I’m getting a lot of email about Obama’s candidacy and how it plays into my book. I think there’s a lot one could say about it, though I haven’t really thought it all through yet. The beauty of Hillary Clinton’s “politics of meaning” was that there’s an enormous paper trail — a book even — to work with. I’ve read bits of The Audacity of Hope, but none of the rest of Obama’s stuff. Anyway here are some notes to ponder and elicit feedback. It’s a bit choppy, but so be it.
I think the most obvious place to start is whether Obama is promoting something like a political religion. The messianic nature of Obama’s campaign has been noted by many for a long time now. He often sounds like he’s reviving the social gospel. There’s even a website called “Is Barack Obama the Messiah?”
Many of the tropes of a political religion/liberal fascism are evident. He exalts unity as it’s own reward. His talk of starting new and starting over often sounds like more than merely “turning the page” on the Bush-Clinton years. It sounds a bit like starting at Year Zero.
But what I find most intriguing is his rhetoric of destiny and “choseness.” He often makes it sound like he has been selected by forces of providence or God or simply history for this moment. He is, in Oprah’s words, “The One.” But even more interesting, he tells voters they are the ones. “This is it,” Obama proclaimed on Super Tuesday. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the change that we seek.” That’s pretty oracular stuff.
Tellingly, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” is some Native American spiritualism warmed up for New Age audiences.
It’s also telling that this divinization of the masses and/or the movement has a long pedigree, going back at least to the French Revolution. The Jacobins claimed that the French Nation represented the new “chosen people.” The Italian Fascists said the same thing about the Italians. The Nazis believed likewise about the Germans. The Bolsheviks, too, believed in their own predestination of sorts in that they believed the cold impersonal forces of history had conspired to produce the vanguard of the proletariat, or something like that, which had been vested by History with mission to create a new utopia. “On earth,” John Reed wrote of the Bolsheviks, “they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer, and for which it was a glory to die.”
Indeed, this sense that “this is our moment” and that “we are the change that we seek” seems to be hardwired into all of the political religions. Albert Beveridge at the Progressive Party Convention — where the crowd sang “We Will Follow Jesus” with Teddy Roosevelt’s name replacing Jesus’ — proclaimed “God has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.”
As I discuss at length in the book, totalitarianism was for Mussolini a way of uniting businesses, classes, regions, religions, institutions and people from “all walks of life” — in Obama’s words — in a common cause for the common good. These segments of society would band together, like sticks around the fasces. This was a sacred, spiritual, calling. “Fascism,” Il Duce declared time and again, “is a religion.” And the animating dogma of that faith was that if we’re all in it together there’s nothing we can’t do. Everything in the state, nothing outside the state.
Such a vision is comforting because it plays upon man’s inherent desire to belong, to be protected by his fellow man and his community. “Strength in numbers” is the narcotic of all populists, the logic of all “people powered movements” as leftwing bloggers like to say (though for reasons that defy easy analysis, the left has mastered the art of casting itself as the voice of the dissidents against the oppressive, stultifying “herd mentality” even as it places the group at the top of its hierarchy of political aesthetics). This is the motivating passion behind the fascist quest for order.
Sometimes it sounds like Obama wants to talk about God’s plan when he’s talking about his own campaign for a New Order. But most times, you can see that he wants to stay on the secular side of the divide — where his white base resides — but without giving up the prophetic vision. He wants to persuade his followers, and perhaps himself, that he is elect, but he cannot do so without religious language.
This reminds me of a passage from Eugen Weber’s brilliant Varieties of Fascism:
“…part of the confusion over the true character of Fascism comes from its advocacy of ‘order’ – a term we generally associate with conservatism or reaction. But Fascist order envisages not the status quo – or the status quo ante – but a more or less definite order of its own. The Fascist leader, now that God is dead, cannot conceive of himself as the elect of God. He believes he is elect, but does not quite know of what – presumably of history or obscure historical forces. The elect of God establishes or guards God’s order; the Fascist leader seeks a similar justification – but in the absence of ultimate authority, the order is one that he defines himself…”
The word order is a fossil of its living self today. Beyond academia and bromides about “law and order” nobody uses it or appreciates its full connotations. We should spend a moment excavating it.
Today, liberals do not use the word “order.” They say “security” – economic security, social security, health security – but the meaning is largely the same. All of the liberal arguments about globalization, job security, free trade, free markets and the like promise to increase a sense of safety, of belonging. There is nothing wrong with security, of course. But, we should take liberals at their word when they say this enterprise is not “conservative.” They do not want to restore the security of tradition, the order of old arrangements. They want to design a new “social” security grounded in progressive principles. This is the desired system that a politics of meaning is supposed to deliver.
For example, Obama says people want a spiritual community:
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them—that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.
For Obama the salve of salvation can be found not in scripture but in politics and political action under the transcendent banner of “unity”:
[I]f enough Americans were awakened to the injustice; if they joined together, North and South, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, then perhaps that wall would come tumbling down, and justice would flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Unity is the great need of the hour—the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.
Joe Knippenberg, reviewing Obama’s statements on religion writes:
Obama speaks as if the first move of someone faithful to God’s word is to call for government action, not to act directly through his or her own charitable efforts. Those who don’t engage in political action of the sort he approves are apparently hypocrites, satisfied with mere words. His religious commitments are a kind of conversation-stopper, as the late Richard Rorty once said.
This reminds me of perhaps my favorite vignette from the book:
Walter Rauschenbusch offers the best short explanation of the Social Gospel for our purposes. A professor at the Rochester Theological Seminary and a onetime preacher on the outskirts of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, the slender clergyman with a thin goatee had become the informal leader of the movement when he published Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907. “[U]nless the ideal social order can supply men with food, warmth and comfort more efficiently than our present economic order,” he warned, “back we shall go to Capitalism . . . ‘The God that answereth by low food prices,’ ” he boomed, “let him be God.’”
In other words, God had chosen his preferred economic system, and any religious faith, doctrine or revelation that suggested otherwise must be false. God is a socialist, dagnabit, and if a God who isn’t a socialist speaks to you in a small, still voice, turn your back on Him. The state, according to Rauschenbusch was “the medium through which the people shall co-operate in their search for the kingdom of God and its righteousness.”
In my book I concentrate on Hillary Clinton’s “village” and her Politics of Meaning. But it seems to me that Obama is every bit the practitioner of his own politics of meaning and his own conception of a village-like community.
Anyway, this is all just a jumble of thoughts. But that’s sort of why this blog exists. More thoughts to come, I’m sure, as it looks like Obama isn’t going anywhere.