Obamarama: Why Some Liberal Academics and Journalists Are Suspicious of Obama

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Mr. Livingston teaches history at Rutgers. He's finishing a book called The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century. He blogs at politicsandletters.com.

You bet I’m pleased by the results in Iowa and the impending victory in New Hampshire.  Oops. 

Mine was one the original signatures on the “Historians for Obama” manifesto, sponsored by Michael Kazin and Ralph Luker, then published at HNN (11/26/07)  But the grief I’ve since taken from my fellow “progressives”—a.k.a. the academic left—makes his presence and momentum all the more pleasing.  I still think he can and should get the nomination. 

My original response to those who, following Paul Krugman, noted that John Edwards has the better health care program, was “Well, if the programs are the key to this choice, why aren’t we lining up behind Dennis Kucinich?”  He’s to the left of everybody, and he’s pure of heart.  His sincerity has no limit—his authenticity is unquestionable.  So what’s not to like?  Why not Dennis?  I haven’t heard a coherent response except from the most sectarian leftists, those who want to evacuate the system as it stands by voting for Ralph Nader’s heir apparent.

But that coherence tells me more than I want to know and more than my interlocutors want to divulge about the origins of their preferences.  It tells me that the people who want to focus on the issues or the programs, to the exclusion of the personalities, are just as irrational as I am in these electoral matters.

I have never believed that Edwards could be elected in November 2008, not after the campaign of 2004.  The rich and poor man fray he now embodies in the story line of his life sounds forced at best, indeed almost cranky—especially when it is juxtaposed to the equally prosaic biography and more maniacal Populism of his alter ego from the other shore, Mike Huckabee.  This performative (and programmatic) embodiment of class conflict makes me wonder if the Edwards campaign has read too much of Thomas Frank, Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Nelson Lichtenstein, Michael Denning, et al., and as a result believes that it should reinvent the New Deal coalition and the larger Popular Front. 

That urge to reinvent the irretrievable is nostalgia at its academic best, of course, but you would think that Edwards, a practiced politician, must know better.  It appears not.  (You can read my deconstruction of the egregious Mr. Frank at www.politicsandletters.com, under the heading of “What’s the Matter with Thomas Frank?”)

But speaking of purity on the Left.  Obama is the candidate who left Harvard Law to be a community organizer in Chicago after the model of Saul Alinsky, a darling of SDS and the larger New Left of the 1960s.  He is the candidate who spent a year in the Illinois legislature getting a bill passed which required a videotape of every police interrogation in Chicago, and he did it by working with the cops in the city as well as the Republicans in the state house.  He is the candidate who opposed the Iraq war from the very beginning.  He is the candidate who embraced MoveOn.org, and vice-versa.

But then where is the Left in this debate?  What is the Left, anyway?  Young Jeremy Young, the proprietor of ProgressiveHistorians.com and an avowed left-leaning liberal—Woodrow Wilson is his hero—tells us that Obama deals in “equivocations” and “half measures,” that he values “compromise and civility over bold and decisive action,” and, accordingly, that he is “a man afraid to stand up for his beliefs.”

Well, now, wasn’t George W. Bush a president who valued bold and decisive action over compromise and civility—that is, wasn’t he a man unafraid to stand up for his beliefs and do what he thought was right, no matter what public opinion might suggest or the Constitution would require?  If you’re contemptuous of Obama because he won’t take an eye for an eye—because he wants us to come together—then you’ve merely inverted von Clauswitz’s formulation of the relation between politics and war.  You’re already tacking toward that coast of Utopia where the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks landed.

Why would you want to go there?  Why would you want a candidate who stands on principle, no matter what public opinion says?  Why would you want someone in office who won’t engage in the give and take of politics, where difference is the premise, not the purpose?  Why would you assume that public opinion—that is, the practical embodiment ofconsent, the central principle of political obligation in a modern republic—is irrelevant to policy-making?

