The backlash begins: A fair amount of punditry regarding Barack Obama's campaign for president has casually dropped words like "messiah," "cultish" and "savior" into the dialogue as though this campaign were a heated game of Scrabble. One unfortunate column compared the Illinois politician to a British schoolteacher-turned-princess. I think the political discourse would be ill-served without a critical examination of the warm-and-fuzzies that Obama's campaign seems to provoke, especially among a class of politicos and ordinary voters who one expects to be a bit more hard-boiled (Idaho? Who knew?). But I disagree that the warm-and-fuzzies somehow obscure the "real" political agenda at stake in this race.
Joe Klein has a particularly derisive take on the unexpected popularity of Obama's campaign, slamming his use of collectivist pronouns and subliminal meter ("We are the Change that we Seek"), while Jake Tapper at ABC feels comfortable equating supporter Tom Daschle with John the Baptist. Foremost in Klein's complaints is this idea:
...there was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism — 'We are the ones we've been waiting for' — of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign.'This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It's different not because of me. It's different because of you.' That is not just maddeningly vague but also disingenuous: the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause — other than an amorphous desire for change — the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.
I think that is true, but not in the narrowly semantic fashion Klein suggests. Obama has run a gang-busting campaign that has certainly raised eyebrows, not least because of the tearful fervor of its most zealous supporters. I do, however, happen to think that the diffusion of this "cult" (if we must) is by design. A great discussion of said design comes via Kelly Candaele and Peter Dreier, writing in The American Prospect. It's certainly worth a full read, but here are some key takaways:
As a community organizer for three years in Chicago in the late 1980s, Obama learned the skills of motivating and mobilizing people who had little faith in their ability to make politicians, corporations, and other powerful institutions accountable. Working with churches and neighborhood groups, Obama taught low-income people how to analyze power relations, gain confidence in their own leadership abilities, and work together to improve their housing, schools, and other basic services.
"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer," he asked a local newspaper at the time, "as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?"
A key tenet of community organizing is developing face to face contact with people so that they forge commitments to work together around shared values. Organizers are not social workers. Their orientation is not to "service" people as if they were clients, but to encourage people to develop their own abilities to mobilize others. They help people turn their "hot" anger into disciplined action. Community organizers also distinguish themselves from traditional political campaign operatives who approach voters as customers through direct mail, telemarketing, and canvassing urging them to support their candidate as if they were selling soap.
The devotion of Obama supporters is something new, or at least flies in the face of the nose-holding among some late-primary voters in 2004 who chose John Kerry out of party solidarity. But the "different" campaign should not be villified as such. It should be viewed as a legitimately novel philosophical approach that has only been partially-debated on its merits.