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Something’s Happening Here

bringiton's picture

This Obama phenomenon is a puzzle. Why him, why now? I have thoughts, but still more questions than answers.

I don’t want to get caught up in the “sheeple” thing, that’s a shallow and ultimately meaningless term, but bear with me for a moment on the concept of a bellwether. Not in the common political sense of a district that has had a voting pattern the same as the national outcome, but in the Old English sense of a lead sheep that the rest of the flock will follow out of instinct, the need to do so transcending rational thought or consequence.

Since the height of 9/11 hysteria, when identification with the two major parties reached equivalence, there has been a slow diminishment in the number of people who continue to self-identify as Republicans. That 9/11 effect actually was an aberration, a temporary reversal of a longer trend away from the height of Republican affiliation during the Reagan years.

Among the leading edge evacuees were many of the individuals who have become influential in the internet community. I don’t know everyone’s personal narrative so I may be off a little here, but certainly people like Kos and Sullivan come to mind as having moved to where they are out of a rejection of End-Stage Reaganism and its degenerative consequence, Bushism. They have never been progressives, but were often mistaken for being so because of their antipathy for Bush.

When this presidential campaign began, they couldn’t return to Republicanism because all that was offered by the candidates was more of the same – except for Ron Paul, who was simply an embarrassment. With Nader passé and the Greens without coherence, the Democratic Party was the only place to go, the only herd to join, but which faction? Barak Obama offered just what these lost ex-Republicans were looking for; an emotionally safe place to join up with a charismatic leader, a bellwether, to follow.

They wouldn’t have to be Democrats, exactly, nor would they have to deal with blaming Republicans – many of whom were still their friends from the old days - because Obama offered to transcend arguments based on R versus D and Left versus Right; come join with me, said Brother Barak, and you don’t have to choose. Obama offered the same painless compromise with other issues like race, religion, abortion, healthcare, war, Social Security, you name it; we won’t fight any more, we’ll just talk it through, and nobody needs to be blamed or take any responsibility for the mistakes and lies and crimes of the past.

No other Democratic candidate offered that kind of emotional peace. Certainly not the old white men like Biden and Dodd and Kucinich and Gravel; yesterday’s news, tainted by long-established partisanship, all of them. Edwards couldn’t qualify because he didn’t offer forgiveness; he was all about confrontation, the adversarialism of the trial lawyer, arguing for a process where the harsh light of truth and the sharp sword of justice would define right and wrong, winners and losers. Then there’s Hillary, and standing right next to her is Bill; reminders of a time these ex-Republicans would much rather forget.

No way would former Reaganites join with someone so vilified, so dirtied, so contaminated as a Clinton. Many, if not most, had either openly participated in the attacks on Bill or had stood on the sidelines sniggering over stained dresses and penis shapes and Hillary’s legs and Chelsea’s hairstyle; to support a Clinton now would require them to admit that they had not just been wrong but disgustingly wrong. Not possible for them to do and not possible either for the MSM, who had exhibited the same behaviors and are not about to admit their wrongdoing now if they can help it; far better to praise Obama and continue the well-established, well-rehearsed, entirely comfortable character assassination of the Clintons.

But Oh! That Barak Obama! A clean slate, a new beginning, fresh and shining and bright and perfect, just what they needed to absolve themselves, to feel good again, to be Somebody by following Somebody, a fan group, a flock in the religious sense, a movement to join and a community to build and embrace out of the sheer joy and wonderfulness of its own existence.

Such perfection, of course, brooks no criticism. Anyone suggesting that The Leader is less than perfect assails not just The Chosen One’s character but the character of the Loyal Followers, because they are one and the same; the value of The Followers is dependent on the value of The Leader. There is no room for dissent, and all dissenters must be castigated and driven out, lest they mar the perfection of the Unity Of That Which Is.

These are people who not long before were followers of the cult of Reaganism. Following a charismatic leader is what they are comfortable with, but the Republican Party betrayed them by offering up the oafish Bush and his minion the repulsive, slimy Rove as new Objects of Worship. So they left, looking for a new Leader, a new Bellwether to follow.

