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Obamarama: Why Some Liberal Academics and Journalists Are Suspicious of Obama

You bet I’m pleased by the results in Iowa and the impending victory in New Hampshire.  Oops. 

Mine was one the original signatures on the “Historians for Obama” manifesto, sponsored by Michael Kazin and Ralph Luker, then published at HNN (11/26/07)  But the grief I’ve since taken from my fellow “progressives”—a.k.a. the academic left—makes his presence and momentum all the more pleasing.  I still think he can and should get the nomination. 

My original response to those who, following Paul Krugman, noted that John Edwards has the better health care program, was “Well, if the programs are the key to this choice, why aren’t we lining up behind Dennis Kucinich?”  He’s to the left of everybody, and he’s pure of heart.  His sincerity has no limit—his authenticity is unquestionable.  So what’s not to like?  Why not Dennis?  I haven’t heard a coherent response except from the most sectarian leftists, those who want to evacuate the system as it stands by voting for Ralph Nader’s heir apparent.

But that coherence tells me more than I want to know and more than my interlocutors want to divulge about the origins of their preferences.  It tells me that the people who want to focus on the issues or the programs, to the exclusion of the personalities, are just as irrational as I am in these electoral matters.

I have never believed that Edwards could be elected in November 2008, not after the campaign of 2004.  The rich and poor man fray he now embodies in the story line of his life sounds forced at best, indeed almost cranky—especially when it is juxtaposed to the equally prosaic biography and more maniacal Populism of his alter ego from the other shore, Mike Huckabee.  This performative (and programmatic) embodiment of class conflict makes me wonder if the Edwards campaign has read too much of Thomas Frank, Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Nelson Lichtenstein, Michael Denning, et al., and as a result believes that it should reinvent the New Deal coalition and the larger Popular Front. 

That urge to reinvent the irretrievable is nostalgia at its academic best, of course, but you would think that Edwards, a practiced politician, must know better.  It appears not.  (You can read my deconstruction of the egregious Mr. Frank at www.politicsandletters.com, under the heading of “What’s the Matter with Thomas Frank?”)

But speaking of purity on the Left.  Obama is the candidate who left Harvard Law to be a community organizer in Chicago after the model of Saul Alinsky, a darling of SDS and the larger New Left of the 1960s.  He is the candidate who spent a year in the Illinois legislature getting a bill passed which required a videotape of every police interrogation in Chicago, and he did it by working with the cops in the city as well as the Republicans in the state house.  He is the candidate who opposed the Iraq war from the very beginning.  He is the candidate who embraced MoveOn.org, and vice-versa.

But then where is the Left in this debate?  What is the Left, anyway?  Young Jeremy Young, the proprietor of ProgressiveHistorians.com and an avowed left-leaning liberal—Woodrow Wilson is his hero—tells us that Obama deals in “equivocations” and “half measures,” that he values “compromise and civility over bold and decisive action,” and, accordingly, that he is “a man afraid to stand up for his beliefs.”

Well, now, wasn’t George W. Bush a president who valued bold and decisive action over compromise and civility—that is, wasn’t he a man unafraid to stand up for his beliefs and do what he thought was right, no matter what public opinion might suggest or the Constitution would require?  If you’re contemptuous of Obama because he won’t take an eye for an eye—because he wants us to come together—then you’ve merely inverted von Clauswitz’s formulation of the relation between politics and war.  You’re already tacking toward that coast of Utopia where the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks landed.

Why would you want to go there?  Why would you want a candidate who stands on principle, no matter what public opinion says?  Why would you want someone in office who won’t engage in the give and take of politics, where difference is the premise, not the purpose?  Why would you assume that public opinion—that is, the practical embodiment ofconsent, the central principle of political obligation in a modern republic—is irrelevant to policy-making?

Let me put the question differently.  Why is it that the liberal Left seems so backward—more backward than the Right, at any rate—in assessing Obama’s appeal?  Why are liberal academics and journalists so eager to debunk the “enthusiasm” of his supporters, to emphasize that there is something downright unreasonable about his constituency, as if they were channeling the Reverend Charles Chauncey as he denounced the disgusting excesses of the Great Awakening in 1742?  (Just by way of reference: the first Great Awakening of ca. 1739-65 was the cultural revolution that destroyed lower-class deference to colonial authorities, whether civil or ecclesiastical, and so made the Declaration of Independence possible.)

My diagnosis of this backwardness is the curse of the Enlightenment.  The liberal academics and journalists who are so concerned by, with, and about the irrationality of Obama’s appeal still believe that there is an external, objective reality out there—a reality to which good ideas correspond because reason has been deployed in producing them.  By this Enlightenment accounting, good ideas are copies of an external reality, and words are (or should be) the mere transcription of such copies.  Bad ideas are distortions or evasions of that external reality: they are varieties of false consciousness

Language, voice, gesture, rhythm, timing, timbre, style, anything that performs an idea by rhetorical reference or as mimetic embodiment, is, by the same accounting, both superfluous and misleading.  To be sure, these elements of performance must be part of an entertainer’s repertoire—where the aesthetic is supposed to transcend the rational—but they should not disfigure the speech of the politician and thus cloud the thinking of his constituency.  Theater and politics cannot mix; when they do, the republic is at risk, because everything has become artificial, and nothing can be authentic: everyone is playing a role rather than speaking the truth that comes from within. 

