Thursday, February 07, 2008

Am I a Cult Member?

Am I a cult member? Jake Tapper seems to think so. The Guardian seems to think so. Many commenters here seem to think so.

One must, of course, admit that there has been more than a whiff of the euphoria of fervent aspiration among Obama supporters. It is certainly a phenomenon, a movement that has rarely been paralleled in American politics. Obama's message, his speeches, his policy platforms, and his personal charisma have been deeply inspiring to millions across America. But is there more to it than that? Is it about Obama--or is it about something else entirely?

One of the central tenets of a cult of personality is, by definition, that the cult disappears without the person behind the cult. Thus, by this thinking, if Obama himself were to die tomorrow and his candidacy disappear, there would be no movement. There would be no fervor, no animus, no euphoria. The cultists would, as though deprogrammed and removed from a trance-like state brought on by the sight and sound of the Obama wurlitzer, come to some "rational" support for another candidate--a candidate with a more pedestrian style perhaps, but with the hard-nosed experience to fight against Republicans.

The biggest problem with this thinking is not that the millions who have voted for Obama are too many to accurately describe as a cult, or that cults tend to be closed systems while political campaigns are not, or that cults utilize brainwashing tactics to recruit and retain their members (where's that secret Obama handshake?).

The biggest problem is that this movement--this phenomenon--was already in place. It was happening before Obama took it by the horns and ran with it. It has been growing and building since Howard Dean's candidacy gave progressive Democrats the will to believe, and provided a reason to hope for the future. And it has had many, many faces--Obama's is only the latest.

This movement is about CHANGE. Change from not only last eight years of Bushism, but from the previous eight years of Clintonism before that. It is about change from neoliberalism, from centrism (no, Obama's inclusivity is not centrism), from triangulation, from arguing over the same boomer battles from abortion to Vietraq year after year, from corporatism, from playing not to lose, from apathy. Change from the belief that we have to settle for the lesser of two evils. Change from the belief that the nice people at the top of the food chain will do what's best for all of us--whether that's supply-side economics, or a candidate who believes that LBJ's pulling the levers of power was more important than MLK's grassroots movement.

Obama didn't create this movement; he's just the last and most credible candidate left to harness it. Perhaps more importantly, it is a movement that cannot and will never have Hillary Clinton at its head--first female candidate or not. Not because of sexism against her first and maiden names, but because of anti-DLCism against her last name.

One way to demonstrate these twin points is by looking at candidate support on DailyKos over the past year. While acknowledging that Daily Kos readership is not the same as the Democratic electorate (obviously) or even Obama supporters in general, it is nevertheless indicative, in a broad sense, of the Netroots progressive movement that has been a key part of the "change" demographic since the rough-and-tumble days of Howard Dean and before. And since almost 80% of DailyKos readers now support Obama, they are at least somewhat indicative of a certain kind of very passionate and well-informed Obama booster.

Let us examine, then, the latest tabulated dkos straw poll results provided by Markos on 12/20/07:

What you will notice here is fairly obvious: Obama's support is a recent phenomenon. Obama support hovered on average around 25% of DailyKos all the way from February of 2007 until mid-December--even cratering to 16% as late as October. His fluctuating numbers are proof that many of his supporters were not so mesmerized by his personality that they didn't switch their support from him to other candidates--particularly Chris Dodd, who at that time and to this day showed himself a greater champion for progressive values and for change from the politics of the past than did Obama himself.

You will also notice something even more obvious to those who have paid any attention for the last year: DailyKos has historically been Edwards territory, not Obama territory--by wide margins, in fact.

You will also remember that many Kossacks (myself included) were holding out for Al Gore to enter the race, leading as many as 9% of voters to reject all of the candidates in the race in favor of the man who would not, unfortunately, end up running for more than an Oscar and a Nobel.

Most importantly, you may notice that in all these fluctuations, Hillary Clinton never broke the 11% barrier among those committed to this change movement. Not once. Even Bill Richardson (ugh) hit 13% at one point in May. But not Hillary.

Now let's examine the straw polls since then. Here we are on January 2, 2008 eve of the Iowa caucuses:

John Edwards reaches the height of his support at 48%. Obama has fallen to 27%. Dodd limps along with Dennis Kucinich at 4%. Hillary, the Democratic Default Candidate, stands at 8%--with 92% of 22,568 Kossack votes against her, spread out among various candidates.

But then came Obama's victory in Iowa. And after that came Hillary Clinton's surprising win in New Hampshire.