The Boys in the Blogs and the MSM are not alone; there are millions of people just like them. This figure from Pew Research shows the trends clearly:


Through 2004 Independents stayed with the crowd, with the Republicans who helped them feel safe and secure no matter how ineptly. But by 2005 the fiction could no longer be maintained; too many promises had been broken, too many flubs were being laughed at and too many falsehoods exposed. Bush became a caricature of himself, Abramoff’s unseemliness made a mockery of any pretense at honor, and there was way too much exposure of Karl Rove.

If Karl were handsome and suave he could have been President, but he is neither and putting out front-and-center a creature that not only looks and moves like a slug but acts like some sort of science-fiction slime-monster will eventually repulse anyone with a shred of remaining decency. Karl Rove is Rush Limbaugh without the charm.

By 2006 the slow defection had become a rout, and Democrats won at the polls. Not, as the Pew graph shows, because of a swell in Democratic Party adherents but from a rejection of the Republican brand; with a two-party midterm the New Independents had no where else to go.

Now, in late 2007 and 2008, Independents are the dominant political party in the United States. Until the last few months, almost all of the defectors from Republicanism kept a distance and did not join the Democrats. With Obama, they found somewhere to be comfortable. He offered them a Third Way, the Independent way, neither Republican nor Democrat but something new and clean and unencumbered with the baggage of the past.

All of this is not to disparage Obama or the New Independent movement. They are who they are, and far be it from me at this early stage to call them out as being disingenuous or false or deceitful. They are unfocused, but new movements always are. This is an extraordinary emerging force in American politics, potentially the greatest political realignment in more than a century, and Obama is absolutely correct in his assessment that it does not fit within the existing bounds of Right-Left or Republican-Democrat. It is something new.

Not that I think Obama knows what to do with it, but rather that he has found himself trying to articulate a vague, unformed yearning by using vague language. He cannot decisively recite a point-by-point canon of belief because the belief system is still emerging; if he had a formal didactic, like Clinton, he would not have the appeal, the charismatic warm fuzziness.

The focus of his appeal, with the young and the college-educated, is directly the result of this fuzzy-thinking. Both groups are comfortable with a pattern of thought that is more emotional on the one hand and more nuanced on the other, and capable of communicating through terms like “hope” and “audacity” and “believe” that practical nuts-and-bolts thinkers have difficulty fathoming. (Confession – I am one of those who cannot quite understand what is being said, but I am very certain that Something Is Happening Here.)

It is for that later reason I believe he will lose the nomination; most Democrats, as differentiated from New Independents, have a structured belief system and do see Bush/McCain Republicanism as a force to be defeated. From Pennsylvania onward most (all?) of the elections are limited to Democrats only, and the influence of Independents seen in the earlier open primaries and caucuses no longer will command the outcomes. Perhaps more importantly, most of the established Party leadership - Pelosi and Reid and Dean and so on - are clearly vested in the existing two-party oppositional philosophy and are most likely to feel comfortable with a general election fought on those terms.

On the other hand, if Obama can sustain and does get the nomination, it will still be possible for the Democratic Party to take the presidency; it will be a different coalition of voters, but in my view they will likely be a majority. Nor will the Democratic Party suffer either way; down-ticket elections in this cycle will follow not from the individual on the top but rather will be driven by local forces, all of which are aligning strongly with the Democrats.

What will be different between the two Democratic candidates will be the manner in which they try to govern. While both will be burdened by events set in motion under Bush, Obama will also struggle with trying to govern by consensus within a bipolar confrontational structure. I think he will quickly realize that he cannot do so, and be forced to functionally manage through the existing lines of power. Circumstances will manage him, not the other way around. Divine right will not work in American politics.

But this great new political force will not dissipate with Obama’s defeat or his election. As amorphous and questing as it is, there will be both opportunity and danger in trying to grapple with it. The challenge for progressives will be to find an approach to framing desirable goals, and programs to achieve them, in ways that do not depend on the old structures rooted in antipathy. These New Independents are looking for positive reinforcement, they are sick of battles, and they want redemption without feeling guilt.

I don’t have the answers for how to deal with them, for how to manage and lead them, but the progressive community had better figure it out before some other political philosophy gets their attention; once committed, they will be impossible to thwart. Right now they are looking for an individual Leader to follow; somehow, they need to be enlightened with the concept of an ideological commitment rather than continuing with a cult of personality.

