February 20, 2008

The "cult leader" theme

Balkinization has a post from a few days ago about this idea of the "cult of the personality" that is worth the read. I have also noticed in more than few areas the theme that Obama is some kind of cult leader--that his appeal to crowds is "creepy."

Is that a fair characterization about Obama or is it simply a way to frame him out of the mainstream? Or is it just another way to say that he is an empty suit?

I would suggest that Obama is far from a cult leader and also far from an empty suit. He taught constitutional law for 10 years. And I would suggest that he is far more than a good speaker. Hilzoy has this post from 2006:
But I do follow legislation, at least on some issues, and I have been surprised by how often Senator Obama turns up, sponsoring or co-sponsoring really good legislation on some topic that isn't wildly sexy, but does matter. His bills tend to have the following features: they are good and thoughtful bills that try to solve real problems; they are in general not terribly flashy; and they tend to focus on achieving solutions acceptable to all concerned, not by compromising on principle, but by genuinely trying to craft a solution that everyone can get behind.
Sully has a list of thoughtful policy speeches here. Slate's John Dickerson talks about Obama sitting in a health-care forum and demonstrating a depth of knowledge about the details of the issues.

I am already tired of the right, but the fact that anyone from that side would have criticism of our candidates is ridiculous after the last 8 years. We have had to listen to the dumbest speeches with everything dumbed down to "they hate us for our freedom" or "childrens do learn." Perhaps Obama's appeal is simply the ability to communicate in complete sentences and discuss ideas with some depth? Not only did Bush give us the stupid speeches and butchered English language, but we had people "amening" Bush's speeches and talking about what a Godly man he is. And that nonsense continued after preemptive wars, torture, and violations of the constitution. If you want to talk about cultish figures, Bush was that at one point, and still is for some members on the right.

Now that we have a couple of speakers who can command an audience and actually engage people--we are two steps away from Jonestown Kool Aid. That is frankly ridiculous.


Tony said...

I don't know if I am convinced yet. I totally understand the disparity with the right criticizing anyone for a lack of substance after the last eight years.

And of course right now anyone on the right is going to do anything to destroy his credibility.

I will say one positive thing in response; Obama does have a crowd of young people on his side, which is not altogether a bad thing. Part of the criticism stems from his sway over younger people, but this criticism comes form the same group who criticized younger people for not being involved in politics. Now that they are, the one whom they are following is a "cult leader."

Streak said...

Not to quote Obama here, but when he first started campaigning, he was accused of being too wonkish and professorial. Now he is accused of being light on details.

steves said...

I will admit that there are some Obama supporters that are downright creepy, but the same can be said for Ron Paul. Despite this, I don't think it is entirely fair to blame either of them for the nature of some of their supporters, as they haven't, IMO, done anything to encourage that kind of behavior. Personally, all the Obama supporters I know are intelligent and far from kool aid drinkers (btw, didn't the Jonestown folk drink flavoraid?).

"I am already tired of the right, but the fact that anyone from that side would have criticism of our candidates is ridiculous after the last 8 years."

This really isn't fair. The fact that the Republican president did a lousy job doesn't make a Democratic candidate immune from criticism. I like Obama, but he will have to continue to show me that he can 'take the heat' and respond to questions. I'm not going to give him a free pass.

Streak said...

This really isn't fair. The fact that the Republican president did a lousy job doesn't make a Democratic candidate immune from criticism.

Perhaps you are right. I don't actually mean that democratic candidates are above criticism. I think I mean that people who have enabled this disaster have lost credibility to criticize the left for some undetermined stretch of time. And that time is completely in my mind, of course. It is like a bunch of people who hired the drunk ship captain, knew he was drunk, did nothing to stop him, cheered him on and wanted to hire him yet again--now criticizing the hiring of a competent person.

I am sure that is a flawed analogy as well. I am just tired.

Bootleg Blogger said...

"I will admit that there are some Obama supporters that are downright creepy". I'm admittedly getting mostly occasional news with my workload and soccer games, but could you expand on the creepy supporters? Are you talking the left version of swift boaters or are you talking more policy issues? I'm not that concerned about the creepies, just ignorant about them and curious.

Bitebark said...

The dispassionate poli-watcher side of me views this cult-leader idea as one more feint against Obama's considerable armor. More a toss-off than a straight up attack, an attempt to see what criticism will stick and what won't. And most of it won't. From what I can tell, the only real barb that hits home so far is the "inexperienced n00b" meme. Obama's been surprisingly adept at shunting the rest of it aside.

It's funny, because whoever's driving his campaign at this point has decided they should ride the Obama = Rockstar thing as far as it can go. I watched his speech last night after he won Wisconsin, and seriously, he was up there in front of 20000 adoring, screaming fans. And he was in a freakin' stadium, not the Marriott ballroom out by the airport. They wouldn't let him get a word out, kept trying to chant "Yes! We! Can!" in places it obviously didn't fit. His speech wasn't even that good, but it didn't matter. People were loving it.

That's where the cult leader meme might intersect with reality. A perception that the energy behind him is more teenybopper, more flavor-of-the-month, more carnivalesque. Along with our generalized suspicion of/fascination with phenoms, and you've got possible attack point.

ubub said...

I was one of the 20,000 creepy Obama supporters at his big Wisconsin rally, and left there reminded of Reagan's Morning in America campaign from 1980.

After the long national nightmare, the exact nature of which was left a little fuzzy and open to interpretation, Bonzo's buddy was coming to the rescue and would make America proud again. That is really how I see Obama's campaign positioning him, as someone who can transform a divided nation, restore pride in America, and restore our battered international reputation. When you look at the issues and at their policy papers, there is little difference between him and Hilary Clinton on most things. The key difference there is he is positive, hopeful, and damn charismatic. His comments about Reagan really took on a whole new tone once I saw the rally. He's taken a page out of an old Republican playbook.

Bitebark said...

I'm jealous, ubub. I'd like to hear the man do his thing. TV being what it is, it's pretty obvious it doesn't really capture him speaking live.

steves said...

BB, I was mostly referring to the swooners that are at some of his events. Tony had a good post on them over at his blog. I have also run into many on various forums. They bother me in the sense that they can't say why they support Obama and can't name anything he has done or articulate any of his positions. That is too bad because there is plenty of information out there.

I enjoy watching him speak and wish that the MI Democratic Party weren't such a bunch of _ _ _ _ _ _ _. I am sure he would have come here if we mattered.

leighton said...

Are swooners at events really on an ethical par with active white supremacists? I understand (though disagree with) your point that Paul shouldn't be obliged to decline funds from known public supporters of racism, but it seems like comparing Obama's supporters to organizations with a history of proactively advocating injustice isn't fair either.

ubub said...

It is reasonable to require candidates themselves to be articulate and informed, but I am not sure that the candidate can be held responsible for the articulateness (or cleanlinesss, for that matter) of their supporters.

I would hold up other elected officials as an exception to this. I hope that my state's governor will never we trotted out on national tv ever again to fumblingly ill-explain why he is an Obama supporter.

Amidst all this, I hope we can all remember that one of the key things that Bush had in his favor is that people thought he'd be a fun guy to have a beer with. Perhaps some wanted to shave his head and write on him with pernmanent marker once he passed out, but that was a popular meme about him.

Is that a reason to support someone? No, but it is part of the democratic process.

steves said...

"Are swooners at events really on an ethical par with active white supremacists?"

No, but my point was that a candidate does not always have control over the actions of their supporters. One of Obama's Houston volunteers had a big Che Guevara flag on the wall and I certainly wouldn't construe it to mean that Obama admires Che.