Why Obama's the Real Deal

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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.

The Hitman is at it again. Paul Krugman’s New York Times column on Friday, February 1st, praised John Edwards for moving the Democrats to the left—by laying out concrete proposals on health care and climate change, by forcing Clinton and Obama to follow suit. This praise works as setup for the punch line: “Personal appeal won’t do the job” against the Republicans. Only repeated reference to “substantive differences” will allow the new “party of ideas” to beat the bad guys in November.

Translation: Forget Obama’s “personal appeal” and focus on the substance of Clinton’s campaign, because her health care plan “is more or less identical to the Edwards plan.” In other words: Look through the candidates, not at them. And here I thought I’d talked us out of this pointless academic procedure (here and here). But shoot, didn’t the Times announce yesterday (1/2/08) that Obama’s economic program is to the left of Clinton’s? What exactly are we looking through?

I also thought I’d convinced Sean Wilentz that the Lincoln-Clinton analogy was at least problematic. But no. There he goes again in the LA Times, telling us that young Abe Lincoln was a political machine unto himself, having been elected captain of his local state militia and all. Well, OK, Lincoln was deeply interested in political issues before and after his one term in Congress, and yeah, he did serve in the—oops—Illinois legislature. And I would never deny that he was an accomplished lawyer. The simple and significant fact remains that he was an ideologue—an orator without office—not an experienced legislator or bureaucrat, when he won his party’s nomination.

Or, to put it another way, Lincoln might have won his party’s nomination by trimming toward the popular sovereignty position embraced by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas—through which slavery would be voted up or down by the people who settled the territories in question. Instead, in debating Douglas, he forced the Republican Party to get beyond the rhetoric of Free Soil and to recognize, in accordance with the idiom of abolitionism, that slavery was a moral problem. He was not a “highly pragmatic” politician until, with 39.8 percent of the vote in 1860—all votes in the North, of course—he had to manage a coalition that wasn’t committed to ending slavery. And yet this was also the man who refused to compromise during the secession crisis, even when a majority of his own party in Congress begged him to.

But let’s finally get on to what Obama stands for—what the campaign performs, if you will, and why our irrational reception of this performance is not something to worry about. My assumption in depicting this phenomenon is that politics and art have a great deal more in common than the Enlightenment model can acknowledge. Novelists, poets, and painters, writers, actors, and filmmakers, all persuade without overt argument. The form of their art does not merely reveal the content of their thinking—that form, whether chosen or not, determines the content of what they can convey to us in designating what is evident yet unknown.

Politicians also persuade without argument, and if they don’t, or can’t, they won’t be elected. We have to be able to identify with them as individuals with intelligible and plausible biographies, even as we understand that they are exceptional individuals—otherwise we can’t pay attention to what they say, that is, to how their utterance and purposes intersect with our more mundane lives.

The psychic relation—the emotional attachment—created by this process of identification is not much different than what occurs when we accredit a famous actor’s performance as believable. In fact, we often use the same words to report and verify our judgments of politicians and actors (trustworthy, inspiring, authentic, etc.), and we do so because we know that the public performance of their roles is crucial. As the Athenian inventors of politics assumed that they needed to hear themselves speaking, watch themselves behaving, so we understand that virtue and truth are products of rhetorical interaction, of performance.

We understand, consequently, that rhetorical interaction moves us away form the nuts and bolts of policy, program, platform—we understand that such interaction eventually becomes the substance of politics, especially when programmatic differences begin to look unimportant. And that is when we also understand that “personal appeal” is the function of voter identifications that are both admirably rational and deeply irrational. Just like most people are.

But let me speak just for myself. Here is what I think the Obama campaign performs: We won.

A lot of people have suggested that Barack somehow gets us beyond the 1960s, maybe by being a post-baby boomer kind of guy. For me, the key is not his youth but the fact that he acts as if we don’t have to revisit the battles of the 1960s. And why don’t we? Because the Left won them. Everything about the campaign says as much. The emphasis on leaving behind the partisanship of the 1990s, for example, is a way of saying that most of us now agree on what seemed impossible as late as 1965—equality across lines of race, gender, and sexuality.

