Something’s Happening Here
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.]