Someone much smarter – and probably much younger – than me should think of something.


[Note; There are many fine and thoughtful people who have chosen to back Obama from a desire for a new face and a new approach to American politics and government. I make no criticism of them, and understand their desire; I am, in many ways, sympathetic. I am not writing about them, here.]

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Submitted by lambert on

And a few random thoughts.

0. It would be interesting to integrate the polling numbers Paul has crunched on moderates vs. independents. But I think probably only Paul can do that....

1. These "Independents" sound a lot like authoritarian followers to me; in other words, the reaction to the use of the word "cult" can be safely placed under the heading of "stuck pig squeals."

2. Can a "movement" with this mindset:

Obama offered the same painless compromise with other issues like race, religion, abortion, healthcare, war, Social Security, you name it; we won’t fight any more, we’ll just talk it through, and nobody needs to be blamed or take any responsibility for the mistakes and lies and crimes of the past.

really be called a movement? It's like calling "good Germans" a movement. Is there any dynamic here but denial?

3. Contradicting, or not, the above, it may be about Obama for some time to come, this "movement."

The whole post makes my flesh creep, to be honest. Independents look like fodder for anything.

My personal nightmare is that the OFB persists well after the election, and becomes institutitonalized. They start going house to house, with clipboards, trying to "help"....

UPDATE This post is also important because it should finally put to rest the notion that there are no substantive differences between the two.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

It has never surprised me that guys like Andy Sullivan went for Obama. Obama promises not to hold guys like Andy Sullivan accountable for anything they've done, including backing Bush. He also talks in moral equivalency about the nasty politics engaged in by Republicans and Democrats. He's willing to let them off the hook entirely. They get their Unity Pony without having to admit anything they did to cause disunity in the first place.

It also explains the CDS. Many of these folks helped try to drive Clinton from office and then supported Bush. Now, one would think Bush's crimes would make them re-evaluate their stance on the Clintons (hell, they apparently caused Scaife to do so). But that's asking too much. To admit they were wrong not only about Bush, but also the Clintons is a step too far. That essentially means they haven't been right in 20 years, which requires completely reorienting their world view.

Much easier, to say Bush sucks, but Clinton also sucked, and move on with Obama, who is happy to tell you that Bush and Clinton suck equally. Indeed, that is often a common theme among Obama supporters - Clinton is a Republican. Clinton is just like Bush. Nevermind, she didn't vote for tort reform or Dick Cheney's energy bill. Nor did she have to be told why she should vote against John Roberts. Obama's more progressive, they just know it.

Add on to that a heavy layer of misogyny (Sullivan and many of the Blogger Boiz have serious women issues that extend way beyond Hillary Clinton) and the ability to pat themselves on the back for supporting a black man and you have Obama-mania. They get to feel morally superior, demonize the powerful woman, and avoid admitting they were wrong about anything other than Bush. It's not them, it's Bush. It's not them, it's Hillary Clinton. Obama understands that - it's everybody's fault, so it's nobody's fault.

Submitted by lambert on

... they were for Iraq; Marshall and Yglesias, at least. So, no accountability for them.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Good. It should. Nothing more dangerous than a new movement without direction or, for this crowd, leadership. And it won't be Barak; either he loses the nomination and has to retrench behind Clinton or sink from sight, or he wins and is compromised by the political reality of a powerfully established two-party system

Either way they will feel abandoned, and be hungry and looking. "Good Germans" were a movement, all be it a passive one; this bunch is smarter, well-connected and has expectations. They will not be willing to endure hardship, or settle for less.

Pleased to read that you enjoyed this, and more than happy to step aside and let Paul L. do the numbers.

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

Obama is cool (in both the non-angry, non-fighting sense -- and the "cool black guy"/Fonzi sense) and in many ways a polar opposite to Dean (who many online gave their hearts to and worked hard for--and most importantly, made into a living symbol of the net's power and rise--which was their own personal power and rise, etc) --they were personally invested in Dean for their own reasons and were crushed, and now are personally invested in Obama as a symbol too.

