Saturday, September 13, 2008
Senator Obama is now trailing Senator McCain in many national polls. In fact, his national popularity has been falling ever since he received the nomination and made a decision to move toward what the pundits describe as "the political center." In the last few months Obama managed to demobilize the millions of young people and centrist Republicans who had momentarily allowed themselves to believe that Obama's idealism represented something so new in politics that they would overcome their own dis-interest in politics and transcend their own skepticism and even reach out to others. Their energy, instead of being understood as the key to electoral victory, was marginalized as the Obama handlers pushed him to be "realistic" and buy the same boring strategy that has lost most Democratic candidates their elections in the past thirty years: abandon your base and put your post-convention energies focused on an elusive "center" that barely exists. The choice of Joe Biden, the foreign policy chair of the Senate who had resolutely refused to allow anti-war voices to testify before his committee at the outset of the Iraq war and who has been as dull and mainstream of the inside-the-beltway crowd could hope for, was only the crowning blow to the people who had been the energizers for the Obama camp . But there had been others: the capitulation to AIPAC and the most reactionary elements in the Jewish world rather than a strong affirmation of the Israeli peace movement perspective on the conflict, the emphasis on how Obama would increase military presence in Afghanistan rather than putting forward a challenge to the militarism that had led us into the fantasy that acts of terror can be stopped through military domination of other countries (his victory in the primaries had been won by representing himself as the candidate of the anti-war sentiment in the country, and it was that which made it possible for him to beat Hillary Clinton who resolutely refused to apologize for her having capitulated to the militarist reasoning); his vote for a bill that extended the power of the president to wiretap on national security grounds (though he had previously promised to oppose it); his capitulation on off-shore drilling while failing to unveil a visionary plan to solve the global environmental problem); his embrace of a Supreme Court decision that banned the city of Washington from imposing gun control; and his distancing from the netroots that had supported him from the beginning. To understand why these betrayals of his core constituency made a big difference in how he is perceived, particularly after Senator McCain did the opposite by choosing as his running mate an obvious soon-to-be-darling of the Republican's core constituency, we need to understand the psychodynamics of American presidential campaigns. There, the first thing to know is that the issues are rarely the issue. What counts much more are two things: the level of hope versus the level of fear, and the degree to which the candidate seems to understand and care about the well-being of the people whom s/he is seeking to lead (or what we might call the elitism factor). Anyone hoping to end militarism and create social programs to reduce poverty, provide universal health care, and address the global environmental crisis is going to face the charge from the media and the political Right that they are "unrealistic" and "naive." Few Americans have the background to understand the details of the programs being presented, and so the tendency of many liberal and progressive politicians to focus on the details feels like technocratic noise that people quickly turn off. What people need to hear is a plausible account of why it is possible to hope for a world in which people can take care of each other and trust others enough so that we don't have to militarily dominate the world. To do that, Obama needs to address the source of our fears, and to put forward a visionary program (I've suggested a Global Marshall Plan to end both domestic and global poverty, provide adequate education and health care, and repair the global environment) that rests explicitly on a rejection of the fear-oriented policies of the Bush/McCain team. Some of Obama's most loyal supporters imagined they heard that from him at the DNC, but most of the country did not come away excited by some new vision that would provide a fundamentally new direction for American domestic and foreign policy. But to the extent that Obama instead tries to fight on the same terrain as McCain (who is going to do better at wiping out all those evil people in the Middle East) he loses, because if the world is as fearful as the Right claims, then people will choose a genuine militarist, not a lukewarm one. And if that is the nature of the period in which we live, then many will move to the Right, because that's where the social energy is going, and that reinforces the most fearful part inside themselves. Moreover, switching from being the candidate of the progressives and the visionaries to the candidate of the political center is understood by many people as a transparent manipulation based on the assumption that Americans are too distorted and stupid to embrace what Obama really stands for, so the only way to win their votes is to pretend to be a mild-mannered centrist. Thus the elitism charge seems to stick, because "if he can't trust Americans to hear his real ideas, the ones with which he made his political career as a progressive in the Senate and in the primaries, then why," reason many Americans, "should we trust him, since he obviously shares the general elitism of the liberal world, an elitism that expresses itself in the assumption that if we don't vote their way, it's only because we are stupid or evil. and big fans of some kind of fascism or repression?" It's not too late to repair this, but Obama would have to reject the wisdom of the inside-the-Beltway talking heads and become once again the Obama that spoke for the possibilities of the 21st century, the Obama who momentarily this past Spring brought hope to millions of young people who now have returned to their cynicism and despair after his various capitulations.
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