'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Obama Cult 

Okay, I admit it, the title of this post overreaches a little, because, as we all know, one becomes President by manufacturing, with the complicity of the media, a personality cult around one's self. Indeed, one can go so far as to say that the winning candidate is separated from the many losers by his or her ability to successfully accomplish this task.

A candidate is, quite literally, unqualified unless he or she can transcend their personal limitations and persuade the public to accept them as yet another manifestation of that eternal parental figure that ensures our safety, the President. The absurdity of the cult, as so brilliantly exposed by Woody Allen in his futuristic movie Sleeper, when an attempt to perpetuate the rule of the Leader by cloning his nose fails, should not be taken as a sign of its ineffectiveness.

Even so, the Obama cult deserves more attention that it has received lately. During the primaries, some supporters of Hillary Clinton decried his campaign as relying upon a gullible, cult-like response from his voters. I don't recall anyone recognizing that this was a backhanded compliment and an admission of failure. Obama was doing what Clinton could not, laying the groundwork for his subsequent ascendency into the cult of the presidency.

Such an ascendency requires that the candidate induce a suspension of disbelief within the electorate. The suspension of disbelief serves a critical function within the US political system by preserving the power of elites to impose boundaries upon the conduct of the candidates. Elites, unlike the general public, remain practical and hard headed, and communicate clear expectations that a candidate must satisfy as a precondition to mythological transformation.

As already observed here, Obama spent much of the summer conforming to them, culminating in his selection of Joseph Biden, an anticipated White House chaperone, as his running mate. His sophisticated, sociological perspective about US politics and social life enabled him to disarm potentially insurmountable elite opposition with ease, and goes quite a way towards explaining why a narrow majority of voting Americans prefer a soothing, non-threatening black man over an older, cantankerous belligerent white one.

Many on the left, including myself, have substantively examined Obama's inadequacies, his neoliberalism, his militarism with a human face, but this ignores the psychological aspects of his appeal. A few have perspicaciously observed that Obama has flourished because of the willingness of many to project their desires upon him. Of course, this is a commonplace feature of presidential campaigns, one need only recall the 1980 Reagan campaign and the 1992 Clinton one as classic examples, but Obama has exploited this feature to a degree not experienced in our lifetime.

My recent conversations with three Obama supporters, all of whom I know fairly well, reflects the extent to which he is able to induce this suspension of disbelief. One of them is a sociology professor at a nearby university with strong roots in civil rights activism. I attempted to engage him substantively about Obama's economic and foreign policies, and received variations of the same theme in response: Obama is in the tradition of Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King and his election to the presidency will be the ultimate achievement of the civil rights movement. Interestingly, I think he left out Malcolm X, whose cold realism about politicians, including black ones, is ill-suited for this narrative. One can rather snottily observe that King focused on poverty instead of bankers, and opposed war instead of supporting its escalation, as Obama does in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this misses the point, which is the willingness of my friend to suspend disbelief.

Another friend, known for his involvement in local liberal politics, is more skillful at disguising it, but it was there, none the less. Subjected to my displeasure about Obama's vote for the bailout, and his overall neoliberal orientation, he said, well, we don't know what he is going to do, which when you ponder it for a moment, is a rather odd thing to say about someone you want to be president. As I pressured him further, he curtly interjected, how do you know what he is going to do? To which I replied, I base it upon what he says, and the people, like Jason Furman, a known pro-Wall Street economist, that he selects to speak for him. He lapsed into silence, as the process of surmising someone's likely political actions based upon objective investigation and analysis was apparently something that, through the suspension of disbelief, he had repudiated. Our dialogue had that quality that one associates with those involving rationalists conversing with priests about the existence of God. Ultimately, I guess, to vote for Obama is a matter of faith.

Lastly, there are the pure cultists, the ones who swallow Obama's vision, such as it is, whole, like an anaconda feasting upon a mammalian victim. I spoke with an older woman about my displeasure in regard to his plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, making specific reference to the 90 civilians killed by US forces there in late August. She defended his policy in a very confused way, invoking the shop worn feminist defense of the war there, without displaying any concern for these civilian victims or any interest in educating herself more about it. Even more alarmingly, she recycled neoconservative attitudes about the conflict, indicating that she thought our presence there was necessary to keep us safe, thus revealing that one of the perils of an Obama presidency may be his ability to resuscitate discredited neoconservative interventionist policies by cross dressing them as liberal. I suspect that she would reject Obama if he advocated the first use of nuclear weapons in the region, but I wasn't certain.

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