CAMPAIGN 08 EDITORIAL: The Obama cult meme

The Obama cult meme

“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 “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.

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11 thoughts on “CAMPAIGN 08 EDITORIAL: The Obama cult meme

  1. S. Agee

    I think authenticity isn’t quite the right word; credibility might be better. Obama has repeatedly declared himself able to do improbable things and then done them. His campaign has in every way been perfectly consonant with his idealistic message. This draws a contrast with his opponent, who has been much better at proclaiming herself ready to lead than she has been at providing any concrete reason to believe her.

  2. don

    A convincing and compelling argument. The drum beat of the ‘Obama cult’ will likely grow louder as does the popularity of his vision. Attempts to discredit him will know no bounds. But, if I may, I’d like to express a few doubts of my own, doubts that share nothing in common with those making accusations of an Obama cult.

    You say that Obama has “pulled off a miracle that no one thought possible”, and that his ability to draw in popular support is because “people actually believe what he’s saying”, itself a reflection of his “authenticity.”

    Here’s my concern: Many who most certainly will not vote for McCain yet who express doubts as to the inspiration that gathers behind Obama’s candidacy, are dubbed cynics for failing to “believe”. Aside from the inflated currency in the use of the term cynic – itself a means to discount without arguing against anything of substance – the implication is that those who are not Obama believers are consequently then non-believers.

    To add to this, as one who prefers Obama over Clinton and who will will vote for him should he stand against a Republican opponent, I nonetheless feel very uneasy about what is in our culture an obsession with authenticity, now being attached to Obama.

    The importance given to this phenomenon of believing what Obama has to say implies its opposite: those who do not. This contrast hints at more than just a residue of what is the very bedrock of fundamentalism: believer vs. non-believer, and worse yet, good vs. evil. As a fundamentalism that has pervaded the Bush administration, this archetype is seemingly evident in the Obama phenomenon as well, even if in reverse order. Perhaps it is this very hint of fundamentalism that gives birth to the charge of an Obama cult?

    I recognize that Obama speaks of healing divisions, but recall that Bush too spoke of not being the “divider.” Granted, one can convincingly say that when Obama says it he really means it. But then this takes us back to authenticity. Naturally, there will be many who will oppose Obama, and who will reject any claims to his authenticity. The point of contention then distills into who of the two candidates is the more authentic, who has the greater integrity. Yet is is on this basis that our political culture has devolved, engendering the very divisions all claim to transcend.

    Perhaps it is this seeming flirtation with fundamentalism that leaves many suspect of the attention given to this one individual, and the yearnings for which many are now seemingly hanging their hopes for the future.

  3. Paul Woodward

    There are lots of points I could respond to here, but I’ll confine myself to one right now – the question of cynicism. If you believe that it is possible to change the political culture in Washington but doubt that Obama is capable of bringing about that change, I don’t think that’s being cynical. But if you say that Obama can’t bring about that change because power is too entrenched and the goal is unrealistic, that is cynical — and I think that’s the cynicism that he’s challenging. It’s not about whether you’re an Obama “believer” or “unbeliever.”

    I’m inclined to believe that Obama believers are in a minority among Obama supporters. I think that probably most people who cast a vote for him are not expressing some unshakable faith. They’re simply saying, “I have a good feeling about this guy — he’s worth giving a try.”

    This might sound like an unreflective gambler’s approach to democracy, but one of the consequences of the Bush era that has, as far as I’m aware, been completely ignored, is that Bush upended the security argument. In other words, millions of people who voted for Bush thinking that this was the safe thing to do learned the opposite. As a consequence, when a candidate comes along and says, “I’m the low-risk option”, the response is, “I played it safe last time and look what I got. Safe doesn’t look safe any more. Now I’m ready to take a risk.”

  4. don


    Your comment regarding cynicism is quit accurate, but there is good reason why so many feel so powerless in our society, and it is not due just to their cynicism – their failings in outlook. The cynicism itself is grounded, to some degree at least, in the realities we face.

    As for the theme of (in)security: it is undergoing swift change, in which geo-political insecurity is increasingly being upstage by one that is now economic.

    The financial system in this country is in deep crisis, a crisis that is both systemic and of its own doing, and one that is increasingly taking hold in the ‘real’ economy. Government aligned with banking/financial institutions will seek to steer these developments away from crisis, and much effort will be given to generate confidence and sooth fears and insecurities. The paternalistic efforts will be entirely transparent, and I doubt very much they will succeed. The left in this country is, I’m afraid, paying too little attention to these matters.

