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.

T.S Eliot.
The poet and critic T.S Eliot

Rick Santorum messed up during his visit to a bowling alley in Lacrosse, Wis. last week. He was chumming with the nearby university’s College Republicans when a young man reaching for a bright pink bowling ball caught his eye. “You’re not gonna use the pink ball,” Santorum warned him. “We’re not gonna let you do that—not on camera.” And then he went for cute: “Friends don’t let friends use pink balls.”

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

A Reuters reporter, Sam Youngman, overheard the wisecrack and tweeted it to the masses. The Human Rights Campaign instantly issued a statement condemning Santorum’s “ignorant” remark for “advancing tired gender norms.” The blogosphere lit up with indignant commentary. How costly the blunder will prove—whether it will earn a footnote in history books about the 2012 campaign—remains to be seen, but “Pink Ballgate” has already rolled into the lexicon, darkening presidential prospects that already weren’t exactly rosy.

Santorum’s bowling ball represents the latest in a series of objects that have attached themselves to candidates in strange and damaging ways. It’s not hard to imagine a train of Etch A Sketches chacha-ing through Mitt Romney’s nightmares. Back in 2000, Al Gore was laid low by a lockbox. Michael Dukakis was done in by a tank in 1988. In his 1919 essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T.S. Eliot advanced the theory of the objective correlative, a concrete thing or set of circumstances that crystallized the essence of something abstract. Eliot wrote, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding … a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

Advertisement

This modernist claim, that the scientist/artist could brew specific feelings from fixed ingredients, has experienced a bizarre rebirth on the Republican campaign trail. Only now there are no artists, only fluky events that conspire to tangle up the mythologies behind particular candidates with certain physical facts. In our age of constant media exposure, political figures have grown nebulous, enveloped in clouds of perception. Somehow Santorum’s bowling ball and Romney’s Etch  A Sketch have tapped into and solidified the abstractions, the popular anxieties, swirling around these two candidates—they’ve lodged in our imaginations as the politicians’ objective correlatives.

Anyone who’s been 7 years old can see where the Romney/Etch-a-Sketch analogy gets its sticking power. The Massachusetts governor has offended fringe and center alike by slip-sliding all over the conservative-moderate spectrum. When senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom announced on CNN that Romney planned “to hit a reset button for the fall campaign … to shake it up and start all over again … like an Etch A Sketch,” voters were beamed an indelible mental image of the candidate’s stated convictions dispersing into tiny random dots and realigning into a picture of who knows what. (Give Eliot an Etch A Sketch, and he’ll show Romney fear in a handful of dust.) Plus, there’s the toy’s polish, the telegenic shine of its blank screen, the smooth lack of transparency with which its designs emerge. Perhaps most damning, the Etch A Sketch unlocks certain fears that, for Romney, a void exists where his beliefs should be. That the true fuel of his campaign is sheer—and perhaps infantile—ambition.

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.

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. 

  Slate Plus
Working
Nov. 27 2014 12:31 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 11 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a helicopter paramedic about his workday.