Those who slander Obama supporters as ‘brainwashed, deranged cultists’ are blind to what’s positive about the Obama Phenomenon.
It was inevitable that there would be a backlash against Barack Obama. Indeed, Slate magazine had already published an article titled ‘How Obama Can Pre-Empt the Obama Backlash’. In our cynical era, when it’s fashionable to affect a jaded attitude towards all things political, a smooth-orating politician in immaculately pressed suits was bound to be sneered at sooner or later.
Yet what is striking about the Obama backlash is that it isn’t targeted at Obama himself, so much as his enthusiastic supporters. In the press and political circles, Obama still wins accolades for his JFK-style speeches and his post-partisan politics. But his cheerleaders have been subjected to a tirade of slanderous abuse. They’re denounced as ‘deranged’, ‘insane’, ‘brainwashed’ and ‘creepy’. Many observers, it seems, cannot stand the sight of huge numbers of people getting stuck into, and getting excited about, politics.
Sections of the press, and Obama’s opponents in the presidential race, have been scathing and unforgiving in their assaults on his support base. Joe Klein, one of Time magazine’s top political writers, said after Super Tuesday that there’s ‘something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism’ at Obama rallies. Comparing Obama’s backers to Charles Manson’s murderous Family cult, ABC’s Jake Tapper said at the start of Lent: ‘The Holy Season of Lent is upon us. Can Obama worshippers try to give up their Helter-Skelter cult-ish qualities for a few weeks?’ (1)
The idea that those who campaign, make placards and chant for Obama are a ‘cult’ is gaining ground. Paul Krugman of the New York Times said ‘the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality’. Another NYT writer wondered when Obamaites would start ‘selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings’ (2). CNN, in a recent TV report on ‘Obamamania’, panned over a crowd of Obama’s young supporters – who are the most likely, in the words of one writer, to be labelled ‘glassy-eyed, brainwashed cult worshippers’ – and flashed up the word: ‘CREEPY?’ (3) (See the CNN clip below.)
Many seem to agree that Obama supporters are essentially irrational, that they have been twisted and warped by Obama’s undeniable smoothness and have transformed into automatons – or into what some refer to as ‘Obamabots’. One British commentator says America is experiencing its ‘Diana moment’. Apparently, the rise of the Obamabots shows that the US, like Britain, is turning into ‘a land of credulousness, emotional incontinence, sentimentality, irresponsibility and self-obsession’ (4).
Notably, many seasoned political writers argue that the youthful enthusiasm for Obama – or what is invariably titled ‘Obamarama’ or ‘Obamabarminess’ – is not real politics; instead, it is born of a cowardly desire to avoid the tough and messy business of politics. ‘Warm fuzzy feelings win hands down because they anaesthetise reality and blank out altogether those difficult issues which require difficult decisions’, says one observer (5). From this viewpoint, the Obamabots are not engaging in politics – rather they’re using Obama rallies as a kind of opium, to self-medicate themselves against harsh political realities. Obama supporters are seen as the opposite of being truly political, and even worse than being apolitical: they are the usurpers of politics, working themselves into a trance-like frenzy because they either cannot handle or do not want to face up to today’s political problems (6).
The assault on the ‘Obamabots’ is underpinned by the political/media class’s disdain for anything that looks or smells like mass politics or political enthusiasm. The overriding themes of the Obama backlash – or more accurately the Obamamania backlash – is that Obama supporters are an irrational sway of faceless robots who are not doing politics ‘properly’. This communicates a clear message: that when politics is turned into a mass sport, involving thousands of people gathered together shouting and cheering, it becomes dangerous, out-of-control, unthinking and ultimately harmful to the nuanced process of making decisions and running a country.
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As one commentator says, the ‘lively’ Obama rallies are all well and good, but they will not necessarily translate into ‘lucid, clear-headed stewardship’ of the United States (7). In short, America doesn’t need a groundswell of political cheerleading; it doesn’t need people meeting up in their local areas, getting excited about a candidate, and doing everything within their considerable power – electioneering, arguing, voting – to install him in the White House. Rather it needs a politically practised individual who can ‘steer the ship’ of America through difficult times when difficult decisions have to be made. Hillary Clinton’s campaign team is trying to face down the challenge of Obama by presenting Clinton as a politically experienced leader who has been ‘in the White House’ before: that is, she’s a cool, well-advised expert in contrast to Obama the showman with his slavish worshippers.
Behind the fevered bashing of the Obamabots there lurks the idea that people are not rational or trustworthy enough to ‘do politics’. In an era when politics is increasingly seen as an elite pursuit – something that is best left to well-educated bureaucrats, legal and scientific experts, and cool-minded judges – the sight of thousands of people chanting positivist slogans such as ‘We Want Change’ and ‘Yes We Can’ makes politicos feel nervous. This view of mass crowds as essentially irrational is not only held by right-wing commentators and Republicans scared by Obama momentum (or ‘Obamamentum’, as some people call it: yes, Obamaspeak is endless). Rather, disdain for huge outpourings of political sentiment runs right through the political class.
