Sunday, October 28

:: The Galileo Fallacy in Democratic Politics, Pt. I

Part I. Hero Worship and Persistent Hillaryphobia
Support for Obama in 2007 is like support for W in 1999: dependent on character judgment tied to a caricature of the opponent.

I was browsing Salon the other day and came across a column called “Clinton Goes After Obama on Iraq,” which I read as a prelude to getting at the comments. Throughout the pre-season season I’ve found the blog comments of Obama supporters fascinating.

I came to believe a while ago that there is a parallel between the language Obama supporters use to praise their candidate and the language used by Bush supporters in 1999 – language that we Democrats have derided ever since.

I’m talking about the “good man,” “our values,” "likable," “honest / principled / independent” tropes that dominate Obama praise and were widely used regarding W both before and long after he was elected. Looking back, we refer to this in shorthand as the “candidate I'd like to have a beer with” thing, but its more or less the same. This is a good man. I like him. I agree with what he is saying. I don’t just believe him, I believe in him. I know in my heart/gut that he's not like the other, "typical" politicians. And this is more important than any promise, or track record or any portfolio of experience.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this approach. I also think that Obama most likely is a good man, whereas W is not. But I do marvel that people don’t see the parallel – and all the more so because the characterization of Obama’s main opponent, Clinton, so closely mirrors that of Gore circa 1999.

Forget the real Gore we know now – the good, honest man; the principled leader; the uber-rationalist and Nobel prize winner. Back then we “knew” he was cold, dry, boring. Programmed like a computer to spit out facts without feeling. A typical corrupt, greedy politician – remember the Buddhist temple “scandal"? A man without a genuine personality – remember the earth tones? A liar – remember love story? Inventing the internet? A consummate insider expecting to glide into office on the nepotism of the Clinton administration and his political family. A DLC “new Democrat” who would be as bad for the left as any Republican. Back then progressive Dems thought Bill Bradley was the authentic, good man whose support was based not in any extraordinary accomplishments but by dint of his virtuous personality.

This all sounds a hell of a lot like what Obama supporters (and the Edwards crowd, and a fair number of reporters too) say about Clinton now. She has no authentic self and will say anything to get elected. She is a corrupt moneygrubber. She is a DLC centrist who will be worse for the left than any Republican. She is a liar who can’t be trusted.

I find these claims inexplicable. To me she seems like the idealistic yet profoundly practical woman she appeared to be as a Wellesley grad. Certain she has “evolved” in style and nuance but in the rational world we call that aging (a fairly common phenomenon, I’m told). You can see in her speeches and her work that she has always been committed to certain principles (Constitutional rule of law, civil liberties). On economic issues, she has always been centrist (she does not appear to have an intrinsic distrust of corporations). She engages in fundraising practices well within the mainstream of campaigning. Far from being a liar or panderer, Clinton is a candidate who confounds by her unwillingness to conform to certain issue positions -lobbyists are evil, business is evil - positions held dear by important constituencies within the Democratic party.

Interestingly, now that Obama is on the ropes – poll numbers, staff leaks, etc. – some pro-Obama commenters have adopted an accusatory, angry tone, directed first and foremost the media (for never reporting anything positive) and Clinton (whose evil campaign machine has hijacked the Democratic process).

Never mind countless glowing puff stories about Obama’s intelligence, good looks and charm vs. the endless Hillary-can’t-win analysis of the past year. And never mind that until recently, Obama was the top money-raising campaign. An analysis of the press coverage of the candidates during the first five months of 2007 conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism / Shorenstein Center at Harvard bears this out. Howard Kurtz puts it thusly in the WaPo: "...17 percent of the stories were about Clinton, followed by Barack Obama (14 percent), Rudy Giuliani (9 percent), John McCain (7 percent) and Mitt Romney (5 percent). Everyone else was a relative blip... Overall, though, the Democratic candidates drew more positive stories (35 percent) than the Republicans (26 percent)... almost entirely due to the friendly coverage accorded Obama (47 percent positive) and the heavily negative treatment of McCain (12 percent positive)." This contrasts to 27 percent positive vs. 37 percent negative during the same time period for Clinton.