Let me put the question differently.  Why is it that the liberal Left seems so backward—more backward than the Right, at any rate—in assessing Obama’s appeal?  Why are liberal academics and journalists so eager to debunk the “enthusiasm” of his supporters, to emphasize that there is something downright unreasonable about his constituency, as if they were channeling the Reverend Charles Chauncey as he denounced the disgusting excesses of the Great Awakening in 1742?  (Just by way of reference: the first Great Awakening of ca. 1739-65 was the cultural revolution that destroyed lower-class deference to colonial authorities, whether civil or ecclesiastical, and so made the Declaration of Independence possible.)

My diagnosis of this backwardness is the curse of the Enlightenment.  The liberal academics and journalists who are so concerned by, with, and about the irrationality of Obama’s appeal still believe that there is an external, objective reality out there—a reality to which good ideas correspond because reason has been deployed in producing them.  By this Enlightenment accounting, good ideas are copies of an external reality, and words are (or should be) the mere transcription of such copies.  Bad ideas are distortions or evasions of that external reality: they are varieties of false consciousness

Language, voice, gesture, rhythm, timing, timbre, style, anything that performs an idea by rhetorical reference or as mimetic embodiment, is, by the same accounting, both superfluous and misleading.  To be sure, these elements of performance must be part of an entertainer’s repertoire—where the aesthetic is supposed to transcend the rational—but they should not disfigure the speech of the politician and thus cloud the thinking of his constituency.  Theater and politics cannot mix; when they do, the republic is at risk, because everything has become artificial, and nothing can be authentic: everyone is playing a role rather than speaking the truth that comes from within. 

In other words, if we are not looking through the candidates, to where we can read their credentials and the programs, but are instead looking at the candidates, we have become dysfunctional citizens—we might as well be reading People Magazine.  In Rick Shenkman’s terms, we have become consumers of celebrity, and we are therefore unfit to participate in elections.  If we do somehow extricate ourselves from the mall and get around to casting our votes, we must take our cue from those products of Enlightenment (like Rick) who have studied the credentials and the programs more carefully than we have—that is, we must take our cue from the educated people who are able to see through the distracting accretions of language, voice, gesture, rhythm, timing, timbre, and style.  Otherwise the personal becomes political, and vice versa. 

I’m not making this up—see Rick’s piece and responses at HNN, 12/17-24/07: “I do not think that voters who think of themselves as consumers can handle the responsibilities of citizenship,” he declares: “voters have proven time and again that they cannot fulfill their responsibilities on their own. . . .They need to take their cue from people who have 1. studied the issues and 2. can tell them which candidates will best look after their interests.”  This was of course the line that Lenin took in 1903, in What is to be Done?, quite possibly the last but certainly the purest instance of the Enlightenment project.      

But is it still so pervasive?  In a word, yes.

And so we have the Trailhead blogger from Slate saying that if you actually stop and listen to Obama’s stump speech, you know that it is “aggressively vapid” (posted 1/6/08).  The same righteous blogger is meanwhile worrying that there is a messianic urge gathering in Obama’s youthful constituency—these youngsters can’t even explain themselves!  More important, we have Sean Wilentz, in an audition for the White House role first played by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., saying something sadly similar in The New Republic of 12/20/07, now cross-posted at HNN.

Here are some excerpts from Sean’s heartfelt complaint.  Sometimes “normally balanced people get swept up by delusions of greatness about a presidential candidate, based on an emotional attachment to the candidate’s oratory or image.”  This is the “delusional style” on the part of the electorate—William Jennings Bryan serves as a strong example of a firebrand who won the nomination with oratory but went down to ignominious defeat at the hands of a seasoned politician.

The “delusional style”—Sean is clearly making a rhetorical gesture toward Richard Hofstadter’s notion of a “paranoid style,” and asking us to use it in assessing his own argument—becomes pernicious when the products of Enlightenment fall for the same theatrical antics that sway the uneducated masses: “But editorialists and pundits are supposed to be skeptical experts, who at least try to appear as if they base their perceptions in facts and reality.  Enthusiasm [there’s that code word] for a candidate because of his or her ‘intuitive sense of the world,’ ‘intuitive understanding,’ and ‘discovery of identity’—the favored terms in some recent press endorsements of Barack Obama—is presented as the product of such discerning, well-considered thinking.  But it is in fact nothing more than enthusiasm, based on feelings and projections that are unattached to verifiable rational explanation or the public record.”   