Now let's see what happens. From the straw poll taken on January 16:

By now several of the candidates (Dodd, Biden, Richardson) have dropped out of the race. Obama's momentum, stalled by his NH loss, has carried him to a 41% surge. Edwards' failure to take Iowa where he was putting all his marbles (combined with his dismal NH showing) deflates his support to 37%. In spite of Hillary's amazing New Hampshire victory being recently in the minds of poll-takers, Clinton once again hits only 11%--barely tying her highest mark to this point. With the first two states down, the "change" vote is split between two candidates--neither of whose supporters are yet being labeled cult members at this point.

Now let's move on to the latest straw poll to date, taken on January 30:

With Edwards out of the race, Obama has now taken a whopping 76% of 18,784 voters in the dkos poll; the die-hard supporters of dropped out change candidates plus Gravel account for 5%, putting the "change" vote at over 4-in-5 Kossacks and lurkers. As for Hillary? Once again, she stalls at 11%. Because Obama is the only credible candidate left to defeat the Clintons, all the support is now thrown his way.


What all of this should tell you is that Obama's supporters aren't part of an Obama personality cult: they're part of a "Change" cult. A change cult that wants to end Clintonism almost as badly as it wants to end Republicanism. A "Change" cult that sways from one change candidate to another--be it Gore, Gravel, Edwards, Kucinich or Obama--but that is in no way motivated to switch its allegiance to a Clinton.

It is a movement that believes as much in itself as it does in its chosen candidate(s). It is a movement that needs no leader, no figurehead, no reason to exist beyond the courage of its own convictions and its own aspirations for a political future radically different from that of the past 30 years.

And this story is, in fact, my story. For months I held out in vain hope (get that word?) for Gore to jump into the race. His incredible book The Assault on Reason is in many ways my Progressive Bible, ranking right up there with Markos' own Crashing the Gate. I have never promoted Obama's books before; I have repeatedly promoted Gore's and Markos'. When it became clear that Gore would not enter and that he chose to make his mark in ways other than electoral politics and elections, I moved squarely into the undecided camp. I could not support Richardson or Kucinich for several reasons; Edwards bothered me, admittedly, for reasons that had much more to do with image and electability than with substance (perhaps I can write more about what I believe was wrong with Edwards' campaign when the flames of passion have died down here somewhat), while Obama's seemingly conciliatory rhetoric turned me off.

Like my good friend clammyc, I became a Dodd supporter because of his hard-nosed fights on our behalf. When I went to YearlyKos, it was Dodd I went to go see speak--not Obama. I still have the red wrist-tag somewhere to prove it.

But then, as it became clear that Dodd could not get traction for several reasons (again, grist for a diary someday), I moved into the undecided column again. As of two days before the Iowa Caucuses, I still couldn't make up my mind. And then, after leaning his direction for a while based on the movement he was building, this video sealed the deal for me and convinced me he would be the fighting candidate we need:

From this point on, my destiny was set. I signed up to become a precinct captain in my neighborhood; I went to Nevada where my suspicions about the lack of ethics of Clinton machine support were confirmed in ways that even I couldn't believe; and I've been turning out voters for Obama ever since.

Does that make me and the other 80% of Obama supporters here in the progressive grassroots members of a cult of personality?

Hardly. It makes all of us members of a Cult for Change: a cult that will continue to exist well beyond Obama's candidacy should it come to the same unfortunate end as Howard Dean's. A cult that will only with extreme reluctance unite behind Hillary Clinton as a nominee in order to end Republicanism (in the dual quest to end Republicanism and Clintonism, I guess I'll settle for 1 out of 2).

A cult that will not stop, come Republican or Democratic victories, until it has actually succeeded in creating the cultural transformations and political realignments demanded by the urgency of our times.

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Blogger donailin said...

Well done, Spoon.

You speak for me and I imagine most of us who have studied these candidates and the intricacies of DNC vs. DLC politics for these last four years.

6:35 PM  
Blogger MPH said...

This was a very long post that really misses the point.


Obama is the newly appointed messiah.

Change is meaningless - a blank field that anyone with rhetorical skills can exploit to enhance their own power. The question -- change to what? Anything but Bush? That could mean anything but at the end of the day, it means absolutely nothing. That is the religion. Obama is the messenger. You are now one of the sheep in his rapidly multiplying flock.

Religion is a disease and it requires carriers to spread (see Richard Dawkin's memes theory).

10:30 AM  

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