October 22, 2004

The rhetoric of Red Sox…

The World Series has nothing to do with the presidential election–unless we humans do what it is we humans do and create a narrative to structure an ambiguous situation and give it meaning. And no journalist will have a difficult time finding someone willing to create meaning:

“It’s a great metaphor,” said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and former instructor at Boston College. “All Americans always root for the underdog. I’m not sure Kerry is one because the polls are so close right now, but he’s been running behind, and he represents the outsider trying to beat the establishment.”

I cannot recall the World Series playing a role in a presidential campaign. But the underdog Red Sox do seem to add an interesting twist to this campaign now that a narrative has been created to structure these events. But how should Kerry use this rhetorical situation? According to the Kerry campaign, the Red Sox’ success may be good for its candidate.

This was an easy structure to create because of the proximity between Kerry and the Red Sox and the similar pathos of sports and campaign politics. Further, we understand campaign politics in terms of sports metaphors (the other primary metaphor is war, which we also use to understand sports). According to Lakoff and Johnson, “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphoric in nature.”

So proximity, pathos, and metaphor combine to make it easy for us to create a rhetorical situation in which Kerry is associated with the Red Sox’ pursuit of a sports championship without this seeming completely odd or inappropriate.

This also means that the Kerry campaign must make difficult rhetorical choices based on this association. The association–appropriate or not–will have some political consequences since it has now been created and fed into the great conversation of the mainstream news media and blogosphere. The narrative is very real now and cannot be ignored.

But what should the candidates do? I have a little advice:

  1. Avoid any statement that associates Kerry with the team as more than a hometown fan. Anything more creates a situation in which Bush then becomes automatically associated with the St. Louis Cardinals. Neither candidate should wish to see this happen because of the particularly emotional relationship Americans have with the game, its statistics, and its mythos. There may actually be, however, a slight (but dangerous) opportunity here for Kerry. St. Louis will almost certainly go for Kerry. Missouri is a red state with two blue “coasts.” Hmmmmmm…I would err on the side of caution and avoid associating.
  2. Be expansive. Talk like Walt Whitman (thematically, not syntactically, i.e. inclusive, patriotic, and visionary) when you talk about the game and both teams. Equate the great contests, not the contestants.
  3. Cheer all good plays.
  4. For Kerry: More photo-ops like those from yesterday’s news in which you are seen watching the game and enjoying good company. But ferchrissakes avoid looking like a geek. Hold your longneck by the long neck. For Bush: You’re good at this “guy” stuff. Hit the nearest couch and enjoy the series.
  5. If the Red Sox win, for Kerry: Keep your celebration low key. There’s a vast heartland of Cardinals fans who think this is one of the best teams ever. Again, think Whitman. For Bush: Equate the improbable win to the American can-do spirit. We’re the ones who can overcome anything–yes, more Whitman.
  6. If the Cardinals win, for Kerry: Make a fuss over a great show and the strength/good nature of the heartland. Revel in the Red Sox curse. For Bush: Resist the urge to equate yourself with the team at this time. Offer your congratulations and move on.

There’s no playbook here. Kerry and Bush will get to write one.

As for me, I’m undecided at the moment. The Missouri guy in me wants to root for the Cardinals. But, I moved to Springfield from an American League town–Kansas City. The Cardinals have always been cross-state rivals. I like cheering for underdogs (typically American unless we’re talking University of Delaware football–2003 1-AA National Champions–then I want to see nothing but crushing victories over hapless foes). Can I bring myself to root for the birds?

8 Responses

  1. Charles Knell 

    Oh boy! This one is a target-rich environment! How about Al Gore = Bill Buckner?

  2. hahaha! Good one! 🙂

  3. Resident Harriden 

    Call me simple-minded, but you can combine proximity, pathos and metaphor (or metafur) any way you like and you’ll never turn John Kerry into a “guy”. Why can’t John Kerry be who he is – an Eastern liberal elite, married to a wealthy heiress. He will never out-Bush, Bush, and why should he try? Even the press covering him are making fun of him (see hilarious pool report from recent goose hunting photo-op) even though they will vote for him to a man (or woman). He was booed at Fenway when he stopped by there before the convention, he called the sacred Lambeau Field “Lambert”, there is even a blog devoted to his sports gaffs. The list goes on and on. The other day he said he would take his “faith” with him to the Oval Office. John Kerry discussing religion is like a pig discussing Descartes. Who does he think he’s fooling? I can understand the tactic of playing to your base during the primaries, then going to the center during the national race, but who decided he needed a complete personality overhaul two weeks before the election? This just feeds into the GOP line that he’ll “Say Anything” to get elected. The Dems could have nominated a “guy” but they thought Kerry had electibility. What’s all this makeover nonsense? Let him be.

  4. acline 

    RH– This entry is about how we create narratives from ambiguous situations and how such creation creates very real rhetorical situations. I think the advice I gave to both candidates is sound as far as it can be known considering this is a new situation.

  5. Resident Harriden 

    The new situation being the Red Sox won?

  6. Sven 
  7. RH… yes, the win creates the *potential* new situation. it is not in itself the new situation. The new situation is the one created by the narrative linking Kerry to the Sox (and this narrative was made easier to create by the three elements I mentioned earlier). In other words, the fact the Sox are in the series at the same time that a Mass. senator is running for president is ambiguous–meaningless–until someone applies a narrative structure to give the situation meaning. Once that’s done, Kerry and Bush must then react to the newly created rhetorical situation (whether they want to or not).

  8. MWS 

    This is a pretty bizaare discussion considering that 90% of the players on both teams are probably Republicans.

    I think RH makes a good case-it’s pointless for Kerry to try to be what he is not. It doesn’t mean Kerry can’t revel in the Red Sox–assuming he really does like baseball. It works for Giuliani because you can see he really does love the Yankees and it’s not just a political trick (if it was he would try to give equal time to the Mets).