Despite a decidedly mixed picture in Ohio and Texas, Barack Obama seems very likely on his way to the Democratic nomination. He has been chastened by Hillary Clinton’s (albeit modest) resurgence, but he remains the man to beat, and he remains something of a phenomenon in American politics — a rock-star politician celebrated by swooning masses.
On college campuses Obama is a demi-god, and on the trail you get the sense that some of his supporters are not so sure about the “demi.” On several occasions now, audience members at campaign events have fainted merely from the thrill of being in Obama’s presence. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, introducing the candidate at a rally, said of the Obama experience, “this is not a campaign for President of the United States, this is a movement to change the world.” Hollywood, too, has seen the light. “He walks into a room and you want to follow him somewhere, anywhere,” actor George Clooney told PBS’s Charlie Rose. “I’ll do whatever he says to do,” actress Halle Berry said to reporters without a hint of irony, “I’ll collect paper cups off the ground to make his pathway clear.”
Several of Obama’s celebrity devotees even put his words to music earlier this year (and Obama has said the resulting song
is his favorite campaign tune), and more recently have followed up with an even more worshipful sequel
in which a long parade of stars each gently sways before the camera mouthing painfully dull platitudes (“I would like to see us in a world without fear”; “I believe in Barack Obama because he believes in us”; “he’s almost like a revival for a lot of people’s souls”) while in the background Obama’s voice can be heard delivering the good news that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
It is not actually clear that Obama has sought to make his campaign such a cult of personality, but whether sought or not, this is how he has been received. The traveling revivalist cabaret has certainly helped Obama immensely, and contributed to his electoral strength, but it also carries serious risks for him. In the long run, the messianic flavor of his campaign could endanger his support from the very quarters now most receptive to the message; and even in the short run it could hurt him with blue-collar voters who have little patience for the grand production.
The Culture of Cool
America’s cultural elites are easily swept up in fashionable new idealisms, especially those that confirm their existing predilections and demand no serious personal sacrifice. But the culture of cool is also powerfully allergic to forthright displays of devotion and fervor. Its most powerful weapon is sarcasm, and the kind of piety on display in the Obama movement seems to beg for sarcastic deflation. Can we doubt that a South Park episode concluding in the handing out of Kool-Aid at an Obama rally is forthcoming?
Can Jon Stewart’s Daily Show put up with statements like Halle Barry’s above for long before letting loose a massive assault on the whole endeavor? How long can a politician go around saying “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” before a sharp and memorable punch line leaves him with a nasty lasting bruise? And how will Obama’s young followers respond when forced to choose between the movement to change the world and the snide knowing chuckle?
The frantic pace of our cultural trends means Obama is running a very serious risk of making his most ardent supporters tired of him very quickly. A nasty turn in his press coverage in just the past week offers Obama an ominous preview of how that could feel. This may not be his fault, but it is certainly his problem.
Meanwhile, one crucial Democratic constituency may be tired of the show already. The elitist drift of Obama’s campaign inevitably weakens his appeal among blue-collar voters. And in this regard, it is more than the messianic excesses on the stump, but Obama’s style and personal history that could bring him lasting trouble. Throughout the Democratic primary season, we have witnessed a significant divide between highly educated white-collar voters and less educated blue-collar voters — a pattern powerfully evident in this week’s results in Ohio. Obama’s performance with black voters has masked some of this, but if you examine the white vote in state after state, you find that Barack Obama is the Ph.D.’s candidate, and Hillary Clinton the working stiff’s candidate.