It is too soon to tell whether Senator Obama’s magic is beginning to fail him. But his recent defeats in Ohio and Texas point to difficulties he confronts when trying to sell his brand of healer-redeemer politics to large swaths of the electorate.
Why the catchwords of his redemption rhetoric — “journey,” “real change,” “that’s what hope is, imagining”– have mesmerized certain slices of the demographic pie is puzzling to those who lack the proper mental receptors for whatever psychic gamma waves he emits. But take a step back, and the nature of Senator Obama’s appeal becomes a little clearer. I imagine an anthropologist, centuries hence, sifting through the ruins of our civilization and concluding something like this: “The rise of the cult of Obama, a young lawmaker from one of his people’s middle-western metropolises, suggests parallels with the earlier progress of the Egyptian cult of Osiris and the Greco-Phrygian worship of Adonis-Attis, in which civilizations which had lost their original spiritual inspirations sought rejuvenation in the figure of a beautiful young man who promised to redeem a barren time. The Obama cult was especially popular among those citizens who, in the scribal forms of the day, checked the box designated ‘some college’ in their communications with the central authority . . .”
One of the tests of a leader is whether he has a capacity to mobilize his people’s myths. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ronald Reagan all reworked Biblical parables of healing and redemption in their rhetoric. Obama’s ability to work successfully in this vein is evidence of his uncommon political skills. But in revising the politics of redemption he’s both made it less Biblical and focused it more relentlessly than his predecessors on the radiance of a particular kind of shamanistic magic (his own). The Obama millennium is more New Age than New Testament, more rock concert than “Rock of Ages.”
The difficulty with his I-am-the-Adonis-who-changes-winter-into-spring version of the redemption myth is that it resonates most strongly with a relatively small group of voters — prosperous, college-educated Democrats who are less likely than their poorer, less-educated partisans to have faith in the West’s traditional healer-redeemer figure (Jesus), or so church-attendance rates suggest. In a blue state like Connecticut, income and church attendance are negatively correlated; in blue-land, it is the poorer folk who are more likely to be conventionally pious. They aren’t looking for a messiah; they’ve already found one in church.
The rich, churchless, blue-state elites, by contrast, are hungry for the kind of secular nirvana Obama is serving up. Obama-mania is a political expression of the same impulse that underlies a broader movement, among the educated rich, towards a post-Christian spirituality, evident in such fetishes as yoga, feng-shui, investment-banker Buddhism, and tennis-set Sufism — the small-is-beautiful and green-is-good crazes.
Obama’s defeats in Texas and Ohio suggest that he has yet to find a way to extend his niche appeal to a larger electorate, one that is indifferent to the charms of the renewal rites in The Golden Bough and T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The larger electorate looks forward to celebrating its renewal rites, not at the Democratic convention in Denver, but in church at Easter.
If Obama is to win in states where he can’t count on his spiritually blue base (or a no-less-sympathetic black base) to turn the tide, he needs to persuade the larger electorate that his messianic rhetoric is backed by policies that will deliver the epochal change he promises.
It won’t be easy. American healer-redeemer figures — Jefferson and Lincoln, for example, as well as Reagan and King — have typically connected their messianic rhetoric to policies that in some way promise to enlarge the sphere of freedom. There is little in Obama’s policies to suggest that expanding citizens’ liberty of action is one of his priorities.
He can, it is true, take some comfort in the example of Franklin Roosevelt, the healer-redeemer who laid the foundation of the welfare state. But although his orthodox liberalism is faithful to FDR’s vision, Obama has been reluctant, to date, to make the case for old-style New Deal liberalism. The promise to deliver a souped-up welfare state would undercut his promise to deliver “change we can believe in.”
What’s more, the FDR precedent highlights one of Obama’s vulnerabilities where the larger electorate is concerned. Obama may be Franklin’s heir in domestic policy, but his approach to foreign affairs is very different. FDR recognized the global threat to liberty in his time and acted to meet it. His generation of Americans, he told the Democratic Convention in 1936, had a “rendezvous with destiny,” a mission “to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world,” an obligation to “fight for freedom . . . in the midst of dictatorships.”
Obama is much more cavalier about today’s threats to freedom; he appears closer to the Neville Chamberlain school of foreign policy than the Roosevelt-Churchill one.
A potent myth-maker, Obama is also a limited one. His New Age shamanism tells us less about where the country needs to go than about the spiritual emptiness of those among our elites who have been so quick to anoint him a new, secular messiah. The irony is that these same elites have used a draconian reading of the First Amendment to relegate the oldest and richest traditions of our spiritual culture to an obscure corner of the public square, a kind of refuse bin for slightly disreputable hand-me-downs from our benighted ancestors. They now look to the new swami to effect the miraculous regeneration of a spiritual waste land their own policies have helped to create.
– Michael Knox Beran’s most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, recently reviewed by Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs.