smiles so as to maintain control of his emotions, but there is a hint of sarcasm in the smile that leaves an observer feeling as though Obama is saying that the words coming out of McCain’s mouth are not true. The debates has the two attacking each other rather than truly discussing the issues. Though Obama does stick to the issues better and in a concise manner, he still gives way to the attack. At the end of the debate, the lines are clearly drawn between the Republicans and Democrats, such that the lines of the culture war are also drawn.
Not all behavior is learned. When Obama and McCain feel as though they are being “attacked”, they may instinctively wish to protect themselves. This reaction may be instinctive, therefore, not derived from culture per se, but their manners on how they react are learned, because in other societies, there are different means to react and/or respond to verbal attacks. Also, consider McCain’s winking versus blinking. He engages in winking, which is very different from blinking. A wink is a special form of communication which is deliberate to someone in particular to impart a particular message and without the knowledge of the other members, i.e., Barack Obama. (Geertz 1973b, 6-7).
Not all behavior is patterned. Obama stumbling over his words is an event that may be important to the individual but, in most cases, are not part of learned behavior. McCain’s winking, too, may not be patterned but a communication preference to make the winked feel akin to McCain. Even when behavior seems to be patterned, however, some of it is attributable to one individual and has no significance or meaning in society. One person develops a preference for baseball caps, while another prefers pink ties. To the extent that these are personal styles with which an individual performs culturally defined behavior, they are part of his or her personality.
Another part of the definition used in the introduction is “integrated system”. Culture is indeed an integrated system, as opposed to a random mixture of appealing customs or traits. Ideas and behavioral patterns are related to one another in broader patterns called “cultural configurations.” At the center of the latter are basic assumptions and values about the world and the behavior patterns that tend to be closely related with them. These traits are considered as very important and are associated with and underlie a great many other traits, therefore, it is a challenge to modify them. Marginal traits, which are those traits that tend to be loosely tied to the culture and to which people may have little commitment, are more easily altered. For example, methods of war have changed throughout the last century, but the need to persist in war efforts has always been at the heart of Republican value systems.
Because integrated systems explain to some degree change in cultural traits, it is important to some degree when trying to explain the culture war in the U.S. It was during the last election that the issue became very prominent in the media. Both candidates, Kerry and Bush, were at the heart of their respective parties, so to speak, as opposed to being on the margins. The heart of the Republican party is religion and the heart of the Democratic party may be liberalism. Both candidates exemplified these traits and thus hardened the values of these parties, thereby contributing to more intense feelings by party members. In doing so, it contributed to the so-called culture wars. Those who voted for Bush said they did not do so in large part because of Iraq, but because of religious values, and those who voted for Kerry did so for his very liberal values, i.e., abolishing nuclear weapons and war in general, including the Iraqi war. These ideas were “illuminated” or expressed clearly in their Presidential Debates.
Des Chene, Mary. “Symbolic Anthropology.” Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. David Levinson and Melvin Ember eds. New York: Henry Holt, 1996: 274-1278.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973a. “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man.” The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973a: 33-54.
Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973b: 3-30.
Spencer, Jonathan. 1996. “Symbolic Anthropology.” Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1996: 535-539.
Turner, Victor W. “The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual.” Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1967.
Brief Argument Outline
The paper examines a practice associated with U.S. American political elections in the twenty-first century, the Presidential Debates. The Presidential Debates operate as a symbol of the “cultural war” that is part of the American political culture.
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