Campaign Watching from Stockholm

From the Series: Crisis of Liberalism

Photo by Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi.

Every four years the suggestion comes up, here and there in the world: as everybody on the planet is affected by the outcome of U.S. presidential elections, everybody should have a right to vote. True, not all adults in this global citizenry of seven billion would be well informed about the issues. But that may well be true of some American citizens, too.

How does the 2016 election campaign look from Stockholm? Many people, no doubt, attend to any foreign news rather distractedly. They can hardly miss the campaign altogether: it is covered by public television and radio, and by national newspapers—even as the coverage ranges from excellent to mediocre. Fewer are likely to proceed to foreign and foreign-language sources. CNN International is in many cable TV packages, but its endless, self-congratulatory trailers tax the viewer’s patience. It takes a committed America-watcher to follow the coverage regularly for the full year of a presidential campaign. Even then, one is not exposed to the entire stream of messages that forms part of the American everyday: nothing much about Senate, Congressional, or gubernatorial elections; no campaign ads, favorable or adversarial; no emails begging for contributions.

Moreover, foreign news is filtered through what is closer at hand. Seeing things from a distance, the reasonably worldly Stockholmer might connect some of the worrying campaign news to recent European experiences: terrorism scares, xenophobic populist parties, Brexit, and the ins and outs of an odd Austrian presidential election, as well as less dramatic mini-crises in Scandinavian politics, all show similar tendencies in what comes to feel like a hall of mirrors.

Yet finding these tendencies at the center of American politics is disturbing in a special way. The United States is positioned in the Swedish imagination as a place open to newcomers. Initially, more or less every immigrant group had a hard time; Ola Larsmo’s (2016) Swede Hollow, a novel set in the early twentieth century in a slum in St. Paul, Minnesota, is one of the books being talked about in Stockholm this season. But with time, we assure ourselves, people have made it into American society. John F. Kennedy’s (1964) A Nation of Immigrants takes up this theme, as does Barack Obama’s (1995) Dreams from My Father. Yet today, another presidential candidate will have Mexicans pay for a wall of exclusion and wants to keep Muslims out!

This also becomes part of the news in Sweden. The streams of refugees that made their way through Europe in 2015 stretched Swedish material and organizational resources thin, too, but locals might recall that some years ago the mayor of Södertälje, an industrial town of eighty thousand just south of Stockholm, was invited to Washington to address members of the U.S. Congress. That year, Södertälje had taken in more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined.

For two centuries, claiming neutrality, Sweden has stayed out of foreign wars. Recently, though, there has been a more active debate about the possibility of joining NATO. But what would we be joining, with a President Trump (a candidate sometimes resembling Vladimir Putin’s useful idiot) apparently not committed to defending inconvenient allies, like small Baltic countries? These are among Sweden’s nearest neighbors. Their fates as part of the Soviet Union for almost half a century remain in Swedish collective memory; many Estonians fled across the sea in small vessels, and they have been among Sweden’s most successful, best integrated minorities.

So these are major issues, seen from the horizon of Stockholm. Fewer Stockholmers have noticed Donald Trump’s (1987) claim in The Art of the Deal that his grandfather was a Swedish immigrant: a claim that might earn him another judgment of “pants on fire.”

No doubt some on-and-off observers of the spectacle would assume that this campaign has been unusually weird, with the former reality-show star’s on-stage histrionics, proneness to conflicts large and small at all hours, and far-reaching claims to every kind of personal superiority. This is true, to a degree, but is there not also a complex, more recurrent cultural form grounded in the peculiarities of American politics?

As my own addiction to the drama of American presidential campaigns has continued to grab me every four years for over a half-century now (I get up at 3 a.m. local time to watch the debates), I have turned to Clifford Geertz’s (1980) notion of a “theater state,” taking it out of Bali and turning it into a traveling concept (see Hannerz, forthcoming). Geertz found that the precolonial Balinese state apparatus was less concerned with governing and more preoccupied with a dramatic rendering of its own hierarchical social order. If we turn the theater state into a comparative concept, we can admit more plays into its repertoire. The American theater state, I suggest, is more concerned with showing egalitarianism, even as real social inequality has grown (or, for that very reason).

The structure of party politics during the campaign matters here. In what may be a crowded field of competitors, each candidate must build his or her own campaign apparatus and create a personal brand. A presidential candidate should be someone to identify with, someone with appealing interests and personality. Again and again, it helps that the boundaries of politics are porous, so that existing symbolic capital can be imported from other domains: entertainment, big business, televangelism, warfare.

As one former state governor memorably observed, one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. Thus, the theater-state phase of the career of a successful candidate may end with that walk along a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Capitol and the White House, on which one shows off one’s ordinariness after the inauguration ceremony. Then another life begins.

Of course, history mostly belongs to the winners. But during my seasons of campaign watching, some of the drama has still belonged to those who, in the end or even early in the spectacle, turned into losers: Harold Stassen, Henry Cabot Lodge, George Wallace, Shirley Chisholm, Eugene McCarthy, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain, Carly Fiorina. Thanks for the memories.


Geertz, Clifford. 1980. Negara: The Theater State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hannerz, Ulf. Forthcoming. “American Theater State: Reflections on Political Culture.” In America Observed: On an International Anthropology of the U.S., edited by Virginia R. Dominguez and Jasmin Habib. New York: Berghahn.

Kennedy, John F. 1964. A Nation of Immigrants. New York: Harper and Row.

Larsmo, Ola. 2016. Swede Hollow. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Forläg.

Obama, Barack. 1995. Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Times Books.

Trump, Donald J., with Tony Schwartz. 1987. The Art of the Deal. New York: Random House.