Whew.  Instead of examining “knowledge, experience, and sound policy proposals,” the pundits have decided that “instincts basically are good enough.”  In this dangerous sense, these journalists “have turned the delusional style into a rallying cry—in support, at least for the moment, of the candidacy of Barack Obama and his allegedly superior intuition.”

I take it that the “delusional style” applies only to the supporters of Obama—the other candidates, certainly the heiress apparent, are presumably not subject to Sean’s rationalist strictures, and neither are their supporters.  But let us assume, at least for the moment, that the programmatic differences between Hillary and Barack are matters of emphasis and detail: on health care, the economy, and the extrication of troops from Iraq, there are quibbles rather than principled disagreements (although I would suggest that Clinton is closer to McCain than to Obama on the matter of permanent bases in Iraq). 

What’s left?  If we look through these candidates, to where we can read their credentials and the programs, we don’t find a real choice—unless, of course, we take “experience” to mean continuity with, or a return to, the salad days of the 1990s, when we already had a black president in the shape of Hillary’s husband.  In that case, however, we are folding her identity into his, a rhetorical move that should make her supporters cringe.  Or unless we take “experience” to mean the horse-trading she perfected as the Senator of upstate New York, in a reprise of the role originated by Alphonse D’Amato.

Why not, then, look at these candidates?  By doing so, we might be able to disarm the Enlightenment project that insists on an either/or choice between style and substance, between “emotional attachment” and “rational explanation,” between “enthusiasm” and “knowledge,” between “instincts” and “sound policy proposals.”  We might be able, as a result, to understand how irrational every commitment—every vote—is, and why that’s a good thing for modern, democratic politics.  (A footnote in the form of a question that proves the personal must be political, and vice versa: why do we want to interview people rather than hire them on the basis of their resumes?)     

I leave Hillary to her supporters—I hope they begin with that tearfully authentic, genuinely autobiographical moment that turned the tide in New Hampshire.  I would especially like to hear from Sean on the “emotional attachment” she forged with female voters whose protective instincts were clearly mobilized by the sight of a woman worn down by the “hard work” of a presidential campaign. 

Hereafter I want merely to notice what Obama’s campaign performs.

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    Arnold Shcherban - 1/18/2008

    Don't be so sure about Obama; the way he has already "adjusted" his stance on the US troops in Iraq over just the short primary campaign tells me a lot more than I would like to hear about his alleged liberalism.
    I got an impression that provided he has been elected, he would be hard pressed by his own party, not mentioning by the real power behind the US political facade - Big Business - to make even grosser shifts to the right of the social-political spectre, i.e. to the "liberal" mainstream, which is the essential equivalent of the good ol' (internal and external) policies of the US elites.
    You are right in thing though: he's doomed to failure in this country, as well, as Kusinich or Ron Paul, on the general reason indicated above, i.e.
    who orders the music in the USA.

    Ronald Dale Karr - 1/17/2008

    "The Great Awakening broke the link between church and state"

    I'm puzzled by this comment, since the church remained established in Massachusetts for another 90 years!

    The connection between religious enthusiasm and the Revolution is tenuous at best. In his religious zeal, as in so many other things, Sam Adams was unusual. The rest of the Boston Whigs--cousin John, Hancock, Revere, Otis, et al.--were conventional Old Light church-goers, some of them even leaning towards Deism. And of course, they were theologically liberal (even if socially conservative) unlike the New Lights who were socially more liberal but theologically more conservative.

    I could probably argue the opposite from you, that those inclined toward religious liberalism, even skepticism--the Old Lights--were more innovative and less bound by tradition. And thus even more open to political change (from which they might benefit). Many were from sophisticated mercantile families, while many of the New Lights were crude backwoods farmers. Or so it could be argued.

