Many liberals I know are enthralled with Obama.
In New Hampshire during the primary campaign, where voters get to see the candidates up close and personal, he made a very strong impression. As far as I could tell, this was based primarily on the feeling he gave his supporters: hope, trust, excitement. It was as though the optimistic part of the 60s had come back after a long absence and many dashed dreams.
A lot of people who went through the 60s keep yearning for that special feeling they’d gotten back then (when they weren’t stoned, that is, or maybe when they were stoned): a sense that wonderful things were possible and just around the corner, that all it would take was the right attitude and the casting off of the old and fusty, that charismatic leaders with inspiring words and good intentions would lead the way.
The way to where, and to what? The goals were fairly clear: liberty and justice—and equality of outcome, not just opportunity—for all. Oh, and the end of bigotry, war, and the economic exploitation by the nasty rich of the noble poor.
Not too much to ask.
Exactly how this was to be accomplished wasn’t as clear. Thinking it and saying it, and sweeping out the old (don’t trust anyone over thirty—that is, anyone with enough experience of the world to rain on this particular parade), and bringing in the new and pure of heart.
Pure of heart, yes, that was the ticket. That would be enough to reorder human nature and usher in nothing less than the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
Well, it didn’t quite work out that way, did it? And yet, to the aged ex-Sixties-hippies and their young friends (at least the latter have the excuse of not having lived through the earlier disenchantment) hope springs eternal, even if a bit diminished and tarnished.
The ability to exhume and tap into that feeling of generalized hope, long-buried relic of the 60s and perhaps its most seductive product (maybe even more so than sex, drugs, and rock and roll), is Obama’s great strength.
This fact was brought home to me when I read “The Choice” by George Packer in this week’s New Yorker, about the differences between Obama and Hillary. The word Packer uses to describe Obama’s effect on his Democrat supporters is “inspirational.” It’s a special sort of inspiration; the linkage to the 60s is clear and overt.
Greg Craig, old Clinton buddy from their Law School days during the early 70s, was head of Bill Clinton’s defense team during the impeachment fight. You might think Craig would be a Hillary supporter in the 2008 campaign. But if you thought that, you’d think wrong:
In spite of his long history with the Clintons, Craig is an adviser to Barack Obama’s campaign. “Ninety-five per cent of it is because of my enthusiasm for Obama,” he said last month, at his law office. “I really regard him as a fresh and exciting voice in American politics that has not been in my life since Robert Kennedy.” In 1968, Craig, who is sixty-two, was campaigning for Eugene McCarthy when he heard a Bobby Kennedy speech at the University of Nebraska, and became a believer on the spot. Since then, Craig has not been inspired by any American President. As for the prospect of another Clinton Presidency, he said, “I don’t discount the possibility of her being able to inspire me. But she hasn’t in the past, and Obama has.”
This is exactly the sort of comment I hear from friends. When I think about it, I realize not only how far I am now from this kind of thinking, but how far I was then, as well.
I often describe my earlier politics as having been typically liberal Democrat, although never Leftist. But I also had more than a dollop of political cynicism in my makeup. “Inspiration” is a word I would have rarely identified with in the political arena. I’d have to look either in the past for inspiration (Churchill, Lincoln) or in my childhood, the last time I really felt that sort of trust in a candidate.
In fact, I never understood the reverence and hope people invested in Bobby Kennedy, the political inspiration Craig cites. Had RFK lived I might even have voted for him, I suppose. But something in me was naturally wary of the sort of adulation that I saw others have for him—the hope that he could magically, by dint of his very personality and his rhetoric, heal the profound wounds of America at the time.
We’ll never know, because he was assassinated. Perhaps he could have been a wonderful President. But I saw nothing in his history that would indicate so except the fact that many people believed he had magic.
Maybe that would have been enough, because belief and trust can go a long way. But I tend to doubt it; Kennedy was charismatic to those predisposed to agree with him, but a polarizing and distrusted figure to those who did not.
In his New Yorker article, Packer continues with another friend from Clinton’s past:
Robert B. Reich, the Secretary of Labor in Clinton’s first term, who now teaches at Berkeley, told me that he believes political inspiration to be “the legitimizing of social movements and social change, the empowering of all sorts of people and groups to act as remarkable change agents.”
There’s that popular word again, “change” (the current use of which Gerard Vanderleun neatly skewers in this essay). Change for change’s sake is meaningless. What’s important is not the general but the specific: change what, change why—and, most tellingly, change how.
That’s a great deal more difficult to describe, and a great deal easier to criticize when the details are fleshed out. So inspirational candidates do well to keep their remarks general.
Inspiration in and of itself is not a bad thing, and the Right is not immune to wanting some and to bewailing the fact that their candidates are lacking in it. That’s probably part of what the current nostalgia for Reagan, the Great Inspirer of the Right, is all about.
But the Right tends to want more specifics as well, as the Anchoress points out, and to be miffed and unforgiving if inspiration doesn’t come with ideological purity of thought and action.
The Right is interested—very interested—in the details, and tends to require them before it will allow itself to be inspired. This can lead the Right to embrace candidates with the correct conservative doctrine who have no chance of winning—which proves that being on the Right is no guarantee of a pragmatic attitude towards politics.
Thomas Sowell has written a piece on the subject of inspiration, entitled “Dangerous Demagoguery: beware candidates who inspire but don’t inform.” He calls for specifics to ground rhetoric:
Uniting people behind the thoughtless mantra of “change” means asking for a blank check in exchange for rhetoric. That deal has been made many times in many places — and millions of people have lived to regret it.
It is not too much to ask politicians to talk specifics, instead of trying to sweep us along, turning off our minds and turning on our emotions, with soaring rhetoric.
Optimists might even hope for some logical consistency and hard facts.
Barack Obama says that he wants to “heal America and repair the world.” One wonders what he will do for an encore and whether he will rest on the seventh day.
“Heal America and repair the world.” I hadn’t heard those exact words before, but they perfectly illustrate my point. I tried in vain to find a link to Obama’s speech so I didn’t run the risk of misquoting him or quoting him out of context. The best I could do was this, in which an online community commenter writes that in Obama’s NH speeches he said:
…this is a defining moment for this generation. New Hampshire, if you will stand with me in four days, I promise you that not only will we win the New Hampshire primary, not only will we win South Carolina, not only Nevada, Florida and the democratic primary, not only will we win the general election and the presidency, but united with you, we will unleash the spirit and the strength to finally HEAL AMERICA AND REPAIR THE WORLD.”
And they say neocons are naively optimistic about what America can do!
Politicians always engage in hyperbole, so I don’t want to be too hard on Obama for his. But this is an especially over-arching sort of goal, almost religious in nature (as Sowell rightly points out), and therefore wariness is especially indicated.
Obama seems to be telling “this generation” (the one that missed out on all that 60s good stuff) that they will have their Age of Aquarius too, at last:
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revalation
And the mind’s true liberation.