Thursday, February 14, 2008

Consequences of Obamamania

Barack Obama’s winning streak is likely to continue next week in the Wisconsin and Hawaii primaries, but don’t count the Clintons out yet. They’re still close in delegates and who knows what chits they will call in should the nomination come to depend on the choices of the POP’s (Party of Pusillanimity’s) “super delegates.” But, for now, Obama clearly has the Big Mo, as George H.W. Bush would say. His victory is not assured, but those of us who dread the prospect of a Clinton Restoration can be cautiously optimistic.

However, the race between Clinton and Obama is not just about delegates; it has another dimension altogether. Clinton has supporters, lots of them. But few, if any, of her supporters are enthusiasts. Except for those of us in the faute de mieux camp – who prefer Obama to Clinton on the grounds that it would be even worse were she to win than he – Obama’s supporters are all enthusiasts. [For reasons not to be enthusiastic see Bruce Dixon’s informative recent piece in Black Agenda Report.]

Because of this difference, if Clinton loses, few potential Democratic voters will stay home in November. Some of her current supporters may even be relieved. As matters stand, they feel that, for feminist reasons or because they owe the Clintons something, they have to be on Hillary’s side. But they’d really prefer to support Obama and will therefore be grateful for not having a choice. On the other hand, if Obama loses, and especially if it is the Party’s leaders who do him in, expect them to rebel by supporting a genuinely progressive candidate, if one is available (of which more below) or in the tried and true American way – by staying home on election day. Because the Democrats will ultimately be running against Dick Cheney and George Bush, and because the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, is so problematic, the Democrats will have a hard time losing the election even if they do lose many potential voters. But it is not impossible. If there are mass defections from the Democratic “base,” at the same time and for the same reason that “the great right wing conspiracy,” mobilized by Clinton-phobia, shifts into high gear, McCain just might pull it off.

As I’ve explained in countless entries, Clinton’s and Obama’s political differences are minor; the contest between them is not about politics. It’s about charisma. If Obama gets the nomination, as he probably will, it will be because he is more charismatic than Hillary Clinton. But the outcome of the primary contest is not the only thing Obama’s charisma affects. It may not even be the most important.

Charisma is in the mind of the beholder, but its growth and sustenance have more to do with mass than individual psychology. Obama, along with most of the other candidates, was more “likeable” than Clinton from the start, but he has only recently become significantly more charismatic. It’s not hard to see why. He is a fine orator, even though he utters platitudes (as the utterly uncharismatic John McCain aptly put it in his victory speech in Alexandria, after he too swept the Potomac primaries). He is witty and attractive. Caroline was not wrong; he is Kennedyesque. But Kennedy himself only became Kennedyesque by dying from an assassin’s bullet (or bullets, it’s still not clear!) It would not be far-fetched to say that the same bullet (or bullets) made Obama charismatic too – by making wit and style, not substance, magical.

JFK, as President, did more harm than good. To cite two egregious examples: he helped bring the world to the brink of destruction during the Cuban missile crisis and, more than LBJ or anyone else, he helped start the Vietnam War. Ironically, however, he also “inspired” the emergence of a serious left in the United States, a New Left comprised of young men and women intent on “asking not what their country could do for them…” Obama has been remarkably reticent about what his presidency would be like, and the few indications he has provided give little cause to enthuse. But to the degree we can make ourselves believe that, following the Kennedy model, he just might unintentionally unleash progressive forces, the inveterate optimists among us have some reason not to despair.

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Like Clinton, though not for the same reasons, Obama may have trouble getting elected too. So far, he has only run in Democratic primaries and caucuses. Victory in a general election may be harder to pull off. This is why, for him more than any other candidate, enthusiastic supporters are indispensable. It’s why his charisma is his only chance.