    It's hard to establish any connection on the ground between Massachusetts politics and the first Great Awakening. The basic fault line between the Old and New Lights wasn't social at all, but geographic; Old Light strength increased the closer one got to Boston (or Harvard!). The Yale-educated ministers of the Connecticut Valley were the sparkplugs of the New Light revival. This geographic line re-emerges nearly a century later when the church splits into Congregational and Unitarian camps.

    The problem is, this east/west line rarely corresponds to the party/faction divisions in Massachusetts politics in the 18th century. (Say, the land bank controversy). In his recent study of the Shays Rebellion Leonard Richards shows that even here the fault lines ran right through the western part of the state, not between the west and the east. And if you look at the controversy over the religious clauses (or lack of) in the proposed Constitutions of 1778 and 1780, you'll be hard-put to see an Old Light/New Light split.

    I have no quarrel with your association of evangelicalism and anti-slavery (or temperance or peace or any other cause). In that sense, by helping inspire the second awakening, the first was important. But I question your assertion that "religious fanatics" provided the intellectual foundation for the American Revolution.

    James Livingston - 1/16/2008

    Yeah, I know it's not fashionable, but I think Alan Heimert got it right, and Jon Butler got it wrong. Which is to say that Perry Miller's version of these fraught events still makes sense. As does Hofstadter's rendition, for that matter, even though he was a great deal more worried about the irrational origins and implications of Awakening.

    But try this thought experiment. What happened between, say, 1719, when Cotton Mather was reciting Concio ad Populum, and 1771, when Sam Adams--a devout religionist--was citing Locke? What made people believe they could do without ecclesiastical hierarchy, even authority, and decide for themselves on who would govern their spiritual lives? The Great Awakening broke the link between church and state, and opened up all sorts of ideas about the proper scope of civil authority. In one generation, the idea of equality became normal: why? Because religious fanatics imagined it.

    Fast forward to the 1820s and 30s, the Second Great Awakening. Can you narrate anti-slavery without the revival? Why not?

    Ronald Dale Karr - 1/16/2008

    "Why are liberal academics and journalists so eager to debunk the “enthusiasm” of his supporters, to emphasize that there is something downright unreasonable about his constituency, as if they were channeling the Reverend Charles Chauncey as he denounced the disgusting excesses of the Great Awakening in 1742? (Just by way of reference: the first Great Awakening of ca. 1739-65 was the cultural revolution that destroyed lower-class deference to colonial authorities, whether civil or ecclesiastical, and so made the Declaration of Independence possible.)"

    I doubt if you could find very many colonial historians these days who would agree with this description. For one thing, nobody has succeeded in showing an easy correlation between Old Lights/New Lights and eventual Tories/Patriots. For example, Charles Chauncy himself supported the Revolution, as did many other Old Lights or their families.

    Most would probably agree with Jon Butler that the Great Awakenings' "supporters questioned only certain kings of authority, not authority itself, and they usually strengthened rather than weakened denominational and clerical institutions. [The Awkening] missed most colonies and even in New England its long-term effects have been greatly exaggerated." (Awash in A Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 165)

    E. Simon - 1/15/2008

    I think the piece was too detailed and eloquent to require the implementation of tangential correctives to this modern-day emphasis on specifics and resume. But I will say this: Some of the most evil and ruthless tyrants had well-practiced pedigrees in the art of ruling their realms and some of the most effective enlightened leadership made better use of inspiration than anything else. Many Dems are getting too bogged down on "plans". Yes, Obama has them. But he also has the wisdom, the powers of speech, and yes, the "inexperience" on an order that comes closer to Lincoln than that of any of his peers. Pity so few people recognize things like that.

    But take it from another "established" expert - no, not Cheney and Rove ;-):

    "Imagination is more important than Knowledge."