    The next president will be facing great challenges, very likely limiting significantly that administration’s effectiveness. My concern is that should Obama be elected president, the lofty heights at which he has given to building hope and expectations may well be dashed, leaving his historical claim to what is a significant change in US political developments tarnished. Of course, the potential for this is not reason enough for him not to try. One has to strike when the iron is hot.

    Thank for taking the time to respond to my original comment and more importantly, thank you very much for all the work you put in to what is one of my favorite sites. I have found your editorial comments on geo-political developments consistently insightful.

  5. Bernard Chazelle

    I’ll second Don’s comments. I come here often (though I don’t comment) and always find Paul’s insights illuminating.

    My take on Obama is that the president of the US wears two hats (king and prime minister). Obama has proven he’ll be a good king. Some have doubts he can be a good prime minister. A campaign provides a thin platform from which to draw a relevant judgment on the matter. Experience is meaningless (Cheney, Rummy, etc.) It seems Obama has picked better advisors than Hillary and his campaign is better run, so that might be an indication that he’ll be a better prime minister.

    I reject the notion that pundits have been delusional re Obama but clear-eyed vis a vis HRC. They’ve all bought into the experience meme she’s based her campaign on. In fact, she has no more experience than he does. That is equally delusional.

  6. Azam Houle

    Very interesting analysis of cult and social movements – and the discussion of cynicism. I’ve found a great deal of food for thought in your posts.

    I agree with don in that cynicism, to some degree, is grounded in “the realities we face.” From a personal standpoint, my skepticism stems from seeing the political process function largely as grandiose political theater rather than a society in crisis dealing honestly with its ills.

    I don’t doubt Obama’s sincerity or integrity and I will vote for him. But I have to admit I would have voted for Kucinich -whose candidacy was stifled so early before he could develop a cult -much more enthusiastically. For me, Kucinich presented the greatest possibility for change – voting for him was a real “risk” I was wholeheartedly ready to take without hesitation.

    In the larger sense, given today’s political realities, I’ve come to see the obama cult as the necessary foundation and a key element for fundamental change (your posts have had something to do with turning me around.) Historically significant changes have taken place from the bottom through mass mobilization rather than top-down. We are certainly at a historical juncture requiring this sort of mass movement. Obama certainly has been able to lead – that he is seen as a “messiah,” only speaks of people’s desperation, and the urgency and the need for fundamental change in the philosophy and conduct of a corrupt leadership. The more Obama gathers support, the more optimistic I become about this movement and its momentum for political change.

    Obama will need continued mass support. He will most certainly need this support to face all the obstacles the powers that be, including his own party, will throw in his path. Ultimately, Obama’s success in realizing this promise of change will depend on the continued involvement of the people in the political process. This is a symbiotic relationship needing energy from both sides.

    Can this movement elect Obama and stay as engaged after the elections to call him on his promise? As Jesse Jackson says, “Keep hope alive!”

  7. Paul Woodward

    Following on from Bernard’s comments, it’s always seemed to me a strange and unimaginative strategy for Hillary to pursue — pushing the experience line. It’s as though she’s running as the incumbent. As for her prior tenure in the White House, the one thing that was unfortunately clear was that she didn’t know enough about what was going on under her own roof.

  8. Monte Asbury

    Excellent observations. It does seem to me that Obama speaks in the language of postmodernism and those groups most likely to be influenced by it (plus a few attracted for other reasons) are thrilled to “get” what someone in the political process is saying.
    My hunch is that the anti-cult rhetoric is a reaction from those who simply remain on the former side of this cultural transition and sense that nothing that used to work, works. They can see they are nearly powerless, and they can’t figure out why.
    McCain will discover the same thing.

  9. Jacob Freeze

    For me, NAFTA is the biggest negative for Hillary, and somehow I only noticed yesterday that Obama also voted for NAFTA-Peru, which every labor and farm group in the US and Peru opposed. This was after listening to Obama attack Ms. Clinton on the subject of NAFTA again and again.

    I don’t have much affection for the Clintons… Among Democrats I prefer Kucinich, Dodd, Edwards, and Wesley Clark, just to mention a few candidates and an almost-ran. But it seems to me that Obama’s attacks against HRC on this subject are unusually deceitful, even by the low standards of campaign rhetoric.

  10. Russ Wellen

    Consider that most Obama supporters see him on TV or the Internet, where he’s an inspiring speaker with a lot of fans. The adulation and supposed cult-like atmosphere are not apparent to those who don’t see him live or work for him.

  11. Jacob Freeze

    Obama isn’t running “a political campaign veering into the realms of religion.” Religions demand sacrifice. Christians take up a cross, Muslims die defending the ummah in jihad, Buddhists renounce all fleshly enticements.

    Obama is running a political campaign veering into the realms of Oprah.

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