Saturday, February 23, 2008

The meaning of the "Barack-lash"

I keep hearing it: Obama supporters are a bundle of warm fuzzies without any real reason for their support. They observe that he makes them feel hopeful and that they believe he will bring change. They can't cite his achievements, don't know his policies, aren't able to rattle off his positions when asked in front of a camera. (I have to ask if random McCain and Clinton supporters are any more able...)

Some of these charges are as vague as the supposed empty support Obama is receiving. This morning's Cincinnati Enquirer included an op-ed by Kathleen Parker where she spends some 800 words explaining what she considers the irrational movement of Obama supporters and yet includes only one comment by one 20 year old from Seattle who is an Obama fan. That's the best Kathleen could do? Find one kid on the other side of the country to substantiate her charge? Meanwhile smear all the supporters.

After clicking around the web, I got a kick out of the insightful comments from the Washington Post that point out that some of these sites designed to make fun of Obamamania, are actually created by supporters!
But most of the sites that poke fun at online Obamamania are engineered by supporters, some of whom are explaining to themselves -- and to lovers, friends, co-workers -- Obama's pull. The Web is an expressive, creative sandbox, a virtual playground where you can be as self-effacing and self-indulgent as possible. It's a place where inside jokes become, when effective, everyone's jokes.
"To some people, the 'Yes We Can' video is when folks started to think, 'Oh, this is too much,' " says Joshua Levy of TechPresident, the bipartisan group blog that tracks how the candidates are campaigning on the Web. "The Internet is all about authenticity. When somebody gets too popular, too mainstream, their authenticity is questioned. It's like an indie band joining a major label. It's like Kurt Cobain. It's like 'Juno.' "
Somehow this just made me laugh. We sometimes forget that this generation of millenialists were raised in a culture of irony. They are able to make fun of themselves and their heroes. We taught them how.

The criticism that Obama-tons are dangerous has led to all kinds of misguided associations: The Children's Crusade, cults, the Nazi party, rock-stardom and more. Young people are being portrayed as unthinking and incapable of political judgment. (Pretty insulting stuff. On the other hand, much did you know why you voted for a candidate at 18-20?)

Presidential candidates must be able to draw a following in addition to putting forward their ideas for governing. What is striking about Obama is that he has passionate followers, not just party hacks. These "fans" are our neighbors, friends, kids, not just hardcore partisans who campaign every election.

Brenden Neil takes his time explaining why the opposition and political analysts are afraid of the Obamamomentum in this excellent article: Why They're Scared of Obamamania. I made the argument recently that the charges against Obama's supporters aren't all that different than the ones leveled at people like me who voted for George Bush. Neil makes this same point, but even more powerfully.
Indeed, the current view of Obama’s support base as a ‘dangerous’ unthinking blob builds on Democrat attacks on Bush voters during the presidential race of 2004. Back then, Democratic-leaning commentators described the millions of people who were planning to back Bush as mentally unstable – literally. One complained that Americans were voting in a ‘fog of fear’, and thus they could not see the issues, or the ‘real politics’, clearly: apparently, thanks to Bush’s ‘unremitting fearmongering’, ‘millions of voters are reacting not with their linear and logical left brain, but with their lizard brain and their more emotional right brain… It’s not about left wing vs right wing; it’s about left brain vs right brain.’ (8)

So Bush-supporters were lizard-like creatures acting out of irrational and blind fear rather than being sensible decision-makers. Al Gore, the Democrats’ failed presidential candidate of 2000 who has rehabilitated himself through the climate change issue, argued in his recent book The Assault on Reason that America’s generally right-leaning media has warped people’s minds. In Bush-era America, he argued, such is the media’s ‘power of persuasion’ that it triggers in people responses that are no longer ‘modulated by logic, reason and reflective thought’ (9).
Perhaps what is missing in all of this analysis is why there is such a deep craving for a leader who does move us, whose aspirations for change (change that is aimed at reforming the political machinery we all agree is bad for our country) and who invests his political ideals with hope (rather than irony, rather than brandishing his superiority and "care-taking" role) is like food to a starving populous.

It's not that people are being brain-washed. After all, everyone on the right and all the Clinton supporters seem perfectly immune to Obama's supposedly mesmerizing rhetoric. Rather, there is a growing nucleus of Americans tired of business as usual in politics. They want diplomacy that gets away from "evil empire" and "axis-of-evil" rhetoric, who believe that the "empathy deficit" is real. They are sick of the tedious red state-blue state conflict. Neil says:
Much of his support represents a healthy and positive reaction against the deep cynicism and fatalism of mainstream Western politics over the past decade and more. Obama supporters are not cultish slaves: they are people who have had enough of negative, fear-driven, small-minded politics, of both the Republican and Democratic variety, and now – as they keep telling us – they Want Change. Indeed, Obama has become a heroic figure for many young people in European countries as well as in America: it is not so much what he promises, programmatically, to do if he gets into the White House that attracts them; rather they are angry about and repelled by the current state of mainstream politics, and they are drawn to Obama because they think he represents something different, something seemingly positive, fresh, uncynical. Whatever you think of Obama and his coterie, there is unquestionably something interesting, possibly even stirring, in the loud and rowdy grassroots support for his campaign. Whether Obama can fulfil people’s desires for a fresh way of doing politics - that is questionable in the extreme.

