What T.S. Eliot Teaches Us About the GOP Primary

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 2 2012 7:02 PM

What T.S. Eliot Teaches Us About the GOP Primary

Romney’s Etch A Sketch. Santorum’s pink bowling ball. The poet and critic understood how a concrete thing could sum up a person—or a candidate.

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As for Santorum, what icon could be more telling than a pink globe saturated in shame and prescription? The former senator’s stance on family planning puts him on the front lines of the so-called Republican “war against women,” where he’s known for his severe attitude toward the female body. That ruddy sphere also captures the faint whiff of sexual embarrassment dogging Santorum despite, or perhaps because of, his Catholic purity. (Dan Savage’s online proselytizations haven’t helped.)

At the same time, it speaks to his homophobic record. Presumably, at the alley, Santorum objected not to the girliness of the ball, but to its gender-bending placement in the hands of a young man. His strong reaction to a trivial detail (Does anyone actually look at the color of the bowling ball they pick up?) hints at how deep his bias may run. Also, micromanagement on this order can transmit a sort of “lady doth protest too much” desperation—and American politics are nothing if not an education in the notion that hypocrisy likes to hide behind implacable strictness. “Sanctorum’s” rigidity may actually end up tarring his choirboy image. (Or so says the flamboyant sports gear now attached to his name.)

Finally, that pink bowling ball exposes a gap that may be integral to understanding also-rans: the chasm between how they want to be perceived and how they are perceived. Last week, Santorum tried repeatedly to leverage his sports prowess into instant camaraderie with Midwestern voters. “You’re going to have someone who knows how to bowl,” he told a Wisconsin crowd on Saturday, “someone who grew up like you.” But polls indicate that the manly, grassroots message isn’t getting across. Instead, the candidate’s boasts are reading as vain bids to revive a faltering campaign. In other words, a bravado meant to signal blue-collar credentials is in fact coming off as weak, emasculated, and—pardon me for trafficking in Santorum’s own “tired gender norms” for a moment—pink.

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So where does all this leave the voting public? Objective correlatives, like any kind of shorthand, can be useful in politics. They pin down a jumble of complex thoughts in one place; they’re wickedly efficient. (Think of the pride, grief, and outrage bound up in 2003’s catchphrase “Mission Accomplished.”) In the ferment of living, few people have time to lengthily analyze their emotional impressions of a candidate, formulate them into a theory, and present it around the dinner table. It’s easier to call Romney the “Etch A Sketch guy.” And it gets the job done.

Or it almost does. Cognitive shorthand becomes dangerous when it threatens to replace real critical thought instead of aiding it. For me, the problems of our symbolizing impulse came home to roost in last week’s Supreme Court oral argument with Justice Antonin Scalia’s reduction of the Affordable Care Act to … broccoli. Could the government force you to buy it? With his question, Scalia succeeded in (again) concretizing people’s fears about a nanny state while erasing the context that would give Obamacare a fighting chance. And while my political persuasions are probably already clear, I’d be hard-pressed to argue that either the Etch A Sketch or the pink bowling ball comes close to doing Romney or Santorum justice as people or candidates.  

Of course, we don’t know how meaningful such symbols will be in the broader story of the Romney and Santorum campaigns. T.S. Eliot might conclude by observing that, when it comes to politics, we’re all unwitting poets—which, if poets are truly the unacknowledged legislators of the world, may not be such a bad thing. 

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