In other words, if we are not looking through the candidates, to where we can read their credentials and the programs, but are instead looking at the candidates, we have become dysfunctional citizens—we might as well be reading People Magazine.  In Rick Shenkman’s terms, we have become consumers of celebrity, and we are therefore unfit to participate in elections.  If we do somehow extricate ourselves from the mall and get around to casting our votes, we must take our cue from those products of Enlightenment (like Rick) who have studied the credentials and the programs more carefully than we have—that is, we must take our cue from the educated people who are able to see through the distracting accretions of language, voice, gesture, rhythm, timing, timbre, and style.  Otherwise the personal becomes political, and vice versa. 

I’m not making this up—see Rick’s piece and responses at HNN, 12/17-24/07: “I do not think that voters who think of themselves as consumers can handle the responsibilities of citizenship,” he declares: “voters have proven time and again that they cannot fulfill their responsibilities on their own. . . .They need to take their cue from people who have 1. studied the issues and 2. can tell them which candidates will best look after their interests.”  This was of course the line that Lenin took in 1903, in What is to be Done?, quite possibly the last but certainly the purest instance of the Enlightenment project.      

But is it still so pervasive?  In a word, yes.

And so we have the Trailhead blogger from Slate saying that if you actually stop and listen to Obama’s stump speech, you know that it is “aggressively vapid” (posted 1/6/08).  The same righteous blogger is meanwhile worrying that there is a messianic urge gathering in Obama’s youthful constituency—these youngsters can’t even explain themselves!  More important, we have Sean Wilentz, in an audition for the White House role first played by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., saying something sadly similar in The New Republic of 12/20/07, now cross-posted at HNN.

Here are some excerpts from Sean’s heartfelt complaint.  Sometimes “normally balanced people get swept up by delusions of greatness about a presidential candidate, based on an emotional attachment to the candidate’s oratory or image.”  This is the “delusional style” on the part of the electorate—William Jennings Bryan serves as a strong example of a firebrand who won the nomination with oratory but went down to ignominious defeat at the hands of a seasoned politician.

The “delusional style”—Sean is clearly making a rhetorical gesture toward Richard Hofstadter’s notion of a “paranoid style,” and asking us to use it in assessing his own argument—becomes pernicious when the products of Enlightenment fall for the same theatrical antics that sway the uneducated masses: “But editorialists and pundits are supposed to be skeptical experts, who at least try to appear as if they base their perceptions in facts and reality.  Enthusiasm [there’s that code word] for a candidate because of his or her ‘intuitive sense of the world,’ ‘intuitive understanding,’ and ‘discovery of identity’—the favored terms in some recent press endorsements of Barack Obama—is presented as the product of such discerning, well-considered thinking.  But it is in fact nothing more than enthusiasm, based on feelings and projections that are unattached to verifiable rational explanation or the public record.”   

Whew.  Instead of examining “knowledge, experience, and sound policy proposals,” the pundits have decided that “instincts basically are good enough.”  In this dangerous sense, these journalists “have turned the delusional style into a rallying cry—in support, at least for the moment, of the candidacy of Barack Obama and his allegedly superior intuition.”

I take it that the “delusional style” applies only to the supporters of Obama—the other candidates, certainly the heiress apparent, are presumably not subject to Sean’s rationalist strictures, and neither are their supporters.  But let us assume, at least for the moment, that the programmatic differences between Hillary and Barack are matters of emphasis and detail: on health care, the economy, and the extrication of troops from Iraq, there are quibbles rather than principled disagreements (although I would suggest that Clinton is closer to McCain than to Obama on the matter of permanent bases in Iraq). 

What’s left?  If we look through these candidates, to where we can read their credentials and the programs, we don’t find a real choice—unless, of course, we take “experience” to mean continuity with, or a return to, the salad days of the 1990s, when we already had a black president in the shape of Hillary’s husband.  In that case, however, we are folding her identity into his, a rhetorical move that should make her supporters cringe.  Or unless we take “experience” to mean the horse-trading she perfected as the Senator of upstate New York, in a reprise of the role originated by Alphonse D’Amato.

Why not, then, look at these candidates?  By doing so, we might be able to disarm the Enlightenment project that insists on an either/or choice between style and substance, between “emotional attachment” and “rational explanation,” between “enthusiasm” and “knowledge,” between “instincts” and “sound policy proposals.”  We might be able, as a result, to understand how irrational every commitment—every vote—is, and why that’s a good thing for modern, democratic politics.  (A footnote in the form of a question that proves the personal must be political, and vice versa: why do we want to interview people rather than hire them on the basis of their resumes?)     

I leave Hillary to her supporters—I hope they begin with that tearfully authentic, genuinely autobiographical moment that turned the tide in New Hampshire.  I would especially like to hear from Sean on the “emotional attachment” she forged with female voters whose protective instincts were clearly mobilized by the sight of a woman worn down by the “hard work” of a presidential campaign. 

Hereafter I want merely to notice what Obama’s campaign performs.

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