However, if anything will confirm to the ‘Obamabots’ that contemporary politics is rotten, it will be the current attempts to write them off as ‘dangerous’ cultists who have no place interfering in the serious business of political debate.
In this last, perhaps the critics have done Obama a favor. By bringing this critique to his movement early, if Barack wins the nomination, he and his followers will be ready to answer the charges that they are a bunch of irrational Obamatons. Truth is, they are motivated to study hard now. I would be surprised if the same can be said for McCain supporters, who may be voting out of a reflexive commitment to being Republican more than true fans of his policies.


Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,
I thought Obama did a wonderful job during his debate with Hilary the other night raising questions about the implication that his followers are somehow delusional. As he so eloquently put it, maybe we know "exactly" what is going on and we have decided we don't want business as usual anymore. Personally I think these kind of assertions reflect that desperate people do desperate things...

carrie said...

I would be surprised if the same can be said for McCain supporters, who may be voting out of a reflexive commitment to being Republican more than true fans of his policies.

Well you know at least one who is voting for McCain because of what he's done and what he plans to do! ;-) When it comes to bipartisan politics, this guy rocks.

Dave said...

A few comments from off of my cuff...

Kathleen Parker hasn't impressed me much at all over the years when it comes to conveying insight. She can turn a phrase but otherwise just another Bushie apologist catering to moms across America. Seems like she's trying to generate some CW against Obama en route to eventually coming out in support of McCain.

Knocking Obama's youth support seems like a pander by the network news and old media whose core audience is primarily older adults, many of whom are probably feeling uneasy about seeing a new generation's political ascendancy, especially those who don't "get" Obama. Speaking for myself though I haven't been particularly impressed by the judgment or critical thinking skills of the over-30 crowd either in recent elections but I doubt we'll see much reporting that puts the onus of responsibility for our current predicament on the demographic blocs that put Bush in power to begin with.

I think that Obama's support would be in place for a lot of people even if he weren't such a skilled orator. The speeches might help get his foot in the door, but it's absurd to point to just one attribute as the basis of his popularity.

A steady stream of negatives will soon be unleashed against Obama and he will have to surmount significant challenges as the campaign proceeds. I'm encouraged by the skill with which he's run his campaign so far and that increases my confidence that he will be up to the task. I think McCain has a long way to go to make his case to the swing voters and I expect that the heart of his candidacy will probably be stirring up fears and anxieties about Obama, followed by appeals to traditional patriotism. I don't think that will be so effective, unless Obama messes up somewhere along the way. I think your closing comments about Obama supporters studying up on the issues for the campaign ahead is a good admonition for those who haven't gotten serious about doing that yet. Electing him president and expecting him to make the changes is exactly the wrong approach and his campaign will prove ineffective if the main result is just putting him in the White House and leaving it at that. His supporters would do well to prepare for continuing our own involvement in social and political issues beyond this coming November.

brian said...

Well said, Julie. A couple of highlights for me were the question of how much we knew about candidate's policies when we were teenagers or twenty-somethings voting. I certainly am more well studied now than I was then.

And, the attacks on Obama's lack of substance will motivate many of us to study his policies more deeply to be ready to "give a reason for the hope we have" (to borrow from 1 Peter Chapter 3).

The critics are partially right. It's not solely Obama's policies that have given him this incredible momentum. His policies are not all that different of those of HRC. But, that does not mean his policies are not important or that they are being ignored by his supporters. It means that his supporters believe that policies without the ability to get them done are meaningless and that we hope/believe Obama has the ability and the vision to bring real change to not only the policies in Washington but to the way the business of government is done.

Scrivener said...

Did you see this post at Obsidian Wings providing some very specific policy reasons to support Obama?

How about Elizabeth's reporting of a pair of endorsements that made a big difference for her, and that I find about as persuasive as any endorsements might be?

Here is another post that's not exactly about concrete policy positions, but it is an explanation of why the differences in rhetoric between Clinton and Obama point to some serious differences with real ramifications. The argument there, which I find pretty convincing is that Obama is a "deliberative democrat" who "emphasizes debate and deliberation about the common good [...] as the regulative ideal of democratic debate and deliberation. And "he is also a participatory democrat who emphasizes participation through mobilization." All of that is in specific contrast to Clinton's "representation of politics as an elite driven enterprise, with Hillary representing herself as the heroine of the good elites primed now to do battle against the bad elites."

julieunplugged said...

Scriv, this is all so good!! Thanks for the links.

Obama 08!

Dave said...

Julie, are you going to blog about the flap surrounding Cinci talk radio host Bill Cunningham and the sleazy attacks he launched on Obama at a McCain rally earlier today? Don't bother if you have nothing to say but your proximity to the situation (geographically anyway) got me wondering how you might respond.

brian said...

Dave, If you knew Bill Cunningham, this wouldn't surprise you one bit. What surprises me is McCain allowed him to introduce him at his rally. Bill Cunningham is a loose cannon at best.

These types of comments are exactly what Bill Cunningham has said on the radio for years.

julieunplugged said...

I posted about it! :)