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America To Ajami: We Like Crowds!

Fouad Ajami has a rather provocative take on "Obama and the Politics of Crowds" up at the Wall Street Journal today. He marks the unreality of 75,000 Americans gathering in Portland, or 80,000 in Denver, or 100,000 in Missouri to see and hear the Democrat speak. He repeats the well-worn idea that public attraction to Obama lies in his being a "blank slate"--an observation that the candidate has himself advanced. Further, he notes that

Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.

In some ways, this latter point is not sound social science but another jab at the messiah complex of which conservatives such as Ajami often accuse Obama. But, reflecting back on my (pre-journalistic) gatherings at political rallies in Europe and in the US, I can concur with the first presumption. Even though Americans hardly blink at massive spectatorship today, it's clear that this is something new to our civic culture. The 150,000 rabid Europeans whom I joined at the Bastille just days before the Iraq War began could have been reassembled without much provocation--there, protest approaches the highest form of poetics. But while I've marched with earnest dozens on the national Mall and in other major American cities, I daresay that in the last few decades, one would never see that many Americans congregated for anything but a sporting event.

This, writes Ajami, is because Europe craves "equality" while staid America values "liberty." He believes that to abandon such liberty to a madding crowd is the cause and the effect of failure: Only now that the financial markets have melted does the white working class--the storied "real America"--"seek protection, the shelter of the state, and the promise of social repair." But the "shelter" of crowds is an imperfect source of redemption, he argues, citing a 1960 Elias Canetti treatise on "Crowds and Power," because "the crowd, as such, disintegrates. It has a presentiment of this and fears it. . . . Only the growth of the crowd prevents those who belong to it from creeping back under their private burdens."

I disagree. Obama's remarkable ability to draw thousands says far less about him than it does about the participants who have crept out, not from underneath their private burdens, which remain--but toward a political culture aimed at addressing them. They have the fortune of having a candidate that makes people want to stand in the rain or stay up late to listen to him. But such testimony--most memorably involving call and response--followed by a specific plea to action, has always been a key rhythm of the Obama campaign message. And whether it's Obama (or Sarah Palin), technology or the incredible stakes of this election that has expanded the public square, the nation of lone bowlers--however nostalgic it makes Ajami--seems to have vanished.

--Dayo Olopade

(Photo: Marian Anderson performs at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939.)