The fear that feeds the Clinton campaign, and that animates the Democratic opposition to Obama, is fueled by the notion that the Left didn’t win the culture wars—that a vast right-wing conspiracy still lurks out there, somewhere, just waiting to destroy the great leap forward of the 1990s. This conspiracy is real, mind you: just ask Grover Norquist, one of its more demented spokesmen. But it is not vast, and it is a losing proposition, as every right-wing ideologue, even Grover, will tell you.

For American voters are trending left, and have been since 1980—that’s right, since Reagan got elected. That’s why Paulie (“the Hitman”) Krugman can urge us to look through the candidates, toward the programs, and tell us that we’re winners when we propose universal health care.

Barack embodies that trend. In fact, he is its product, as he suggests when he invokes the struggles of the 1960s. He acts as if there’s no going back. That is why we believe him when he says that the choice is between the past and the future.

We won. Hillary doesn’t think so. Barack does. I’m with him.

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Michael J Rambo - 2/7/2008

I would argue that for the sake of a political campaign, especially one as important as the race for the White House, the “nuts and bolts of policy, program, platform” are of vital importance. It seems like the implication that is being made is that technical and concrete solutions to problems are of secondary importance (behind charisma and personality). And while I don’t mean to suggest that personal virtue and truth are of no relative importance (especially in dealing with an intransigent and cantankerous Congress), I believe the fact that ideological rhetoric is being valued here over and above the substantive (albeit less personally appealing/stirring) rhetoric speaks directly to the problem of declining voter turnout, especially in younger voters. In the last forty years, the media coverage of tv networks has shifted from the discussion of real issues and real solutions to a prosaic analysis of who threw what dirt and whose eyes are baggier after non-stop campaigning over the course of 72 hours.
It seems to me that the indifference of many voters stems from an inundation of empty, rhetorical promises that range from the extremely bizarre to the bizarrely extreme. In 2000, America voted into office the moderately-conservative republican candidate (the guy with whom we could have a beer with) over the graph-and-chart sensibilities of the Democratic candidate-and we all know how that choice panned out. American politics lack accountability from elected federal officials and young, handsome ideologues are not necessarily the answer for our SS problems, our growing Chinese debt, our trade deficit, our slow but steadily rising unemployment rates, our nearly 50 million uninsured, our diversion of taxpayer dollars from domestic to corporate defense projects, and our undocumented co-workers. We DO want change, but I think we want realistic, pragmatic solutions to our problems with which to “mold public sentiment.” We want an elected official whose tools are just as effective as their direction. And most importantly we want someone to hold themselves accountable to the American people for the decisions that are made. Ideologues are not so far removed from pedagogues and inspiring rhetoric is not always so far removed from evasive propaganda.

James Livingston - 2/4/2008

Agreed, across the board.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/4/2008

"The fear that feeds the Clinton campaign, and that animates the Democratic opposition to Obama, is fueled by the notion that the Left didn’t win the culture wars."

As a Democratic who has serious questions about Obama, my problem is not the culture wars. I think he has dealt with them magnificently. What concerns me is that I have little sense of how well he understands the world outside the United States of how he would actually shape and implement a new foreign policy.

I have a somewhat better idea concerning McCain--which is one reason I would not vote for him. Understanding Clinton is also challenging, but her discussions of foreign policy suggest to me considerable knowledge of how the world works, even when I disagree strongly with her actions.

I have deep admiration for Obama's character and his approach to domestic politics. But he's going to inherit a war, and managing our way out of that war in a manner that serves US interests and maintains public support may well be the hardest foreign policy challenge a new president has faced since Nixon took office in 1969.

Obama's supporters--really all the candidates and their supporters-- need to address that question more clearly.