Transformer candidates

Crispin Sartwell teaches art and art history at Dickinson College. His latest book is "Six Names of Beauty."

What is inspiring about American politics is its amazing testimony to the power of human transformation.

Lose a primary and the question is, how will we change the message? That’s what the candidates have consultants for. But even more than a change of message, a loss seems to entail a global transformation of personality, a lead-to-gold alchemical reaction into something Wholly Other. The compression of the primary schedule makes these metamorphoses instantaneous, demonstrating that a human being can, by a simple act of will, transform himself utterly.

And because the personal transformations are driven by poll numbers, all the candidates tend to transform at once in the same way.

Since Michigan, Mitt Romney has been a wild “outsider” who will fight Washington, which is “broken.” How will he fight Washington? With “optimism instead of Washington-style pessimism.” The idea of Mitt Romney, establishment technocrat if ever there was one, as the barbarian outsider is merely humorous, even if it’s also entirely empty of policy implications.


After Iowa, most of the candidates (John McCain and Ron Paul might be exceptions) started repeating the word “change” like they were parrots. Barack Obama is the candidate of change. Hillary Clinton too. And John Edwards. And Romney. And Mike Huckabee.

Picture a Romney versus Obama general election: Polling shows Obama is vulnerable in the black community because he’s not “black enough.” Romney wraps himself in bling, adopts a pimp strut and seeks an endorsement from 50 Cent.

Romney versus Clinton: Romney declares himself to be the “female” candidate and appears in drag. He admits on “60 Minutes” that he is in fact a hermaphrodite.

He’s pro-life, he’s pro-choice. He’s pro-guns, he’s pro-gun control. He’s a communist; he’s a Hindu; he’s from Mexico or outer space. As McCain pointed out in New Hampshire, Romney really is the “candidate of change.”


What I find puzzling about this sort of thing is that it appears to have an effect, that strategic transmogrification wins votes. I would have thought that not only should such things be approached with skepticism but that it would be impossible for anyone to keep a straight face, much less cast a ballot.

We live in a culture of amazing personal transfigurations, a culture run by Oprah Winfrey and the latest James Frey, in which each story of personal pain and degradation ends with a caterpillar-to-butterfly blossoming into spiritual fulfillment. That these stories are simplistic and superficial exercises in fantastic wish-fulfillment is, I guess, what makes them universally accessible and inspiring.

And we live in a culture in which fiction and fact are inextricable, in which people model themselves on fictional characters, and fictional characters on people; in which novelists give the main character of the novel the same name as their own; in which authors try to decide whether their book should be published as fiction or nonfiction. It is very easy for a fictional character to be transformed. All you have to do is write it: “Then Hillary became an agent of change and lived happily ever after.” See? Done.

Americans, as Romney insists, are an optimistic people. We tell our children that anything you can dream of being, you can be. That this is false doesn’t seem to bother anyone, and the net effect is to replace reality with fantasy, attributing to every child the ability that is only really displayed by our great leaders: to be a kind of human Jell-O, taking the shape of whatever container it’s poured into.

At least novels, screenplays and Oprah usually involve some kind of pain and struggle to emerge from the chrysalis: medication, 12-step programs, therapy, falling in love, a blow to the head -- something.

The transformations of our politicians, however, are frictionless and instantaneous. This is the next stage in the realization of the American dream: that any child can grow up to be Mitt Romney, and Mitt Romney can be absolutely anything at all.