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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On The Cult

by digby

It was only a matter of time before the media began to trivialize Obama and his campaign as a bunch of latte sipping left-wing hippie elites. That's the 30 year conservative rap on liberals and it's been fully internalized by the MSM and a whole lot of Americans, even some Democrats. When you start to hear the pundits talking about "beer track/wine track" this isn't far behind.

We saw hints of it in the Matthews article in the NY Observer last week:

The galloping campaign, in Mr. Matthews’ estimation, was that of Senator Barack Obama. He had the momentum, was in the saddle, was holding the reigns. But had Mr. Obama become the avant-garde candidate? If so, he was in trouble. The middle-class workers would pull back in suspicion. Who was this Ivy League guy on his, um, high horse? They wouldn’t get on board. The galloping horse of history might pass them by.

Matthews got that from everybody's favorite Republican pundit, David Brooks, who up until recently seemed to be ready to vote for Obama himself, so flatteringly did he write about him. Lately, Brooks has been dropping a few hints that his friend Obama might not be blue collar enough for the common man that he and his fellow rich, white GOP urban sophisticates so deeply understand and speak for:

His schtick makes sense if you’ve got a basic level of security in your life, if you’re looking up, not down. Meanwhile, Obama’s people are so taken with their messiah that soon they’ll be selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings. There’s a “Yes We Can” video floating around YouTube in which a bunch of celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and the guy from the Black Eyed Peas are singing the words to an Obama speech in escalating states of righteousness and ecstasy. If that video doesn’t creep out normal working-class voters, then nothing will.

At the moment, Matthews and his pals are feeling strange zings up their legs whenever they hears Obama speak, but we all knew that once Barack looked like he might have it wrapped up the media would be mau-maued by the right so hard that they would immediately put convenient off-the-shelf narratives like that into circulation. And so they are.

In truth, the "Obama cult" meme has been out there for some time. It didn't come, as some people have suggested, from Paul Krugman (more on that below) and it didn't come from the Clinton campaign. As far back as a year ago, Slate was running a feature called the "Obama Messiah Watch." Back in April, this story appeared on MSNBC:

He wears Jesus' robes and a neon blue halo, looks like Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and is causing a stir at a Chicago art school. An undergraduate student's papier mache sculpture of Obama as a messianic figure — entitled "Blessing" — went on display Saturday at a downtown gallery run by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

By Monday, word of the piece had spread on political blogs, and the school had been flooded with calls.

David Cordero, 24, made the sculpture for his senior show after noticing all the attention Obama has received since he first hinted he may run for the presidency.
Story continues below ↓advertisement

"All of this is a response to what I've been witnessing and hearing, this idea that Barack is sort of a potential savior that might come and absolve the country of all its sins," Cordero said. "In a lot of ways it's about caution in assigning all these inflated expectations on one individual, and expecting them to change something that many hands have shaped."

Even members of Obama's campaign have ironically referred to themselves as "the cult" and Barack himself joked about Morgan Freeman being "God" before he was.

Any public figure who gets the kind of rapturous crowds that Obama gets is going to be subject to this kind of critique. It goes with the territory. Nobody should take it too seriously one way or the other.

But people should keep in mind what's really being promoted in this latest media blitz. It isn't putting out the idea of a "Manson Family Cult." (Only Jake Tapper has gone there.) It's this:

Before the Iowa caucuses, an antitax group, the Club for Growth, attacked Howard Dean in a television commercial that described his campaign as a ''latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing'' freak show.

Different candidate, same slam. "Out of touch, unamerican liberal elites are soooo stupid."

History suggests that Republicans and their mindless mouthpieces in the media would never portray this alleged Obama cult as "dangerous." That's much too powerful. In order for it to feed into pre-existing frames, they need to show it as silly, vaporous and "feminine" (and only hint darkly in whispered tones about certain "elements" that are "behind" it.)

That's why we saw this fluffy report from CNN's feature reporter Carol Costello last week. (Yes, it uses the words "creepy" but that too is a puerile term):

COSTELLO: Well, you know, Wolf, you've heard the criticism of Barack Obama: he's all flash and no substance. But now critics have taken that one step farther, saying the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality.

[begin video clip]

COSTELLO: He takes the stage, and his supporters go wild. Cheering. Some crying. Some shouting, "I love you!"

OBAMA: And my faith in the American people has been vindicated because they are ready for change.

CROWD: Obama! Obama! Obama!

COSTELLO: Many political observers say they've never seen anything like it. Thousands wait in line to see him, and it seems with every speech, they always latch onto Obama's three favorite words.

OBAMA: Yes, we can.

