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Reading the Election

Steve Erickson's closing argument: contradictions and Obama

November 06, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Since the start of the year, Steve Erickson has been blogging the presidential race at the American Prospect, and if you’re not election-ed out, or so stressed that you can’t read another word about the voting, his closing post, “The President as Metaphor,” is a profound and subtle look at why this matters so much.

Erickson, of course, is an astute political observer, the author of two books of campaign reporting, “Leap Year” and “American Nomad,” in addition to his nine novels.

His 2004 L.A. Weekly essay “George Bush and the Traitorous Country” remains one of the most heartfelt pieces of political writing I know: “We should say that we are traitors of one America, patriots of another,” he argues there. “We’re traitors of the America of the banged gavel, the Salem stench, the hate that hates in the name of God, the America that declares war on its founding ideas in the name of America; we are patriots of the America of Jefferson’s eternal pursuit, Madison’s manifesto, memory’s mystic chord, our nature’s better angels, malice toward none and charity for all.”

In “The President as Metaphor,” Erickson writes with similar engagement about today’s election. “For his supporters,” he reminds us. “… [Barack] Obama has failed to be, in the most positive sense, the very transformational figure that his opponents accuse him of being in the most negative sense.”

And yet, he continues, how could it be otherwise when Obama is defined by our projections, which have less to do with who he is than what he signifies?

“Our response to the Obama presidency,” Erickson observes, “has been a national psychotic break. It’s reflected in our bipolar perception that he’s at once rigid and vacillating, naïve and expedient, ubiquitous and remote, a partisan and a pushover, a subversive and a sellout — the mix-tape president of a mix-tape country assembled from bits of music that everyone heard and loved and sang in common until all we could hear instead were the other bits of the tape that we ignored the first time because they didn’t conform to whatever we loved or detested to begin with.”

"The President as Metaphor” is personal; Erickson invokes his 84-year-old mother, who, “existing on Medicare, Social Security, an FHA reverse mortgage, and a pension from my father who, by way of a corporate middleman, worked for NASA’s space program in the 1960s and early 1970s … will hurry to her polling place to vote against Obama’s socialist agenda.”

As for himself, he acknowledges that “I’ll cancel out my mother’s vote; in pure numbers, it’s the best I can do.” But even more, he’ll “vote for faith one more time, not knowing when I’ll have the chance again.”

The faith to which Erickson refers is not religious; it is, rather, a faith in American ideals.

“Raised a conservative Republican in my youth,” he writes, “I appreciate philosophical interrogations of the role of government in American life. … These are fundamental American arguments that have existed since Jefferson and James Madison squared off against John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Suspicion of government may be the single healthiest and most reassuring distinction of the American political personality.”


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