    Any company that wants to be successful these days knows that it is the personality of the hiree that will tell how well they will cope with the change of an organization and perform well, - and lead - within that culture. As contemptuous as the political observers within the tower have become of the market, they need to remember that how splendid of a job Hillary's husband did in ruining the prospects of his party - co-opting Republican positions to his own benefit, and reducing the former fire in once-fellow party member's Al Gore's belly down to a haggard shell of his former self, practically begging for a job by 2000. And we all know where things went from there. The decline of the Democrats happened when an inspirational man from Hope made it plain that he stood for absolutely nothing but himself. So disregard Obama all you want. Those who look to personality actually know how to recognize when someone is out for something grander and more idealistic than just that - even if it starts with just some humble honesty accompanied by the roaring charge for some equivalent transparency in the government; a transparency that others have problems with.

    E. Simon - 1/15/2008

    Mmmmhmmm. Just what this discussion needed!

    Louis Nelson Proyect - 1/15/2008


    omar ibrahim baker - 1/15/2008

    I am NOT an American citizen and as such I can not partake in the election of Obama or Edwards!
    That I can not partake in American presidential elections is NOT the a priori , the given that some, or most, would assume as logical and inevitable and take for granted!
    For I, with millions and millions of other non Americans like me, will be greatly affected by the outcome of that election.

    We will NOT be affected as much as American citizens but, I do NOT hesitate to claim, we will be affected MORE so than most .

    Checks and balances, in the USA system , do work to minimize, dilute and /or absorb the outcome of drastic presidential decisions in INTERNAL affairs much more than in EXTERNAL affairs as was shown time and time again .

    Would it have been as easy and as quick to reach and implement the decision to invade and destroy Iraq if the decision was to , say, nationalize, or drastically regulate, hospitals , arms or cigarettes manufacturer or even porno producers ??

    America can do much worse than elect Obama for President ...it can, and will, elect one of the other runners!

    A , highly unlikely, Obama presidency would however rejuvenate America by atonement to the black people and through the "slaves" of America and their descendants will present to the world another America than the America of Bush, Reagan, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib!
    It could be a real new page for all!
    Will America do that ???..
    Of course NOT; it has neither the vision nor the will nor has it suffered enough to feel the need for
    Pity...another lost opportunity.

    James Livingston - 1/14/2008

    Well, no, the Enlightenment didn't invent mind/body dualisms any more than it invented popular government--not any more than Machiavelli invented republicanism. And no, it wasn't monlithic. What follows?

    The figures of the Enlightenment rehabilitated, interrogated, and institutionalized the intellectual inheritance they specified in Athenian democracy and the Roman republic, all the while using Florence as a modern addendum or footnote or atlas. They also codified the dualisms residing in that inheritance, as witness the extremities of the Kantian project.

    But even at the height of their powers and influence, ca. 1790-1820, the inversion of Enlightenment in the poetics of romanticism was taking place, as an argument with a brittle notion of reason that already lacked explanatory adequacy. This struggle accounts for the ambiguities you emphasize by citing Peter Gay, who is, by the way, a less reliable guide to the intellectual phenomena in question than Ernst Cassirer, Charles Taylor, and Henry May.

    Enlightenment enfranchised representative government, but it meanwhile reduced the scope of representation in accordance with a notion of reason that excluded the majority of human beings. We should know how and why that happened.

    And I am still Marxoid enough to insist that the development of capitalism and the advent of consumer culture underwrote the democratic revolution of the late-20th century. Try explaining the civil rights movement--and its consequences--or the rebirth of feminism without reference to both capitalism and consumerism.

    Carol Hamilton - 1/14/2008

    I would still point out that binary oppositions like mind/body did not begin during the Enlightenment but are characteristic of Western philosophy back to, probably, the Greeks. And in your response, the Enlightenment still sounds monolithic, as if all the philosophes shared precisely the same worldview. I don't say that you "hate" it but that you don't do it justice.

    It was, after all, key figures of the Enlightenment who believed that representative democracy could work, that ordinary people were capable of self-government.

    In Peter Gay's intellectual history of the Enlightenment, which I've been reading, he rejects the dominant characterization of the philosophes as obsessed by reason, writing in volume I, "The philosophes ' glorification of criticism and their qualified repudiation of metaphysics make it obvious that the Enlightenment was not an Age of Reason but a Revolt against Rationalism. This revolt took two closely related forms: it rejected the assertion that reason is the sole, or even the dominant, spring of action; and it denied that all mysteries in the world can be penetrated by inquiry. The claim for the omnipotence of criticism was in no way a claim for the omnipotence of reason. It was a political demand for the right to question everything, rather than the assertion that all could be known or mastered by rationality" (141).