It seemed, up to the time of the South Carolina primary, that Obama might even have trouble getting most of the African American votes. That danger has passed, but it is worth recalling why there was concern. One reason was that many black voters like the Clintons. Their affection is not easily explained. But it was real: real enough for Toni Morrison to opine, idiotically, that Bill Clinton was the first black President. Another reason is that Obama was and still is all but silent on institutional racism – on poverty (black and otherwise), incarceration rates, schooling and the like. Even Clinton was better; John Edwards was better by far. Optimist may think that Obama’s silence is tactical, and that once in office, he’ll do better. I’m inclined to think that what we now see and hear is what we’re going to get. But, in this case too, hope springs eternal.

Persistent institutional racism notwithstanding, racist attitudes have certainly faded -- how else explain Obama’s appeal to white voters? But racist attitudes may not yet have declined enough. After the New Hampshire primary, there was much talk about the so-called Bradley effect – where white (and Latino!) voters, regardless of what they say (or what they believe about themselves or what they tell pollsters), just cannot, in the end, bring themselves to vote for an African American. We’ve not heard much about this in the past several weeks, as Obama has sailed along from victory to victory, garnering substantial support from white voters. But the phenomenon could come redounding back. The general public may not yet be quite as evolved as voters in Democratic primaries.

Then there is the “third rail” of American and especially Democratic Party politics: Israel/Palestine. From the time that Obama’s national political aspirations became clear, he has pandered to the Israel lobby with exceptional zeal. The most egregious recent example was his letter to Zalmay Khalizad, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. At a time when the Israeli occupation of Gaza was (and still is) eliciting worldwide outrage thanks to Israel’s flagrant violations of any number of longstanding tenets of international law and morality, Obama wrote that “the Security Council should clearly and unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks against Israel, and should make clear that Israel has a right to defend itself against such actions.” Otherwise, Obama continued, the Security Council should say nothing at all. Such a letter could warm even Joe Lieberman’s heart. But not too many years earlier, before Obama’s national political ambitions crystallized, he was more “fair and balanced.” His past could come back to haunt him. Watch for John McCain and/or Lieberman, McCain’s soul-mate (and possible running mate), to fan the flames.

It’s not clear how much damage that would do, just as it isn’t clear how disabling racist attitudes still are. And, in this instance too, there is some (but not much!) reason to think that Obama’s positions are more tactical than heartfelt. Unless he has forgotten a lot very quickly, he should still know better than to whore for AIPAC, the way that Hillary Clinton and nearly all Congressional Democrats do. That is my hope. But it is also the fear of some influential members of my tribe, many of whom are major financial supporters of the Democratic Party. So far, they’ve muted their distrust; after all, Obama has given them no cause (of late), and it would be unseemly (and probably also counterproductive) to go after the black guy. But where “support for Israel” is the issue, they’re much less inclined than even right wing Israelis to take chances. Hence, the danger is there.

Needless to say, the Israel lobby is not a Jewish lobby – both because it has a large Christian Zionist component and because most American Jews simply do not care all that much about Israel. However most do care a little. [I should add too that many of Zionism’s most ardent and principled critics in the United States are American Jews; it is an honor to count myself among them.] Inasmuch as the lobby’s publicists are skilled at stirring up fears of past and future holocausts and at identifying any and all opposition to anything Israel does with anti-Semitism, that small but still benign level of concern that predominates in the American Jewish community could grow into a malign political fact – causing the Democrats to lose votes and, more importantly, money. This is yet another reason why Obamamania is necessary for Obama’s prospects. It will be indispensable for countering whatever low blows come his way.

Despite lingering racism and the harms the Israel lobby can (but probably won’t) do, I still think that, on balance, Obama is more electable than Clinton. John Edwards would have been not only a more progressive candidate, but also a more electable one. But, after his withdrawal from the race, and with Obamamania in full gear, that’s plainly a lost cause. I used to think that maybe, just maybe, if Clinton and Obama would fight each other to exhaustion, as is likely to happen in the race for delegates, the Party would turn to Edwards in the end. But that best of all still possible outcomes is only infinitesimally likely – first because (the reformed) Al Gore is a more likely candidate of “party unity” but also because of the enthusiasm Obama’s candidacy generates. Even if the two fight each other to exhaustion in the race for delegates, Obama’s supporters will not be exhausted. Obamamania will persist and perhaps even grow between now and the Denver convention this summer, and perhaps through the general election in November as well. Enthusiasm is not easily denied. Obama’s supporters are as unlikely to be content with Gore or Edwards as with Clinton; they want Obama -- no substitutes accepted.