Indeed, the current view of Obama’s support base as a ‘dangerous’ unthinking blob builds on Democrat attacks on Bush voters during the presidential race of 2004. Back then, Democratic-leaning commentators described the millions of people who were planning to back Bush as mentally unstable – literally. One complained that Americans were voting in a ‘fog of fear’, and thus they could not see the issues, or the ‘real politics’, clearly: apparently, thanks to Bush’s ‘unremitting fearmongering’, ‘millions of voters are reacting not with their linear and logical left brain, but with their lizard brain and their more emotional right brain… It’s not about left wing vs right wing; it’s about left brain vs right brain.’ (8) So Bush-supporters were lizard-like creatures acting out of irrational and blind fear rather than being sensible decision-makers. Al Gore, the Democrats’ failed presidential candidate of 2000 who has rehabilitated himself through the climate change issue, argued in his recent book The Assault on Reason that America’s generally right-leaning media has warped people’s minds. In Bush-era America, he argued, such is the media’s ‘power of persuasion’ that it triggers in people responses that are no longer ‘modulated by logic, reason and reflective thought’ (9).
Today, these arguments have been borrowed and dusted down by conservative commentators, as well as Hillary supporters, as a way of attacking the largely youthful crowds who support Obama. Where Bush voters in 2004 were said to have fallen under the media’s ‘power of persuasion’, the Obamabots are said to have been ‘brainwashed’ at intense political rallies. Where Bush’s supporters were discussed as irrational lizard-minded types, Obama’s supporters are talked about as Helter Skelter-style cultists. Where Bush-backers were said to have been blinded by a ‘fog of fear’, Obama-backers are said to be stupefied by a ‘fog of hope’ (Obama has been accused of ‘hope-mongering’ in the same way that Bush indulged in ‘fear-mongering’). Where Fox News and other shrill media outlets were said to have warped half of America into backing a bad candidate in 2004, today’s Obamabot-bashers claim that new viral media, such as YouTube and Facebook, are creating little sects of ‘Obama worship’ (10).
In 2004 and today, both amongst Democrat and Republican thinkers, the sentiment has been strikingly similar: people are easily misled by Big Media and political showmen, and thus they cannot be trusted to act rationally at election time. This prejudice is rife amongst all sections of the political elite. Indeed, some believe that the Hillary Clinton camp, convinced that the White House rightfully belongs to Hillary rather than the upstart Barack, will use the ‘superdelegates’ in a last-ditch effort to derail Obama’s campaign and neuter its large support base.
These Democratic superdelegates are not elected by the states; they are party officials that represent the Democratic Party nationally. They were introduced in the 1970s as a way for the party hierarchy to take back some control from individual states and to sway presidential candidate campaigns in its favoured direction. This year they represent a considerable 20 per cent of the Democratic Party’s total number of delegates. Many believe that, as Obama continues to win big in state primaries and continues to attract appreciative crowds, Hillary is focusing on nurturing the superdelegates and convincing them to vote for her: the sensible, wise, experienced, ‘establishment’ candidate for president. One political blogger argues that the Clinton camp sees the superdelegates as the ‘protectors of the purity of Democratic principles’ who should face down ‘Mass Obama Messianism’ and its ‘empty platitudes’ (11). If Clinton does use the unelected superdelegates in this way, to finish off what looks like a genuinely popular campaign, it will be the logical conclusion of today’s elitist view of the electorate as incapable, unstable and untrustworthy. It will also probably intensify cynicism and suspicion of politics for a generation, as people who got excited about ‘Change’ find their arguments and hopes swept aside by a grizzled, superior-feeling party machine. But then, as an experienced operator who has the backing of the upper echelons of the old Democratic Party rather than too many of those messy masses, Hillary knows best, right?
Those attacking and threatening to undermine the ‘Obamabots’ are blind to what is potentially positive about the Obama Phenomenon. spiked is under no illusions about Barack Obama himself. He’s a brilliant speaker and comes across as an inspiring figure, but his political programme is shallow and unsubstantiated. When one is able to discern a definite ‘Obama policy’, it tends to be illiberal and small-minded: for example, his camp, despite its criticisms of Bush’s fearmongering, ratchets up fear about terrorism in its own way, promises more Clinton-style ‘liberal interventionism’ around the world, and plans to reorganise American politics and the economy around the penny-pinching, horizon-lowering politics of global warming. However, it is important to distinguish between Obama the man and Obama the phenomenon.
Much of his support represents a healthy and positive reaction against the deep cynicism and fatalism of mainstream Western politics over the past decade and more. Obama supporters are not cultish slaves: they are people who have had enough of negative, fear-driven, small-minded politics, of both the Republican and Democratic variety, and now – as they keep telling us – they Want Change. Indeed, Obama has become a heroic figure for many young people in European countries as well as in America: it is not so much what he promises, programmatically, to do if he gets into the White House that attracts them; rather they are angry about and repelled by the current state of mainstream politics, and they are drawn to Obama because they think he represents something different, something seemingly positive, fresh, uncynical. Whatever you think of Obama and his coterie, there is unquestionably something interesting, possibly even stirring, in the loud and rowdy grassroots support for his campaign. Whether Obama can fulfil people’s desires for a fresh way of doing politics - that is questionable in the extreme.
However, if anything will confirm to the ‘Obamabots’ that contemporary politics is rotten, it will be the current attempts to write them off as ‘dangerous’ cultists who have no place interfering in the serious business of political debate.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.
Are Obama supporters ‘weird’ and ‘creepy’? Watch CNN’s report on Obamamania below:
Has welfarism gone too far? Is it time to trim this massive machine? And more importantly, shouldn’t it be trimmed for the *right* reasons - that is, not in order to save the state money but as a way of protecting communities from the negative impact of constant welfarist intervention?
We’ll be debating these issues at the next session of our spiked drinks events at Portcullis House in London on Monday 3 June at 6.30pm. Find out more here.