Even now, press criticism of Obama strikes me as very light; a good portion of the negativity is of his own (staff’s) making. Take the latest – the homophobe minister the campaign invited to participate in events designed to enhance outreach to black southern voters. Not vetting him properly is the campaign’s own fault. Trying to remedy the situation by adding a counterweight minister to speak in favor of tolerance – a very insulting gesture – is their own fault. Choosing a white rather than African-American minister to be that counterweight is also their fault (see Pam Spaulding here). But according to certain supporters, the whole mess is a big set-up organized by Hillary and promoted by the mainstream media she has in her thrall. The paradigm must persist: its just another skirmish in the virtuous Jedi Obama's underdog crusade against the Clinton Death Star.

Okay, that analogy is a bit goofy, but my underlying point is this: a sizable number of the Democratic faithful crave a certain kind of candidate, and, to paraphrase Dostoyevsky (I think), if the fellow doesn't exist we will have to invent him. Some of us need a Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Che Guevara, Bruce Springsteen -esque outsider-rebel. The principled man of the people, hero to the luckless and oppressed, ascetic, pure, beyond corruption. The loner who becomes a leader, fights the good fight, takes it right to the Man, and ultimately (usually) dies for our sins.

Frankly I've never bought into this paradigm - it has more to do with unresolved Oedipal crises than true liberation. Rather than upending the aesthetic, economic or political "system," all too often these figures really just want to take the Man's place. It is significant that no female icons fit this paradigm - a woman outsider/loner is an unlikable, non-nurturing oddity. Nevertheless this figure is as essential to Democratic mythology as the "strong leader" is to that of the Republicans.

Next in Part II: Persistent Hillaryphobia and the Galileo Fallacy.


Kirsten said...

All right, I'll bite:

I did think Al was a good man. Admittedly, it was because I interned for him, and knew him to be funny, warm and intelligent. (And really really tall.) I also thought he was more electable than Bradley, even though Bradley is closer to my lefter-than-left political pose. That being said, I felt bad about his campaign gaffes, but really good about him as a candidate and leader.

But Obama v. Hillary v. who knows whoe else...I'm just hoping they take each other out, but I'm afraid that won't be the case. I will vote for Hillary if I have to, but I won't enjoy it. I do think she's politically pragmatic -- but that's not the same as leaderly. I also believe that away from a podium she is funny, warm and intelligent (and not at all tall). But she don't make my heart sing.

Obama's got flair, but I'm still trying to see the leaderliness. And lord knows Edwards' campaign is full of rookies, and he hasn't been the boss of anything.

Frankly, I'm avoiding all election coverage until Lent, when I'll suck it up as penance for my sins.

Nina Miller said...

I always supported Gore as the most qualified candidate, though I bought into the narrative that he was cold, wooden, programmed, felt entitled, etc. And I didn't care much for those daughters, either. It wasn't until I saw a short documentary that Spike Jonze made about him that my mind completely changed.

The Gores gave Jonze access to their home on a weekend when they were all there, and he took a lot of footage of them interacting informally. The result was amazing - the private Gore was the nicest, warmest, most genuine person you could ever hope to see. Tipper and the kids too - just really nice, smart, well-meaning people who really like as well as love each other.

By the end of the documentary (which is really informal, no narration, no "story") I loved him. I was (and still am) convinced that he is a truly good, honorable man. I don't know why the documentary was never made widely accessible - I got it because I subscribe to the dvd "magazine" Wholphin (which is put out by the Dave Eggers / McSweeneys crowd). I guess the press would have torn this up too, but I found it to be completely charming. The Gore it shows is totally, almost diametrically opposite to the one presented through the media.

A "wholphin" is the progeny of a small whale and a dolphin that mate (with each other). This is a true fact.

kate.d. said...

this was a fascinating read. i definitely hadn't made the 1999 connection, and it's something to think about for certain.

i am a bit distrustful of this obama narrative myself. i'm not going to lose sleep if he wins the nomination, of course, but i can't help feeling that there's a fair amount of, um, overzealous storytelling happening among some of his supporters. if only wishing made it so....