It's about them, and that they need a winner to validate things about them. Obama's blank slate and non-policy stuff and easy ride in the media, and seeming non-mockableness, etc, makes it really important that he be protected and coddled and that all opposition be demonized.

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

I think it also explains the disconnect between the Blogger Boiz and working class voters. The working class need things from the government, tangible things - healthcare, education, improved jobs. The Blogger Boiz are looking for some sort of personal salvation, someone to forgive them their sins and promise that it's all going to be okay.

Ultimately, it's as selfish as it is delusional. They want the redemption without having to do anything to earn it. It doesn't work that way.

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

they don't have practical needs govt can supply, and want to supplant and replace traditional media and pundits and the "village" etc-- and have learned that "crashing the gates" didn't work--so are emulating the GOP and rightwing's mighty wurlitzer and message discipline and reinforcement --as we saw with the overreaction to the last debate, which would never have played out that way in 04).

Shouting down stuff that hurts your chosen candidate, and amplifying stuff that hurts the opposition--and certainly hurts important causes/problems that used to be important, and hurts the party itself, which bothers none of them at all--is standard procedure now. And we've all seen how the right does it for decades, and they've internalized that it's a good thing, i think (even tho things like healthcare and others are absolutely harmed if not killed outright by it).

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

not just redemption by any means.

personal and professional goals are a big part of it.

it reminds me in a way of how disappointing it was thru the 80s to vote and lose and vote and lose, and then how wonderful it was that Clinton (who really was non-DC, unlike Obama) came along, even tho he wasn't liberal and was slippery--he smelled like a winner for once, unlike previous guys.

Submitted by lambert on

... cheap grace. "They want the redemption without having to do anything to earn it," as BDB says.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

jimbo's picture
Submitted by jimbo on

going with Obama, if he would show me something. But he doesn't, and apparently can't. Simple start. Debate. Win the debate.

LostClown's picture
Submitted by LostClown on

That would be something, but that would mean having to have actual policies which would alienate half of his voter base. (whichever half he chooses, but half nonetheless)

myiq2xu's picture
Submitted by myiq2xu on

without having to do anything to earn it.

"They who believeth in Him shall have everlasting life."

"By faith are ye saved, not works"

I'm quoting from the fundamentalist programming of my long-ago childhood, so if those quotes were a little off, sue me.

Real ponies don't oink - Patrick McManus

Submitted by cg.eye on

That the battle would not be progressive vs. conservative, but Clinton vs. anti-Clinton candidates.

The repudiation of the past was the most important meme of this campaign -- both the smothering Republican dynasties and the brief period of WJC that still wasn't strong enough to resist an onslaught from the VRWC and the media (HRC didn't visit Scaife for his health; she visited him to prove he did not beat her into silence or powerlessness, all gestures artfully choreographed). The problem is that our power is in our past -- the past of collective action, of social programs that sustain everyone, because everyone pitches in. I don't think the new Independents are cynical enough to reject that entirely, but remember we heard all about that communitarian yang until we saw the neocon pinnings, underneath.

What next? I don't know. But I fear Obama's advisors and backers and freelance lobbyist friends more than I do Clinton's, because those backers are running away from something. Clinton's need for power I can predict and understand.

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Submitted by Glendower on

I was just reading As You Like It during lunch today.


Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's
happiness, glad of other men's good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.


That is another simple sin in you, to bring the ewes and the rams together and to offer to get your living by the copulation of cattle; to be bawd to a bell-wether, and to betray a she-lamb of a twelvemonth to a crooked-pated, old, cuckoldly ram, out of all reasonable match. If thou beest not damned for this, the devil himself will have no shepherds; I cannot see else how thou shouldst 'scape.

Mandos's picture
Submitted by Mandos on

This is what I was trying to get around to saying in my last, heavy-handed post. You have a large number of people who are invested in process politics since Dean, and for whatever reason cannot be excited about policy because they are (perhaps justifiably) cynical about policy execution in the absence of process changes.

They're projected their desires onto a candidate who had the strategy to realize an internal party victory. Now that it turns out that the rest of the country is not so enthused about process, what do you do with the thwarted energy?

Submitted by lambert on

How about they go fuck themselves?

