There is something odd -- and dare I say novel -- in American politics about the crowds that have been greeting Barack Obama on his campaign trail. Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.
Of course, we've never witnessed such a phenomenon in our country. Never before have thousands, hundreds of thousands, showed up to listen to a man speak. Except of course for Martin Luther King Jr., during the height of the civil rights movement. Obama is no MLK, but the comparison is illustrative; like then, people today sense that we might be at a transformative moment in American history, and that the candidacy of Obama is at the epicenter of that transformation. They are lifted by the twin messages of change and of hope, and those messages resonate and become more than clever marketing because they sense that there is something deeply wrong with our nation at present, something that can only be fixed by a grand movement inspired by the first African-American candidate. They may be wrong, but this is what they believe. But they are not as wrong as Ajami seems to think they are; they are not being lulled by a candidate who will somehow impose tyranny and subvert democracy; at worst, Obama will disappoint them in their great hope for something new. Such is the nature of politics in our country. But it is silly to compare the crowds that show up to see Obama to the adoration that was heaped upon someone like Nasser or Khomeini, who promised a different kind of change to their nations. It does matter why people show up in such great numbers. Really, this paragraph is a dressed-up version of the derogatory "Obama messiah" comments you see thrown out by right-wing pundits, as if there is something wrong with Obama merely because he inspires so many people. This is nonsense. Great leaders inspire, and never more so at moments of peril for a nation; Ajami would turn this fact of history on its head and have us believe that such inspiration is necessarily troubling, negative, reminiscent of crowds willing to surrender their freedom to a "great man." In Obama's case, nothing could be further from the truth.
He goes on:
On the face of it, there is nothing overwhelmingly stirring about Sen. Obama. There is a cerebral quality to him, and an air of detachment. He has eloquence, but within bounds. After nearly two years on the trail, the audience can pretty much anticipate and recite his lines. The political genius of the man is that he is a blank slate. The devotees can project onto him what they wish. The coalition that has propelled his quest -- African-Americans and affluent white liberals -- has no economic coherence. But for the moment, there is the illusion of a common undertaking -- Canetti's feeling of equality within the crowd. The day after, the crowd will of course discover its own fissures. The affluent will have to pay for the programs promised the poor. The redistribution agenda that runs through Mr. Obama's vision is anathema to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the hedge-fund managers now smitten with him. Their ethos is one of competition and the justice of the rewards that come with risk and effort. All this is shelved, as the devotees sustain the candidacy of a man whose public career has been a steady advocacy of reining in the market and organizing those who believe in entitlement and redistribution.
Well, he's sort of right. People do project onto Obama their hopes and fears, but they do that with every candidate. Obama occupies an historic place in American politics and so perhaps this phenomenon is more marked than usual, but neither is he a blank slate. To imagine that he is one would have to ignore entirely the words he speaks, as opposed to the eloquence with which he speaks them. This is nothing more than the "empty suit" rhetoric that right-wingers throw around, that there is nothing to Obama but his ability to speak (but only with a teleprompter!) Right-wingers have a difficult time understanding that people turn out not only for how Obama speaks, but for what he has to say. Of course these people are united for these speeches, and divisions will re-appear after the election is over; such is the nature of politics throughout human history. But Ajami, in dismissing their desires for "entitlement" and "redistribution", fails to understand that what are merely code-words on the right for socialism, are legitimate public policy prescriptions for many Americans on the left and in the middle. In the wake of the recent economic crisis and general growth of inequality, Americans find themselves wondering what is so bad about asking those who are very well-off to help more to provide for those who struggle? This notion is so reasonable, and so common-sense, that pundits on the right can only hope to counter it by calling it socialism, or even communism. And to think that only supporters project upon the candidate is ridiculous; else why would so many on the right insist on believing that Obama is a Muslim, or a black Christian nationalist? At least his supporters project their hopes for the nation; his detractors project their darkest (and most irrational) fears.
He goes on:
It was no accident that the white working class was the last segment of the population to sign up for the Obama journey. Their hesitancy was not about race. They were men and women of practicality; they distrusted oratory, they could see through the falseness of the solidarity offered by this campaign. They did not have much, but believed in the legitimacy of what little they had acquired. They valued work and its rewards. They knew and heard of staggering wealth made by the Masters of the Universe, but held onto their faith in the outcomes that economic life decreed. The economic hurricane that struck America some weeks ago shook them to the core. They now seek protection, the shelter of the state, and the promise of social repair. The bonuses of the wizards who ran the great corporate entities had not bothered them. It was the spectacle of the work of the wizards melting before our eyes that unsettled them.
Race most certainly is on their minds. If they vote for Obama it is in spite of old racial attitudes, not because of them or because they have none at all. Ajami is right to some extent about the effect the economic meltdown has had on them, but he overstates the case; white working-class voters have been watching their earnings disappear for three decades now. That it has taken them so long to come back around to the Democratic Party is entirely indicative of their attitudes about race, which the Republican Party has played to skillfully. Those days are likely now over, along with the fetishization of the white, working-class voter, whose opinions (if not votes) have never counted for more than yours or mine.
And now, on the desire for "retribution":
A younger man, "cool" and collected, carrying within his own biography the strands of the world beyond America's shores, was put forth as a herald of the change upon us. The crowd would risk the experiment. There was grudge and a desire for retribution in the crowd to begin with. Akin to the passions that have shaped and driven highly polarized societies, this election has at its core a desire to settle the unfinished account of the presidential election eight years ago. George W. Bush's presidency remained, for his countless critics and detractors, a tale of usurpation. He had gotten what was not his due; more galling still, he had been bold and unabashed, and taken his time at the helm as an opportunity to assert an ambitious doctrine of American power abroad. He had waged a war of choice in Iraq.
This election is the rematch that John Kerry had not delivered on. In the fashion of the crowd that seeks and sees the justice of retribution, Mr. Obama's supporters have been willing to overlook his means. So a candidate pledged to good government and to ending the role of money in our political life opts out of public financing of presidential campaigns. What of it? The end justifies the means.
Frankly, I don't know what Ajami is talking about. Retribution, against whom? Bush? Wall Street? Red state voters? Alas, Ajami is four years too late; for some Democratic voters the 2004 election may have been about revenge against Bush for stealing the 2000 election, for the war in Iraq, but that certainly isn't the case now. What revenge is their even to be had against Bush, who will retire in comfort to somewhere in Texas? Retribution against Republicans perhaps, but no one is voting now for revenge alone. People look at the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, growing income inequality and the global financial meltdown and they are afraid. They see that Republicans have done nothing about these problems except to exacerbate them, and they'd like to see if Democrats would do any better at fixing them. This is the "end" that they have in mind, and the policies Obama articulates are suited to this end; the means is his campaign, which last time I checked has been entirely focused on the issues (unlike McCain's campaign, which is entirely about Obama.)
Ajami, like many on the right, seems completely blind to the public mood at the moment. They simply can't understand why anyone would want to vote for Obama, for a Democrat of all things, and they must fashion all sorts of rationales and explanations that have no basis in reality. But it's really all very simple. Obama's supporters see what's wrong with our country, they trust based on Obama's words, character and temperament that he's the man to change it, and they'll vote for those reasons. For those of us who are not right-wing pundits, this is very simple to understand and explain.