Sunday, July 20, 2008

Candidacy or cult?

American politics seems to be, far more than in any time in living memory, falling into an era both silly and dangerous. The most recent sign was the Democratic primaries, a largely empty contest of identity politics where the most qualified candidates were eliminated early on. The ultimate result was Barack Obama's success in getting the Democratic presidential nomination, backed heavily by the wealthy, white, and ultraliberal wing of the party. But it's also hard to remember an election when the news media were so thought-free and ready to divert attention from political substance, while relentlessly promoting a candidate as the center of a celebrity cult. Obama is probably the most underqualified presidential candidate since the 1920s and maybe ever. His candidacy is a testimony to the continuing, if declining, influence of the media. More than anything, Obama is their candidate. One of the few good side effects is that what's left of the media's credibility is being hosed away before our eyes.

Obama's candidacy is also a fantasy of ultraliberal wealthy donors who like the fact that he's a blank slate. They're competing with each other to be the first to scribble it. They want to shape him the same way Bush was "turned" by the neocons after 9/11 -- another sign of a cult, hangers-on competing to manipulate the image of the figurehead. For his supporters, Obama is an exciting Rorschach inkblot. But he's not baggage-free. The notion that Obama is "post-partisan" or all about "change" is the phoniest thing about his candidacy. His political career in Chicago and voting record demonstrate this. Even more striking is Obama's combination of ignorance and arrogance.* While Obama went in six months from "not black enough" to "the black candidate," his politics has always been white-bicoastal-ultraliberal. The cult tendencies are most obvious and disturbing whenever the media's largely successful attempt to protect Obama from questions or criticism breaks down. The campaign reacts with anger: how outrageous, how racist. Isn't this a preview of an Obama administration, both authoritarian and empty, with a lackey press in tow?

There's only one reason to vote for Obama, and that's if you want a seriously underqualified candidate with all the baggage of the Democratic left: semi-isolationist parochialism, free-trade phobia, high taxes, high inflation, greedy interest group paralysis. All the other reasons being kicked around are bad ones. What we're electing in November 2008 is the president for the next four years, not the last four, or the four before that. (As for the Iraq war, it's essentially over.) The attraction of some conservatives and libertarians to Obama especially needs a cold shower of this sort. While a majority of Democratic votes and elected delegates did not go to him, there is also the attraction of the anti-Hillary voter to Obama: how else to explain otherwise rational women falling for him?

My experience with foreigners on this issue continues to be different from what I expected. For the most part, they can't understand why American voters would be attracted to someone so inexperienced, even more than Bush in 2000 or Carter in 1976. Obama's politics are a pre-1980 throwback, with the Democrats' post-60s isolationist-protectionist tendencies added. This isn't just idle talk. People keep tearing their hair out about the price of oil. Most of its recent increase is actually due to the decline of the dollar. That decline, in the last six months, is strongly influenced by a perception outside the US that Americans have entered another period of self-righteous navel-gazing and political weakness. It's true, although the causes are not widely understood outside the US. Without consciously thinking it, the words tumbled out of my mouth while explaining this to a foreign friend: certain voters are attracted to Obama because he's an underqualified blank slate.

Since the 1980s, the left wing of the Democratic party has wanted to tear down the two pillars (economic and security) of post-1945 American leadership under the guise of "progressive" politics. The Democrats were the party that built this system, but they've repudiated it. Keep that in mind when you hear the continuing chatter about American "unilateralism" and "restoring American's reputation." Obama's provinciality on these issues, to the extent he knows anything about them, is astounding. (Mostly, he sounds like the last adviser to brief him.) This is not your father's Democratic party, or even Bill Clinton's. Something has gone terribly wrong.

Hillary is the ambitious 18-year-old Tracy Flick, now forced to attend "Kumbaya" exercises with the 12-year-old set. But Hillary and her husband are no longer the issue: it's the voters who voted for her. The not-surprising upshot is a sight familiar over the last forty years, a large group of voters who would like to vote for a Democrat, but not for the party's candidate. A majority of Democratic primary voters failed to determine the nomination, and the non-Obama Democrats are growing firmer in their rejection. The party has a major problem on its hands. What's more amazing is the repudiation by the party's wealthy elite of what the Democrats once stood for as the main creators of the post-1945 international order. Instead, Democratic politicians and activists have ever more completely rejected free trade and foreign entanglements, being now beholden to narrow interest groups and devoted to non-stop pandering to the party's nutty fringe. It's no wonder the dollar is falling, foreigners are worried, and American voters are disoriented.
* Like his insistence that Americans learn French before they go to Europe. Really -- Americans should be learning European. Not everyone in Europe speaks French :)

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