25 August 2008

Of Politics, Messiahs, and Optimism.

Some rough thoughts to be revised later:

Jonanthan Chait has a fine piece at The New Republic wherein he examines what he calls "The right's silly obsession with the Obama 'cult.'" The classification of Obama’s following to that of “cult” has become something of a cliché with both online and mainstream print commentators, with Pro-Clinton, Pro-McCain, and other, more starkly anti-Obama groups. In just one example, Coalition Against Anti-Christian Rhetoric's press release (and ad) utilized quotations from Oprah Winfrey and Chris Matthews to suggest Obama’s election to Messianic status. But, as Chait presents it, is this treatment of Obama fair, or even new to politicians? Not quite.

After detailing examples of “Obama as Millenial cult leader” stylings from Conservative pundits such as Charles Krauthammer, Chait lands a solid blow in reminding readers of the nearly full-blown Messianic treatment G W Bush received following 9/11 when he became, for many, the agent of God. That President Bush “spoke” to God and acted with God’s grace became a popular talking point (and a popular point of criticism). Chait asks, isn’t this the very definition of “Messianic”? Casting a political figure as a “Messiah” isn’t new, then. It’s not a fresh point of discussion; the focus has simply switched from one major party to the other. So what prompted the turnabout? From "The Messiah Complex-Complex":

The hysteria about Obama's alleged messianism is, in part, a calculated response to his wild popularity with the Democratic base. McCain does not inspire strong loyalty among Republican partisans. (Indeed, a year ago, conservatives were still savaging him as a self-righteous poseur, and, while they've now discovered virtues in McCain that previously eluded them, it's too early to whip up full-blown Bush-style worship.) The cult accusation is a way of turning Obama's strengths--his rhetorical skills and intense support--into a weakness.

This sounds reasonable. Just as Democrats derided the “cult of Bush” by presenting the President’s supporters as herds of mindless sheep (another cliché) and extremist Millennial Christians set on bringing about the Rapture, Republicans are deriding Obama’s supporters as herd of mindless sheep set on some idealized vision of a secular paradise. Something else the two have in common: the treatment of both men as “Messianic figures” lead, almost inevitably, to comparisons with Hitler (yet another cliché ).

This turnabout corresponds with something I’ve been mulling over lately. Optimism has, apparently, devolved into a negative characteristic. Not so long ago, it was among the most desirable qualities in a political figure. You can see this opposition in play in the plentiful comparisons, favorable and less so, between Ronald Reagan and Obama.

Regan’s optimism and idealized vision of America was, and continues to be, celebrated, while Democrats have been labeled as gloomy realists. You might recall how Democrats dismissed Reagan’s sunniness as an indication that he didn’t understand the problems that then-beset the nation; as Charles Krauthammer said in 2004, focusing on Reagan’s optimism was a way of trivializing his work and worldview. Many classified Reagan’s attitude as a type of pandering, a reliance on the pathetic appeal. "Insufficient" and “empty gestures.”

In a reversal, Republicans now qualify Obama’s optimism as an “empty gesture” in place of a plan, as a type of pandering to people’s angst over the country’s problem, a reliance on the pathetic appeal. Now the Republicans cast themselves as the “realists.” It’s an interesting turnabout, and it’s uncertain how this will play out. The comparisons between the country now and the country in 1980 are numerous, and I won’t bore you with those (but you can see this), but such analogies point toward the Republicans' fear: Reagan helped relieve the angst of the 1970s hangover; he was, in effect, a national savior who rescued our pride and confidence in proposing "morning in America." They want to prevent Obama's potential usurpation of that role.

Despite the men's vast ideological differences, both signify "hope"; whether this "hope" is a strength depends on your political affiliation. And why does any of this matter? Mostly because labeling politicians as "Messianic" figures who project an "empty optimism" simply illustrates the reliance on established metaphors and the dearth of innovation in political rhetoric and behavior in both major parties. What does it say about us that we continue to buy it?

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