“I just have a very bad feeling about the way things are going,” says Paul Krugman in the New York Times as he anticipates the “backlash against Obamamania.”
“Barack Obama, the wunderkind of US politics, has long basked in adulatory press coverage for his historic White House bid — but a media backlash appears to be building,” reports Jitendra Joshi for AFP. “Some Obama supporters fret already that his campaign has the trappings of a messianic cult, as thousands upon thousands pack auditoriums to bask in his uplifting oratory.”
“Obama’s high-flown, inspirational rhetoric often feeds into the impression of a political campaign veering into the realms of religion – never more so than when he declared in a victory speech that ‘we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,'” writes Helen Kennedy in the New York Daily News. “The line is the title of a 2006 Alice Walker book, but some saw it as another sign of the emerging Cult of Obama.”
And in Slate, John Dickerson asks, “Isn’t the generation that Obama has so successfully courted usually the first to toss overhyped products, even the overhyped products with which they were at first so enthralled? More generally, 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?”
So what’s going on here? Charles Krauthammer notes that in his post-Super Tuesday string of wins, “Obama has been able to win these electoral victories and dazzle crowds in one new jurisdiction after another, even as his mesmeric power has begun to arouse skepticism and misgivings among the mainstream media.”
There’s a message in that for Mr Krauthammer et al: the opinion writers and the talking heads — the media sages whose knowledge of politics has so much greater depth than the average Joe — are actually wielding very little influence. Who’d’ve thunk it? Of course many of them would in false modesty dismiss any suggestion that they are attempting to exercise influence, but at the very least, these are the people who make a living on the claim they know how to take a political pulse.
The backlash — and it is clearly a media backlash — probably has much more to do with journalism than it has with what’s going on across America. Journalists like to play a game of political impartiality. It’s never particularly convincing, but anyone who’s getting paid to be a messenger doesn’t want to be accused of distorting the message. At the same time, journalists are people and if the story you’re covering involves large numbers of people being swept up by a wave of enthusiasm, it’s hard not to get infected by at least a smidgen of that enthusiasm. The media backlash is an effort through which the media is now trying to disinfect itself.
So now let’s turn to the cult question — though first I should spell out where I stand.
I didn’t pay too much attention to the presidential race until the beginning of the primaries. I haven’t signed up on the mailing lists of any of the campaigns. I haven’t attended any political rallies. I don’t find “Yes We Can” a particularly compelling or moving slogan. The will.i.am “Yes We Can” video didn’t make me want to chant along — I can only name three of the people in it and one them is Barak Obama. I see change as the one certainty in life and thus not a choice. But when it comes time to vote, unless something totally unexpected happens, I’ll be voting for Obama. I will not be acting under the influence of a higher power.
Since the word “cult” has now been used so widely, the first thing we need to do is get clear about the defining characteristics of a cult. Some social scientists like to run through a checklist to determine whether a social grouping should be called a cult, but anyone who has encountered one or been in one knows that they are actually quite easy to distinguish.
The single most important feature of a cult is that it involves the sublimation of individual will and judgment through surrender to an external authority. That authority may come in the form of a charismatic teacher or it may be suffused across a group. In either case a social order exists that undermines the validity, authenticity, and moral authority of the cult member’s personal autonomy and judgment. Let thy will — not my will — be done.
This is where cults and social movements intersect. Both attach a higher value to the social fabric than to its individual strands. Where they differ — and this is all-important — is that one attempts to be inclusive in a widening circle of solidarity, whereas the other sees itself located in a spiritually embattled world. On the inside are the chosen, the saved, the enlightened; on the outside are lost souls. Social movements are in the business of empowering individuals collectively, not saving them.
By this measure, there is no cult of Obama. At the same time, Obama obviously has a fan base and some Obama fans can be as goofy as any others. Where the cult-analysis gets the Obama phenomenon completely wrong is the implication that the mass rallies are a vanguard that somehow sucks in much wider support.
Charles Krauthammer wants his readers to believe that we are witnessing the greatest political scam of all time as a “silver-tongued freshman senator has found a way to sell hope,” that he doesn’t attempt to explain how Obama closes the sale. Everyone acknowledges that Obama is appealing, inspiring and a great speaker, but these observations don’t explain the Obama phenomenon.
If the product was all in the packaging, the Obama product has plenty of strong selling points: good looks, an easy smile, a golden baritone, a rousing orator. But that isn’t enough. He’s also a bit skinny, looks even more youthful than his mere 46 years, and his debating skills don’t match his speaking skills.
No, the Obama hook isn’t a silver tongue or a mysterious ability to provoke intemperate enthusiasm; it is that he is believable. He has pulled off a miracle that no one thought possible: in spite of his being a politician, people actually believe what he’s saying. What makes him believable is something anyone can recognize even if they don’t know its name: authenticity. This is more than sincerity. It isn’t simply that Obama means what he says but what he says resonates in who he is.
Whereas an election campaign can generally do more than prove or disprove the proposition of electability, Obama’s campaign is itself a demonstration of his ability to deliver what he promises in his presidency: that he can bring people together, bridge divisions, and inspire support. He isn’t just providing a foretaste of what an Obama presidency might look like and passing the litmus test of “looking presidential”; he’s exercising the closest thing to presidential leadership that anyone could have prior to entering office.