Driving out from town to feed my horses the morning of November 5th, I passed a house in West Laramie with the Stars and Stripes waving from the front gate. The flag hung upside down. A fitting salute, surely, for the most radical candidate ever to become president-elect of the United States.
The election of Barack Obama is a fluke, as well as a phenomenon. No great achievement is ever attained without a strong dose of luck, but Obama’s luck throughout the 2008 campaign was exceptional. Indeed, it was nearly incredible. After February 28, Senator Obama never won a primary as the voters flocked to support his opponent, Senator Clinton. The widely acknowledged explanation for this is that, by the end of February, Democratic and independent voters had taken Obama’s measure as a candidate and concluded that they favored a more “moderate,” that is, establishment, choice in their quest to put a Democrat in the White House. What is more, all signs pointed to the majority’s desire to make that Democrat a white person as well. As late as last August, Obama was perceived to be a tough sell to white blue-collar and rural voters, largely on account of his race. Almost certainly, he would have remained so had it not been for the financial collapse the following month, and John McCain would today be president-elect in his stead. Tuesday’s vote was thus less a vote for the candidacy of one man named Barack Obama than it was for the candidate representing the Democratic Party, which the electorate has confidently relied upon since 1933 to shower it with subsidies, benefits, and public-works programs in times of economic crisis. Once the economic motive was activated by the Wall Street implosion, the racial issue seems to have taken secondary, or tertiary, place. Many, if not most, Americans are enthusiastic fans either of black athletes, or black entertainers, or both. And it is these black American culture “heroes,” not Barack Obama, who are largely responsible for the erosion of 400 years of racial animosity in America, and who indeed made Obama’s election-night victory possible.
Obama campaigned under the banner of “change.” What sort of change, neither he nor any of his staff and supporters have ever said, though the inference was that “change” would be the precise opposite of the Bush administration, or perhaps even of what Richard Hofstadter, writing 60 years ago, called the American political tradition. “Change,” of course, is a democratic ideal broadly speaking, as well as, more narrowly, of the American political system and of the public it claims to represent. Democracy, which began as a form of government, devolved more than a century ago into an ideology, which is by nature insatiable in its demands. In the case of the American people, their impatient clamor for “change” is the expression of a moral and intellectual shallowness, a rampant desire for ever more material goods, “rights,” and freedom, an inability to derive satisfaction from the giveness of human life, a perennial lust for novelty in whatever form. And so Barack Obama, as a black man campaigning on a platform of “change,” triumphed less as a political reformer than as a novelty entertainer in the national forum that has come to be devoted, in almost equal parts, to politics, sports, and mass entertainment.
Obama will thus be our first real novelty president. He will also be our first truly ideological president. As George W. Bush was nothing if not an ideologue on the issue of global democracy, this statement requires some explaining.
Kenneth Minogue, in Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, defined “ideology” as an intellectual construct that reveals a salvational secret professing to explain a social system in terms of a set of repressive social relationships. According to Minogue, the classic revolutionary ideology of Marx and Engels, and of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, was both defeated and discredited by the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th century. Refusing to abandon their goal of bringing down the despised West, the Marxist ideologues reinvented Marxism, in ways pioneered decades before by the Frankfurt School with its concept of a “long march through the institutions.” According to Marxist-Leninism, scientific fact was everything. For the neo-Marxists, by contrast, “ethics” are the ideological touchstone. “Ethics,” of course, have nothing to do with morals. Morals are rules of conduct applying to relationships between individuals; ethics pertain to the realization of a social ideal. Thus, the decision to bed one’s neighbor’s wife, or to defraud him in a stock transaction, is a matter of morals, wholly unrelated to one’s commitment to the principles of feminism or a socialist economy. As Minogue wrote, “‘Ethical’ [is] whatever policies served the goal of perfecting society. To be in favour of change [my italics] [is] thus to be young, ethical, and, therefore, caring.”
Whether Barack Obama really needs to be understood as a post-racial, post-political statesman, or not, remains in doubt. (He certainly did not arrive at his present eminent position by availing himself of the services of an “ethical” campaign organization.) Nor were the majority of those who gave him their vote on November 4th casting a ballot for what they recognized as the first post-political presidential candidate in history. The same, however, cannot be said of the original Obamaniacs—those hysterical T-shirted, blue-jeaned white children hopping up and down ecstatically like adolescent Christopher Robinses—who constitute his base. These people, and their biologically grownup counterparts, exactly fit Minogue’s ideological cohort of the young, the ethical, and the caring. As I say, it is impossible to determine at present whether Barack Obama, as a person, is among these people. (My cynical instinct tells me that he is too cold, too analytical, too realistic for that.) But, whether he is or not, he has surely built a political movement, though not yet a party, upon them.
As I was falling asleep on election night following the president-elect’s victory speech, I found myself reflecting that the spectacle I had just witnessed was somehow not political, that it did not belong generically to the realm of politics at all. And so I was brought back to Kenneth Minogue’s insistence that “ideology can only generate a parody of politics,” a parody in which the ideologist is himself the universal element, unlike the true politician who serves as merely an actor in a process that is itself universal. It may well be that Barack Obama is in fact a mere politician, and no ideologue. But, if that is so, he is also most certainly, in his readiness to exploit the ideological inclinations of his most fervent supporters, some sort of demagogue. Whether he is indeed a demagogue of the worst type, only the next four years will tell.
A relative in Ft. Collins, Colorado, described to my wife how, while delivering her 13-year-old daughter to Catholic school on election day, she witnessed a flock of young children, neatly dressed in accordance with a relaxed uniform code, racing across the sidewalk from their mothers’ SUVs and into the school building. And, as they ran, they chanted. “Obama! Obama! Obama!”