COSTELLO: Obama supporters wildly respond, chanting enthusiastically along with their candidate. But it's a scene some increasingly find not inspirational but "creepy." L.A. Times columnist Joel Stein calls this Obama outpouring "Obamaphilia," although he admits he's fallen for it too. Others call it cult-like. Conservative columnist David Brooks compares Obama to a messiah and his supporters to the members of the Hare Krishna. Soon, Brooks says, Obama's people ... [will] be selling flowers at airports. Time magazine's Joe Klein writes, "Obama's message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is," he says. All of this is not lost on Obama's opponents.

CLINTON [video clip]: There's a big difference between us: speeches versus solutions. Talk versus action. You know, some people may think words are change. But you and I know better. Words are cheap. I know it takes work.

COSTELLO: But others say the criticism is unfair. Obama does talk policy. But Berekley's George Lakoff says at this moment in time, Democrats want something different. "Yes, we can" may sound empty, but Lakoff says voters understand it intuitively.

LAKOFF: He's comparing himself to not only Hillary but other Democrats who have said "No, we can't. We can't overcome Bush."

[end video clip]

COSTELLO: And Lakoff says the pundits just don't understand that, but the voters do. But even Obama supporters are a little mystified by Obamaphilia. Joel Stein wrote in the L.A. Times, "The dude is Urkel with a better tailor." He went on to say, though, but how you can root against a guy who believes he can change the world? Wolf?

In one little segment, you've got "all flash and no substance," Hare Krishnas, flowers in airports and Berkeley professors. It sounds stale to me, but then it's just an opening gambit.(In fact, "Urkel with a better tailor" is the only original thing in the whole report.)

The village media is predisposed to be hostile toward Democrats generally, although in this primary their irrational desire to see Senator Clinton brought low is a huge motivator and they are egged on by the rabid right wing who love to toy with Bill and Hillary Clinton. But now that Senator Obama is the front runner, you can see the contours of the campaign against him taking form. Making sure this alleged cult is seen as "silly" is an important part of this strategy, because it will be used to project a lack of substance onto the candidate as compared to the wise, old grizzled "grown-up" who's running against him. See David Brooks yesterday for a perfect example, or John Dickerson of Slate writing here:

Shouldn't Democrats who have complained that George Bush was elected on the strength of a popularity contest be nervous that this blossoming Obamadulation is getting out of hand?

Uh, maybe, except that the reason Democrats were against the Bush popularity contest is that voting for someone you want to have a beer with should not be a substitute for a president who is an intelligent adult. Obama may be a guy that people want to have coffee at Starbucks with but he is also brilliant, energetic, mature and thoroughly versed in all the issues. Nobody has to worry that he's going to do this:

On Jan. 10, a Wednesday morning 10 days before the inauguration, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Powell went to the Pentagon to meet with Cohen. Afterward, Bush and his team went downstairs to the Tank, the secure domain and meeting room for the Joint Chiefs of Staff...

Lots of acronyms and program names were thrown around -- most of them familiar to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell, who had spent 35 years in the Army and been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. President-elect Bush asked a practical question about how things worked, but he did not offer or hint at his desires.

The Joint Chiefs' staff had placed a peppermint at each place. Bush unwrapped his and popped it into his mouth. Later he eyed Cohen's mint and flashed a pantomime query, Do you want that? Cohen signaled no, so Bush reached over and took it. Near the end of the hour-and-a-quarter briefing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, noticed Bush eyeing his mint, so he passed it over.

As a matter of fact, I would not be surprised to see much of our critique against Bush crop up against Obama, as absurd as that would be. (See tristero's rule #2.) The Republicans understand how to use "ear worms" to their own advantage, even if they were once associated with their own politicians. I don't think liberal criticisms against Bush's emptiness will work very well against Obama, but it should be entertaining to see them try.

Earlier I mentioned Paul Krugman's column in which he said that Obama is in danger of becoming a cult of personality. I think that's probably overstating it, but it's a fact that a lot of the organizing has been done around the idea of "sharing conversion stories" which raises questions about the intent of the campaign to run a personality based campaign as opposed to a spontaneous outpouring of support and excitement from the public. I suspect that the Republicans are going to fold that into a new agey, "The Secret," kind of derisive joke. And if it succeeds, the media kidz will feel compelled to pretend to be too kewl for all this Obamamania. (That's what David Brooks was doing with his Dowd Lite column -- trying to make the media elites start to feel embarrassed about liking Obama. Judging by the new tone we're starting to see in the media regarding Obama, it's working)

From all reports I've seen, some first hand from some journalist friends, Obama supporters out in the real world are nice, decent, enthusiastic, positive Americans who are seeking a meaningful politics that are more than ancient battles that never seem to end. Nobody's vicious, nobody's mad and nobody sees the Democratic nomination as a death match. For instance, even though it's a tie down there in Texas right now, local Texas boy and Obama supporter Glenn Smith reports:

Right now, the enthusiasm level is high among both Clinton and Obama supporters. Not only that, but I see little of the rancor that we see nationally. For the most part, we're all just advocating for and working for the candidate we support. No blog fights or shouting matches. I don't think anyone's signs have been stolen yet. It is all very civil.
80% of primary voters say they will be happy with either candidate. If that's a cult, then its members sure are open-minded about who should lead it.

