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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Friday, January 26, 2007


The Cult of Personality

posted by Nonpartisan at Friday, January 26, 2007 permalink View blog reactions
[Cross-posted at My Left Wing and ProgressiveHistorians.]

I hate candidacies like Hillary Clinton's -- big, glitzy, establishment-run, and uninterested in issues like people power. But today I'm incredibly glad Clinton's in the race, because her behemoth of a campaign acts as a check on this:

Nine days ago, a guy named Farouk Olu Aregbe started a facebook group called one million strong for Barack. A graduate of Missouri Western State University, Aregbe was the student body President for two terms and the President of the black student association, and he's now pursuing an MBA. The facebook group he startedhas broken the 100,000 member barrier. The target is 1,000,000 members by February 5. Every campaign thinks that they are going to be awesome online, that they will hire the best strategists and focus on what the internet can do for them. But here we have a facebook group that might sign up one million young people in three weeks.

Now, of course the notion that this event has any significance is ludicrous. I have a friend who put up a Facebook group offering to wax his entire body if 4,000 people signed up; the group had 400 members within a single week, many of whom had no idea who my friend was. The rapid spread of Internet memetics says little to nothing about Obama's strength among young people, as Matt wisely points out in the linked article.

But I'm more interested in this -- the Facebook group's official description:
The goal here is simple - get one million strong in support of the Next President of the United States

Lets reach this goal, then set a new goal

That's it. No grand explanations of Obama's policy positions, no discussion of why Obama's running, no indication of what we can expect from an Obama presidency. Obama could advocate the introduction of man-eating alligators to the streats of New Orleans -- these kids don't know or care. They're just supporting him because he's famous, and cool, and talks pretty. What does he talk about? Doesn't matter. Bow down to Barack, your new leader -- it's all about the Obama.

This isn't entirely Obama's fault, but a lot of it is. A true transformational leader is inseparable from the issue or ideology for which he or she stands. The goal of politics for such leaders is to make their supporters think about the issues that the leaders believe are important and underserved in current society, not to sell themselves as cult heroes or heroines. For this reason, transformational leaders regularly lead off their campaigns with the issues that matter most to them. Here's how Howard Dean, a transformational leader if I ever saw one, introduced himself to the national scene:

What I want to know... is why in the world the Democratic party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?

What I want to know... is why are Democratic party leaders supporting tax cuts? The question is not how big the tax cut should be, the question should be: can we afford a tax cut at all with the largest deficit in the history of this country?

What I want to know... is why we're fighting in Congress about the Patient's Bill of Rights when the Democratic party ought to be standing up for health care for every single American man, woman, and child in this country?

What I want to know... is why our folks are voting for the president's No Child Left Behind bill that leaves every child behind, every teacher behind, every school board behind, and every property tax payer behind?

I'm Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.

The text is riveting because it introduces you immediately to what Dean stands for. Vote for me, Dean says, and I'll get America out of Iraq while returning politics to the people and to issues that really matter.

Here's another example from an earlier time:

If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

This second example -- instantly recognizable as William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech -- is instructive because it's pretty clear that Bryan didn't believe in or understand his own stance on the gold standard. However, having put himself on record as supporting Free Silver in such a public and emotional forum, Bryan no longer had the option of dropping the issue when it ceased to be politically expedient. The speech constituted a sort of binding contract between Bryan and his supporters; if he violated the tenets of what he had uttered, the people would never forgive him or support him again.

Framing a transformational candidacy around an issue or ideology is important for several reasons -- it allows supporters to think instead of just follow blindly, it allows a movement to enable ideological advancement -- but the most important reason is that it keeps candidates honest and accountable. When a leader becomes identified with an ideology, it's nearly impossible for him to pry himself away from it once he's elected (the exception is when circumstances change dramatically, which is why Woodrow Wilson could run on "He Kept Us Out Of War" and then go to war five months later -- unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans changed the nature of American opinion on the subject). Thus, if you voted for Dean in 2004, you were voting to end the war and reform government; likewise (as we Deaniacs explained with varying degrees of patience to Clark and Kucinich supporters) if you wanted to end the war and reform politics, you should vote for Dean. You knew what Dean stood for, and you knew that, once elected, Dean wouldn't dare oppose the principles that had gotten him there in the first place, or he'd be promptly turned out on his ear by his own staunchest supporters.

There are plenty of transformational candidates in 2008 who will tell you exactly what they stand for. If you vote for John Edwards, you're voting to end poverty and support labor. If you vote for Al Gore (assuming he runs), you're voting to conserve the environment and return to a fact-based government. Even non-transformational candidates will tell you what you're getting when you vote for them. For example, if you vote for Bill Richardson, you're voting for Mr. Fix-It, a guy with the experience and the moxie to heal the international wounds gashed by the Bush Administration.

But if you vote for Obama, you're voting for nothing but -- Obama. He's promoting himself just as the Facebook group suggests: as a heroic figure whose substance mattlers little. In doing so, he's preying on the public hunger for headership, cheating his supporters of the opportunity to advance the ideological debate by not advancing it himself.

At the front page of Nation-Building, Aziz (who doesn't really like Obama either) cites Obama's call for universal health care as evidence of "the bold policy risk-taking that we've been waiting for him to embrace." I disagree; Obama's simple mouthing of policy points may be a step in the right direction, but it matters little unless his candidacy internalizes the issue, makes this campaign about more than Obamamania. Without tying himself to the issue, Obama provides us with no guarantee he won't simply reverse himself once elected, since he never really emphasized health care in the first place.

I don't believe Obama is a demagogue, but his candidacy right now is exuding the most dangerous form of demagoguery -- urging supporters to back him blindly, thoughtlessly, because of who he is instead of what he stands for. This is the kind of politics that brought us Huey Long for President in 1936, Douglas MacArthur for President in 1948, Arnold Schwarzenneger for Governor in 2003, and Lyn Swann for Governor in 2006. In a sense, it's also what brought us George W. Bush, who was recruited because of his famous name rather than for his experience, communication skills, or policy credentials. (The same could be said for Hillary Clinton, by the way -- and I would say it. She's another candidate whose support is motivated by who she is instead of what she says or does.)

The cult of personality is more than just vanity politics -- it's the nitroglycerine cocktail that has the power to spell the end of politics as we know it. In the Roman Republic, the cult of personality allowed Lucius Cornelius Sulla to declare himself dictator for life to the cheers of his adoring followers; the cult of personality allowed Julius Caesar to make himself all but king. The result was the end of the Republic and the beginning of Empire, where armies and emperors, not the people, determined policy.

Barack Obama is a smart man with a lot of charisma. He should use his remarkable abilities to advance a bright vision for America's future, not to promote himself as the savior of America's undelineated problems. To do otherwise, to feed the cult of personality while doing nothing to advance American ideological discourse, is irresponsible at best and downright dangerous at worst.


to be honest, I was really just being polite. Obama said some things in that speech that really tie him down to providing specifics. So I imagine that we will see a plan from him soon. And its good that he has taken up the commitment to have something - a question of when, not if. So kudos to him for that - he ocud have played it much safer by not saying anything at all. Of course I reserve final judgement but I am glad to see him contributing to the inevitability of the concept.

lets see if healthcare becomes Obama's own cross of gold.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.