Preacher Man–Oratory and Politics

October 29, 2008

For those of you who are rabid pro-Obama, this is intended as possible focus for you.  And it might offend.  For those of you who are rabid anit-Obama, I won’t say “don’t chime in” but be charitable.

Okay, I watched the “closing argument’ last night and I was fascinated by the delivery.  No he wasn’t doing the African American sing-song delivery one sees in some AME churches but more of classic rabble rousing oratory.  Not the charisma of Bill Clinton or the warmth and charm of Jack Kennedy (yes I’m that old), but more like the footage one can some times see of Huey Long or, if one only measures body language and voice quality, dare I say it, like Adolf Hitler.  (No I don’t speak german and I’m not suggesting that he is saying the kinds of things that are atributed to Hitler and please don’t comment that I’m accusing him of Nazi sympathy.)  But I do want to focus on this ability he has to stir people.  And what it means that he has this ability.

If Obama wins, it will be in large part credited to his so-called ground game.  While a significant part of his ground game is attributable to the money he has to spend, and the resulting professional staff he can hire and use to organize, one has to acknowledge that any success from that ground game has based on the raw numbers of dedicated volunteers.  What fascinates me is why has he developed that number of dedicated volunteers.

I had occassion to meet with several of them that might serve as examples.  One is a young African American lawyer from D.C.  She came out west for the campaign to serve as an unpaid staffer, deputy voter protection coordinator.  Talking with her one cannot avoid seeing the dazzle in her eyes,  hearing the excitement in her voice and, reading between the lines, feeling her unbridled enthusiasm that she has embarked on a kind of mythic journey of righteousness in support of a great humanitarian cause.  (If I had an editor here, he would make me tone that down a bunch.)  Another is an older attorney from the Bay Area who recently started to coordinate legal services for the poor, after decades of private practice and very good compensation. She admitted to feeling like she needed to ‘give back’ and that despite her career change, wanted to be a part of a ‘movement’.

What makes bright, intelligent, hardworking people with satisfying, well paid, careers feel the need to give up (or at least temporarily set aside) those careers and take on the work of the Obama campaignf?  While one might think that it is based on a close connection between their liberal political views and those of their chosen candidate.  The problem with that conclusion is that most Democratic candidates, both in the primaries and general elections, have view which are fairly similar to large numbers of liberals and yet those candidates have not seemed to generate this kind of following.  That differences almost forces one to look deeper into Obama to see what attribute he has that might explain this difference.

Well my hypothesis is that politcial success in this country, especially at the national and state levels (less so at the local level) is dependent to a very large degree what I will refer to generally as “personality”.  Personality can include such disparate traits as the personal charm of the sort that took an unknown conservative Democratic governor from a ‘flyover’ state to two terms as president, as well as the  folksy delivery style of the female governor from large state with a small population currently drawing large audiences.  It can include the classic charisma of Jack Kennedy and the laid back candor of Janet Napolitano, a Democratic governor of a very red state.  In my view, a politician that has this ability to connect to a substantial portion of his constituency at an intangible level, and can do so without offending on the substance of the issues, will succeed with a high degree of regularity.  He or she need not be dead on with respect to the relevantissues.

If one compares the candidates in recent presidential elections, one sees the evidence of this.  While I am not suggesting that George Bush (Bush 41) was a nerd, he did not have the presence of his 1988 opponent.  Bob Dole, also a veteran public speaker in the mold of a long term Senator, just didn’t have that eye to eye connection and was generally viewed (if one believes the polling) as having a certain untrustworthiness about him.  Even George W. Bush (Bush 43), as the guy you wanted to have a beer with, was far more able to connect with voters than an Al Gore who, if he’d had the style in 2000 that he’s demonstrated since losing, would probably have won.  And Kerry too suffered from a kind of stiffness that made Bush 43 seem like Mr. Personality by comparison.

Please understand that I”m not suggesting that personality is always determinative.  To the contrary, Bush 41 did not, in my view, have the personality of Mike Dukakis.  But he had Lee Atwater (for those too young to remember, Atwater gave birth to Karl Rove) making Dukakis look like John Kerry on a sinking swift boat.   But in an election where there is no dramatic advantage on the issues in favor of one of the candidates, and no mud that sticks to either, the candidate that connects at a personality level will almost invariably win.

Which brings us back to Obama.  Yes one can say that the negatives of the Bush 43 record and approvals would drag down any Republican candidate, the reality is that, going into the conventions, before large numbers of previously undecided voters had significant exposures to the candidates, Obama was trailing.  Yes one can argue that Obama’s rise over the last 6 weeks has been pushed hard by the ever deepening financial crisis along with a view that McCain is hurt by his closeness to Bush 43 and inability to articulate a coherent plan to address the crisis.  But the reality is that those are probably partisan positions.   No, in my opinion, its not the substance of the economic issues, its not the experience of the candidates, or even the absence of mud that stuck to either candidate.  No, in my opinion its the Obama personality.  (I’ll bet you didn’t see that one coming!)

So what does my theory mean, if I’m correct?  My response is two fold.  Firstly it means that we, as a people are probably choosing our leaders for the wrong reasons.  And secondly, it means that we as individuals have to be far more vigilant about ourselves and why we make the choices we make.   We have a democracy of which we have, for generations, been rightly proud.  We evolved from a “democracy” in which only white men that owned land could vote to almost universal suffrage (we’ll talk about voter suppression in another post) and where, but for low turn out, the majority truly does rule.  How much better would that be if, instead of voting based on that emotional connection we feel when a politician hits the sweet spot in our psyche, we voted based on a real understanding of the issues and their complexity, and the real record of the people running as relates to those issues.

Right now, I lament that we are the victims of almost universal demagoguery, from the left as well as the right.  Skilled politicians capture our loyalty by tickling our strongly held views of right and wrong.  If we’re conservative or poor, they scare us with the possibility of tax increases that will hit us hard.  If we are liberal, they point to the needs of the less fortunate that aren’t helped by a system that favors reduced budgets and/or tax cuts over social programs.  And once the politician hits us with that particular cupid’s arrow to our basic philosophy, the real and complex issues drift off into space and we see only that which conforms to our preconceived ideas of what works and what is right.

OKay back to earth.   I’m not saying Obama is evil or that he’ll attempt to do anything in particular.  I’m merely pointing out that he is a talented politician/speaker who has the ability to make his audience feel a connection, and to use that connection to move people, and that talent will enable him to lead us where he wants to take us, if we let him.  Our job as citizens, even on the left, no especially on the left, is to be vigilant that we are being led in the right direction, to listen to the substance of what is said and to educate ourselves about whether it is correct and appropriate and to object when we are being led someplace we ought not go.  And just as those on the left should not withhold objection just because the speaker has hit us in our political heart with his cupid’s arrow, those on the right should not object merely because Obama stands for general propositions that conflict with the basic philosophy of the right.

The bottom line here is that, as voters, we have a responsibility to be informed, to make informed decisions, to be vigilent and to act based on well educated analysis of the issues not on the basis of oversimplified sound bites that politicians want to use.  This is a difficult responsiblity.  First it goes against our nature.  It requires focus and work.  It does not allow us to base our decisions on simple concepts like “it’s socialism” or “that’s just trickle down”.  And it requires us to accept that our basic philosophies do not and should not apply in all circumstances.  In other words, democracy is not easy.


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