Either that, or start pushing universal health care, even if it doesn't have life or death consequences for them. They could console themselves with the thought that the policies FDR put in place led to some pretty good process as well.

And that's the kicker, isn't it? They seem to think that policy is a function of process. But we already have (or, at least had) a process that constrains most other processes at a very high level: It's called constitutional government. Below that level, I'd say process is a function of policy. Put a policy in place to end hunger; the process (Food Stamps, agricultural subsidies (sigh)) follows.

So the "creative class" has it exactly backward. They're fetishing the role they play, which is at the process level, and treating their part of the system as a proxy for the whole system.

No wonder they're fucking up so badly.

NOTE I thought your post was great, mandos. Not heavy handed at all. Rather, insightful.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

myiq2xu's picture
Submitted by myiq2xu on

without policy?

Who would give a shit about FDR without the New Deal?

Real ponies don't oink - Patrick McManus

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

Obama is a black man who makes white people feel good about themselves. They see Obama and they think their society is good, see a black man from humble beginnings can rise to great things. Colin Powell had the same quality, but he is a Republican and they don't nominate black people.

Obama won the 2006 endorsement primary, not people who endorsed him, but candidates who wanted Obama to come to their state and campaign for them. So Obama went all over the country validating white candidates.

After that, things took on a life of their own.

Anyway, that is my theory.

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Submitted by amberglow on

exactly, and it's also remarkably similar to the MSM's role.

DCBlogger--you're right--it validates their own (false) beliefs about racism being in the past, and their fantasy that simply his presence in the white house means we've solved and killed the glaringly big thing (and therefore never have to deal with it anymore, or think about it, or be blamed for it, etc) that causes guilt and embarrassment in so many.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Cheap grace, faith without deeds, redemption without cost, selfish, delusional, the list can go on and on and still, here they are and they will have to be dealt with. I don’t mean to say that we, the sane people, have to give in to them or defer or be subservient. But we do need to recognize that this group of people is beginning to coalesce and someone will figure a way to harness their energy.

They’re politically engaged, astute, technologically savvy and business smart, and passionate beyond reason. A not completely dissimilar group, Christianist fundamentalists, served a very useful purpose for the neocon agenda. This new group could get used similarly for equally nefarious purposes, or they could perhaps be convinced that supporting green technology, universal health care, disposable income based taxation, universal advanced education and other progressive causes are their keys to personal fulfillment and a brighter future.

That persuasion would need to be done by someone who speaks the language, not by me. Nor Lambert, who with “How about they go fuck themselves” has removed himself from contention for the position of Ambassador to Kosobamia; rather like sending John Bolton to the UN, no offense intended.

Sharpening his positions with detail is a big risk for Obama; he’s gotten close to half the Democrats and a chunk of the New Independents by not having much in the way of a definitive stance. Whatever he does take a stand on, he risks losing more followers than he gains. How he plans to do this through the general is beyond me, but I’m nearly clueless now about what he’s saying.

I’m not completely convinced that the true basis of conflict is pro-Clinton versus anti-Clinton, any more than it might be seen as pro-Obama versus anti-Obama. This is something new, and Obama is the happenstance character who showed up just as the movement that supports him has also appeared. In many ways they are the product of similar forces.

It is perhaps more about a new way of thinking and feeling and communicating versus established ways of relating. I’m not arguing that one is better or more desirable or more durable than the other, but clearly they are different and even more clearly they are cognitively at odds with each other.

Mandos, nothing heavyhanded at all in your work, much more concise than this ramble and, from a different angle, entirely worthwhile in itself; I said as much in my comment at your post and meant every word. It was a pleasant surprise to see you proceeding along similar lines and a great reassurance that I wasn’t completely lost in my own maunderings. I always look forward to what you have to say, and appreciate your kind words here.

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

in using it for nothing in return--actually less than nothing, because of Obama using them on FOX and elsewhere as examples of who he's NOT listening to and who he's NOT agreeing with.

And acting as an ATM for candidates who do nothing in return (see us gays and lesbians, and many many others), and mobilizing volunteers simply to elect Obama, etc, has not worked out if you want real things accomplished. There are always richer people and bigger/more influential groups who are already inside and already have the candidate more securely.