    I am Marxist enough to think that capitalism and consumer culture have had adverse effects on democratic processes.

    Ed Rader - 1/14/2008

    I sm not a student of the Enlightment, but I am aware enough to recognize that I am in to some degree a product of it. I have been skeptical of Mr Oboma for just the reasons layed out in Mr. Livingston's analysis: the lack of specifics in his plans and the seeming "cult of personality" that seems to grow around him. However, I have not yet seen him speak live, and I realize that I may well be swayed by his charisma and energy if I do. Should that happen, I will be careful not to be overly suspicious of my own feelings, nor censurious of them. I will take a closer look at what his record indicates about the kind of President he may be, and I will not hold his ability to inspire and move people "against" him. Thank you, Mr Livingston

    James Livingston - 1/14/2008

    I, too, canvassed for MoveOn in 2004, and found surprising amounts of knowledge and intensity among the people I encountered.

    Difference of paradigm? Probably, because the citation of "instrumental reason" and Benjamin suggest an attachment to Frankfurt School notions of the relation between reason and desire, mind and body, etc., or, as I framed it in the original post, between substance and style. Adorno and Horkheimer (and Habermas) criticize the Enlightenment, of course, but they remain prisoners of its poisonous oppositions, and accordingly find nothing but cause for despair in the behavior of the, er, masses. Sound familiar?

    Our academic friends do not, in fact, accept the mediated or theatrical or metaphorical quality of all knowledge--that is why someone as smart and influential as Sean Wilentz can indulge the antithesis of substance and style, of emotional attachment and rational explanation.

    The residual admiration for the either/or choices offered by the Enlightenment also shows in your provisional agreement with Rick Shenkman's formulation of the proper relation between knowledge and politics--that is, between us professors and those voters.

    But please don't accuse me of hatred for the Enlightenment. I like it just fine. I just don't want its astringent assumptions about the place and the function of reason to regulate our thinking about our fellow citizens--voters like us.

    The body is ingredient in the mind; desire is a constituent element of reason. If we understand that, we can analyze electoral politics and explain our fellow citizens with the care and the humility these intellectual projects require.

    It's not an either/or choice between the Enlightenment and the idiocy of, say, the religious Right. For as my favorite philosopher put it in 1897, "The absence of faith is a mental nullity."

    Carol Hamilton - 1/14/2008

    I'm an Obama supporter, and my lefty academic friends have been skeptical about him. In fact, we all agree most closely with Kucinich, and we all read Krugman.

    But I question Livingstone's negative attitude toward the Enlightenment here. Surely the Enlightenment, an international and multifaceted phenomenon that endured for decades, long enough to produce least two generations of thinkers, was neither entirely negative in its effects nor monolithic.

    Although instrumental reason was one of its negative products, its thinkers also produced critiques of religion, monarchy, slavery, and the oppression of women. To regard it as a "curse" seems highly problematic.

    Surely no one is more hostile to Enlightenment attitudes than the religious and xenophobic wings of the Republican Party, or talking heads like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter.

    Political events have often been described in theatrical metaphors. The 18th Brumaire is one of many examples--the famous "comedy" and "farce" being only its opening shot. Metaphors are an inescapable component of language, and the theater is still a fruitful source of them.

    Surely "liberal academics and journalists" think not in terms of originals & copies--they've read Benjamin-- but in terms of mediation and representation, recognizing that there is no unmediated reality, particularly not in a political culture in which candidates are most accessible on TV.

    As someone who went door-to-door for MoveOn in the last election, I've encountered firsthand the surprising ignorance & lack of engagement among potential voters. Perhaps Rick Shenkman's idea that consumers make poor citizens helps explain that.

    So although I'm sympathetic to the basic strand of this argument, I question the way the argument is constructed.