Sadly, if there is any ugly cultlike behavior, I'm afraid it's been happening mostly right here, online, in our little corner of the political universe. Krugman's statement came from someone who has been taking non-stop flak from online Obama supporters for months, which has been a very different experience than that polite interaction between fellow Democrats in Texas described above. His criticisms of Obama on policy grounds were greeted with the kind of invective and aggression on the left you'd normally see reserved for someone like Paul Wolfowitz, not Paul Krugman. Indeed, much of it was unreasoning, angry and assuming bad faith where there is none. Having been on the receiving end of non-stop calumny from Bush supporters for years he saw parallels in the irrational reaction he got for challenging Obama on policy grounds --- and being a fighter who calls it like he sees it, he wrote about what he saw. I know other bloggers who have experienced the same, including me (for different reasons.)

In recent weeks we've seen the emergence of roving obnoxious, online Hillary supporters as well, so obviously it isn't entirely an Obama phenomenon, although the Obama supporters certainly pioneered it in this campaign. The sad fact is that a good portion of the blogosphere right now is nearly unreadable to anyone who doesn't want to fight viciously over a contest in which they'd be happy with either winner ---and which, in the real world, represents 80% of the Democratic party.

We are coming to the end of this primary very soon and Senator Obama is looking more and more like the nominee. I will enthusiastically support him or Hillary to beat that bloodthirsty warmonger John McCain and I'm sure that Paul Krugman will be doing what he always does, taking Republican fables apart on the op-ed page of the NY Times. And I'm hopeful that once the smoke has cleared, bloggers and their readers will once again be able to see the difference between brain dead village narratives and real journalism. (Either that or we have just made ourselves irrelevant.)

Here's also hoping that all of those who have honed their flaming skills in this primary against fellow Democrats will take their sharpened tools out into the greater blogosphere and go after the Republicans with the same fervor they've shown in going after Paul Krugman. Go forth and flame, my fellow cultists. The real enemy awaits. Meanwhile, I'm going to grab a non-fat soy latte and the NY Times, jump into my Prius and head down to a psychic reading before I'm off to the homeopathic veterinarian to pick up my cat from acupuncture. I'll see you all at the cult meeting. I'm bringing the kool-aid tonight. Is grape ok with everyone?

Update: For a thoughtful treatment of this subject, this piece by Obama supporter Kathy Geier is well worth reading. I think part of the problem is that a lot of political junkies fail to understand that most people don't need to worship one candidate and viscerally loathe his or her rival in order to participate in politics. Since they are nearly identical on the issues, it has easily been possible this time to actually like both candidates and have a hard time choosing between them for perfectly rational reasons. In fact, the Democratic Party has been deadlocked up until recently on this nomination because as an institution it hasn't been able to make the choice. It's not a character flaw or an act of cowardice to be happy with either outcome or to criticize either one of them for things you find troubling.

Geier writes something terribly important about all this as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Whether you are a Clinton or Obama supporter, it's important to keep some perspective on how politics are actually done, beyond campaigning and beyond voting. Left to their own devices, powerful interests will always tip the balance in their favor.

There's a famous story about FDR meeting with a group of reformers trying to persuade him to support one of their goals. After they finished speaking, FDR said to them, "You've convinced me. I want to do it. Now make me do it."

We need to remember that -- that the next president will do the right thing only if there are incentives (in the form of massive political pressure) for him or her to do so.

Once the nomination is wound up, perhaps the Netroots could take a breath to consider what we think the nominee's priorities should be and think about what we might do to "make" him (or her) "do it." Seeing as we have the head of the GAO resigning so that he can head up a new billion dollar new fiscal concern troll group and a Republican Fed chairman is going to be in control of monetary policy, it would be good to get a grip on some of the institutional and oppositional barriers our new president will face, even with a Democratic congress.

As much as I love the idea of putting negotiations on C-SPAN (nirvana for political junkies) I can't help but be a little bit cynical about its efficacy after watching Republicans and Democrats take a strict party line even on whether Roger Clemens is a steroid user or not. It's going to take a lot more than transparency (although that's vital) to effect massive change.

What do you think should be the first priorities of a new Democratic administration and how do you think it will be accomplished?