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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obamania, or a civic religion revival?

Kate Zernike's Week in Review essay about the place of charisma in American politics was quite interesting, especially this section discussing the way charismatic presidents revive America's "civil religion":

By any definition, the charismatic leader emerges at a time of crisis or national yearning, and perhaps a vacuum in that nation's institutions. Mr. Schlesinger wrote in 1960 of a "new mood in politics," with people feeling "that the mood which has dominated the nation for a decade is beginning to seem thin and irrelevant." There was, he wrote, "a mounting dissatisfaction with the official priorities, a deepening concern with our character and objectives as a nation."

That might well describe the climate Obama supporters feel now.

Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Political Life at Boston College, says Mr. Obama is simply — understandably — making an emotional appeal to those yearnings. "Politics is about policy, but it's also about giving people some kind of sense of participating in a common venture with their fellow citizens," Mr. Wolfe said.

Philosophers call it "civil religion," using the language of religion and elevation to talk about your country. A classic example is Ronald Reagan's summoning of the "city on a hill." That, Professor Wolfe said, was the parallel Mr. Obama was hinting at when he talked about Reagan as a transformative leader.

"A soft civil religion is something our country desperately needs at a time of deep partisanship," Mr. Wolfe said. "He wants to go back to the Reagan years as a Democrat, with Democratic policies."

Here's an example: A 21-year-old reader wrote to Andrew Sullivan last week about the surprising emotion he or she felt at an Obama rally:

I read more than I should about politics and US history and am always confused as to how Americans can love their president so. Intellectually I understand why Americans love(d) Lincoln and the Roosevelts but I never felt why they did.

Andrew, people my age are too young to remember Bill Clinton. All we have is George W. Bush. The office of the President to us is a mockery. We don't link President Bush to concepts such as leader, we link it to ignorance and idiocy. Most people my age have never felt proud of our President. We grew up on the Daily Show, we only know how to make fun of him and mock him.

I attended an Obama rally a few days ago and was amazed at how filled up with emotion I was. Halfway through his speech, other 21 year olds just like that filled the Hall were screaming their heads off, waving banners, and grinning. Everyone was giddy, hell even I was giddy. I was smiling and chanting along to "Yes We Can." I didn't know what that feeling was because I had never felt it. But then I realized it. It was pride. I was proud of Obama.

("The charisma mandate," Kate Zernike, New York Times 2.17.08; here's my Obama endorsement; here's Slate's amusing Encyclopedia Baracktannica, in case you just want to wallow in Obamania.)

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 19 February 2008 at 8:03 AM

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Jeff W.:

February 19, 2008 08:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

Can't help noticing the clear parallels between Obamania emotionality and the venerable history of American revivalism, especially in relation to these big public gatherings. Maybe that's why some UUs are turned off by Obama's campaign--revivalism's reliance on agitated emotion rather than reasoned consideration was always deeply suspicious to Unitarians. After all, crowd-based emotionality can be made to serve all manner of ends, from the most noble to the most horrific, and is relatively independent of the actual message or legitimacy of argument being advocated.

This article makes some good points, especially with the speaker explaining how the youngest, least politically-experienced generation has nothing prideful to point to, and thus is desparate for anything that looks like hope.

Charisma is such a mercurial thing. If we'd had Obama in 1980 rather than Reagan, would we have taken a totally different direction? If we had Reagan today, would we be headed for something other than what (I deeply hope) we are headed for?

Thanks for bringing such an interesting article to our attention, Chris.


February 19, 2008 04:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

For a day last week, my facebook status was something like "CC is thinking that passionate Obama fans are like Vegans, on some level she suspects they're right, but they still sort of scare her."

Jeff, you've just made me understand this impulse a little better.


h sofia:

February 19, 2008 04:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

I hope people don't go too far and just dismiss people as unthinking. I've decided to vote for Obama - and I've never watched any of his speeches except for part of one on Super Tuesday, and part of that one he gave several years ago during the DNC. I specifically did NOT want to be drawn in by charisma and whatnot. I'm not saying that there aren't some who aren't charmed or made twinkly eyed by his rhetorical skills, but that's not why I'm voting for him.

Jeff Wilson:

February 20, 2008 08:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hafidha, I too hope that people realize there are both reasonable and non-reasonable (I don't mean unreasonable) responses going on among the various Obama supporters. There is also a finely crafted media story that reporters have been using over and over for a couple of months, about how Obama is a cool fresh kid and Clinton is a tired old harpy. All news is framed in this way because its easy and it plays into reporters' prejudices--they mainly hate Clinton and want her to lose, so they never give her a fair shake. Naturally, if only the best Obama stuff and the worst Clinton stuff gets broadcast, people will increasingly fall in love with Obama (especially since he has to run on his personal magnetism, rather than his fairly short record which is virtually identical to Clinton's--luckily, the man genuinely has charisma in spades and is a pleasure to watch). But its a dangerous game, because reporters love to tear down sacred cows, and after building Obama up he may be ready for a media-induced fall precisely because of his degree of success. UU blogger Dan Kennedy, an expert on the media, has a very smart article about this phenomenon in The Guardian today:

Stephen Merino:

February 24, 2008 12:47 AM | Permalink for this comment

Civil religion is a tricky concept. Applying it to Obama's campaign is an even more tricky. By the way, your blog post was cited today on Daily Kos, and the author went online to Wikipedia to "list" some characteristics of civil religion. But there are different usages of the term, and it means different things to historians, political scientists, and sociologists. Not all scholars can even agree whether such a thing exists.

Conservatives (especially religious conservatives) are typically more likely to express civil religious sentiments on surveys. I think because of the association of religion and nationalism.

I'm not sure the concept applies to Obama's campaign, but it's a neat idea. There's some good old fashioned celebrity appeal going on, too, which has nothing to do with civil religion. And Obama doesn't express any of the more religious right type of conceptions of civil religion (which equates it with a "Judeo-Christian" core of society). I suppose it would be a great thing if Obama could help transform American civil religion (something I personally believe could be beneficial) into something less polarizing, more progressive, and more healthy.


March 3, 2008 10:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

Something I like about Obama is how so many people are coming together because he is offering a vision. Check out the population called "cultural creatives."

The spouse and I are getting ready to spend much of Tuesday doing the Texas Two-Step as it is being called - voting and then the caucus. This will be a first for me and I am glad for the chance to participate.

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