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Obamamania could have another, more deleterious consequence: it could make (progressive) third party organizing (party-building) and educational campaigns more difficult. It may even make them futile.

On the one hand, the situation in 2008 is relevantly like the situation in 2000. Once again, the election is the Democrats’ to lose. [In 2000, Al Gore was up to the task, but Obama and even Clinton will have a harder time of it after eight years of Cheney and Bush.] Again, the Democratic standard bearer, whether it is Clinton or Obama, will be a centrist, who will run to the right (corporate media pundits will call it “the center”), in order to draw in “independents.” These are ideal conditions for a challenge from the left. The Nader campaign in 2000 calculated similarly. It was not mistaken. Nader’s project ended badly because the Democrats ran a poor campaign, and then because they let James Baker frame the challenge in Florida in a way that permitted Tony “Two Vote” Scalia and four other Reaganite Supreme Court justices to pick the winner. It ended poorly too because many “liberal” Democrats, including leaders of mainstream environmental and women’s organizations, thought it more important to attack Nader than Bush. Still, running against Gore was a good idea at the time. Even up to the bitter end, it was reasonable to expect that Gore would become President and that the Green Party would get at least 5% of the vote, becoming eligible for federal matching funds and otherwise breaking out of the marginality into which Republicans and Democrats, especially Democrats, have cast it. It didn’t work out that way, but it would have but for the Democrats’ many mistakes. Let them blame Nader all they want; the fault was theirs.

Similarly favorable conditions pertain now – even more so. Gore had to run on Bill Clinton’s record; Obama or Hillary Clinton can run against Cheney’s and Bush’s. Also the country is more receptive to new, progressive ideas than it was in 2000, again thanks to Cheney and Bush. The prospect of breaking free from the party duopoly that has done so much harm to our political culture is therefore better than it was eight years ago. BUT there is a crucial difference:

Gore was a bore. Like Hillary Clinton today, many people were willing to vote for him but few, if any, of them were enthusiasts. With Nader, it was different. In the end, most of his supporters were scared away, but it was he who had the most charisma eight years ago. At the level of ideas, policies, visions, and everything else that ought to matter, the Green Party candidate this year, whether it is Nader or Cynthia McKinney or someone else, will be better than Obama in every way. If Nader is the candidate, the Green standard bearer will also have charismatic appeal, despite eight years of Democratic vilification. But in that department, Obama is far ahead. In these clueless times, integrity and wisdom are no match for Kennedyesque style.

In short, if Obama is the Democratic candidate, it will be difficult to run a campaign to his left – not because there is no space or no need, quite the contrary, but because the minions of enthusiasts, young people mainly, that the campaign will require in order not to degenerate into irrelevance will be somewhere else.

It is premature to draw conclusions, but it is looking like Obamamania will indeed make “change” possible, but only in the sense that the next administration will be much less bad than the present one. This will be welcome, of course. But this step forward will be accompanied by a missed historical opportunity. We are now at a point where it is possible to transform political life to an extent that has been unimaginable for decades. Edwards might have seized the opportunity from within the stultifying confines of the Democratic Party; energized third party activity can advance real change’s prospects in a different and ultimately deeper way. But Obamamania disabled Edwards’ chances and, between now and November, it will likely impede the Green Party’s as well. However, conditions change, and it is far too soon to conjecture what the prospects for real change will be under an Obama administration.

1 comment:

clubok said...

Interesting that you mention the Bradley Effect. It seems pretty clear at this point that there is no such effect at work in the Democratic primaries. For example, check out my blog post on the subject here.