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The Benjamin Button Election

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Every successful modern campaign is the one that best appreciates a voter’s sense of self-importance and vulnerability. The most successful, actually, was Obama’s campaign in 2008. It made its supporters feel as if they were an immediate part of an important movement through tweets, e-mails, motivational announcements by text; its slogan was “Yes, We Can,” and the candidate’s Super Tuesday rallying cry was “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Organizing for America, the successor organization to Obama’s 2008 campaign arm, still sends messages with metronomic regularity to its contributors. The subject line of one of them, recently forwarded to me by a friend named David, said, “I want to meet David.” It’s flattering. The political is personal.

That the left doesn’t recognize the similarities between the Obama and the tea-party movements is probably a function of just how good the Obama movement was at making its supporters feel special. But the fact is, this cycle, Republicans are taking advantage of this same desire for reempowerment, and they’re using the same tools. The tea-party movement is propelled by Facebook activity, copious tweets, and rallies celebrating the power of the audience. At the inaugural tea-party convention in February, Palin described the movement as “a ground-up call to action that is forcing both parties to change the way they’re doing business, and that’s beautiful. This is about the people.” In other words, Yes, we can.

Yet Yes, we can is seldom real. We need people to say it—we needed Martin Luther King Jr. to say it, and perhaps we needed Obama to say it, too; it is the plainspoken, uncorrupted calls to arms that power our idealism. But King wasn’t in elected office, and, at the time, neither was Obama. Once you’re on the inside, the prospect of continual change looks bleaker. This is what Mario Cuomo meant in his 1985 speech at Yale University, when he famously told his audience, “We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected, we’re forced to govern in prose.”

This is Obama’s paradox. He actually did try to brace us for this eventuality in his inaugural address, when he quoted Corinthians, saying we had to set aside childish things. But we haven’t heard much about it since. He wishes that we would act like adults, yet he has not yet figured out a way to translate the giddy, starry-eyed enthusiasm that swept him into office into something that would sustain our interest in—for lack of a better phrase—the common good. It may be that that’s impossible. It may be that he hasn’t the temperament to make the effort or the imagination to sell it—which would be a shame: Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are telling Britons that it’ll be necessary to cut popular entitlement programs. But then, Britain is a different country from America. It’s older, for one thing.

Or it could be that Obama’s simply haunted by the ghost of Jimmy Carter, who got pilloried for discussing “the erosion of our confidence” in his famous “malaise” speech. Six weeks before addressing the nation, Carter invited a special guest to the White House to talk his ideas through. It was Christopher Lasch.

One underappreciated fact about modern Washington is that the experience of public office can be quite demoralizing. Elected officials discover fairly quickly how little latitude they have. Philip Howard would argue there’s a connection—a causal effect—between how powerless politicians feel and how powerless voters feel. “The president can’t even appoint a presidential commission without complying with the presidential-commission law!” he blurts out at one point in our interview. “Which itself requires that it have so many different groups that they could never be effective.” And of course, Obama knew this. That line he uttered—“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!”so frequently ridiculed for its messianic fervor, was, as Andrew Sullivan pointed out at the time, also the candidate’s way of saying, Look, you’ve got to take control here of your own lives. There are limits to what one guy can achieve.

And that’s the problem. “If the principal in an independent, crowded society doesn’t have the authority to balance the needs of everyone,” says Howard, “people start waking up and demanding things for themselves. Pretty soon, the culture starts to degenerate in the way that anarchic cultures degenerate: alternating between exploitation and defensiveness. Selfishness becomes the operating vocabulary of public debate. Give me this, provide that.”

When the president and the nation he leads both feel powerless, that’s the moment that real revolutions, or at least third parties, are born. Obama was supposed to offer the same promises as a third party—a true break, both intellectually and generationally, from how business was done. The tea party is promising to do the same now.

But these revolutions are hard to sustain if we all insist on being lied to—if facts are less resonant than perceptions. The best the opposition can do is fight in dramatic confrontations. As Lasch pointed out in The Culture of Narcissism, this is exactly what happened to the New Left 40 years ago. A “politics of the media” supplanted a politics of policy and substance. “Yippie is gestalt theater of the streets,” he quoted Jerry Rubin, one of the founders of the Youth International Party, as saying. “Entering a congressional hearing room in a Paul Revere costume or wearing judicial robes to a court proceeding is a way of acting out fantasies and ending repressions.” Sound familiar?


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