Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama: The Feel Good Brand

It’s been a couple weeks since the election and I’ve had some time to think about it. I am not worried that the American voters made a big mistake. It’s great that a black man can be elected President in America. It does not, however, come close to making up for the great national sin of slavery, does it? Martin Luther King exclaimed that he dreamed of an America where a man could be judged for the content of his character and not the color of his skin. But it looks like most black people voted for Obama because he’s black, not because of what he believes. No, this does not bother me a whole lot by its own merit. It may be a good thing that 12% of the American population woke up and for the first time felt like they belonged to an America where anything really is possible. That is great.

It is pretty sad that a significant segment of the American population has struggled to identifying with their country for so many generations. I wonder, though, if people are any more proud of America than they were before. If people are proud of America for seeing past race, America could justifiably be proud for surprising the world again. But as far as I can tell, people are more proud of Obama than they are for America.

This actually reduces what this election was all about to something less than it otherwise could have been. This election was not about the deficit, global warming, or the neo-cons. It was about a vote people could make to feel better about themselves. Obama offered people that chance. The Republicans got exactly what they deserved for betraying small-government, fiscally-conservative, sound-money and non-interventionist foreign policy principles. They also underestimated how badly people want to believe in something. This election was about feelings not reasoning - Pathos not Logos.

The campaign season started out all right. In fact, there were a few times when I thought it would begin to take off and really become something. It never did. It was not a campaign at all. In most cases, we were subjected to nothing more Barack Obama’s personal history, two years of reality television very well produced and edited. In fact, once Barack Obama convinced America that his story was their story, there was only one way for the election to end. America loves a winner.

Many in the media and even political pundits have compared the Obamas to the Kennedys. I sincerely struggle to even understand what that is supposed to mean. Race still matters in America just like religion still matters. I was beside myself when people would claim Barack Obama was a Muslim as if that were a bad thing. The Obama campaign made it even worse by denying he was a Muslim, as if being a Muslim were a bad thing. Being very touchy on the subject of race, segments of the public turned to religion – a religion that has been rather unpopular in America since the terrorist attacks in September 2001. Anyway, the things that make us different actually tend to make us a stronger society.

People who claim the Obama Whitehouse is the next Kennedy Whitehouse seem to be grasping at romance and nostalgia. These are people who have always wanted to believe that a dynamic leader could take us toward better, more enlightened government. These people are crazy hungry for something that seems to be missing from their lives. They seem to be living their fantasies vicariously through Obama’s life. It is human nature to want to be part of something greater than oneself. The fervor felt by many, however, tends to drive people to do stupid things like burning books or drinking kool-aid.

This election was not about something transcendent like civil-rights, it was a synthetic election. The power of America’s mass media and the entertainment image-making machine harnessed itself to a candidate for national office. Barack became the feel-good brand. He would magically repair America’s damaged worldwide reputation and fix our economy. Seriously, the Obama brand has the depth and staying power of a catchy pop tune. Very much like Dr Pepper, all sugar and caffeine rush but zero nutritional value. You’ll feel better for drinking it but you’re not getting any healthier.

I don’t think Barack Obama was any worse in this aspect than John McCain. Neither campaign had enough substance to support a feather, let alone the lead weight of the economic crisis or world-wide terrorism.

Modern politics is about the manipulation of the people’s emotions. We were barraged by fear, hope, anger and envy. Each campaign founded themselves on these emotions. They used words, images and really compelling but very likely false promises. The Obama Campaign was a masterpiece in manipulation. His was a triumph of style over content. John McCain’s campaign just could not find a big enough line onto which they could latch strong. Certainly, Barack Obama represents the triumph of the cult of personality over substance in American politics. Seriously, anytime people have faith in a man that exceeds their faith in ideas, it’s dangerous. We’re a nation of laws. Ideas should command loyalty. Equality before the law, freedom of speech, a right to own property. These are ideas on which we can hang our hopes. These are the ideas to which we should be loyal.

I might be sounding a bit sore – like a child who has a problem dealing with rejection. Much to the contrary, I am very used to losing. I lose all the time. I’m pretty used to it. It seems, though, that the high voter turnout was a disaster for people who love liberty. Some have argued that high voter turnout ensures better results or better government. Generally, high voter turnout is only a triumph for State power. It means that people who believe the government should have a great role in your life have succeeded in politicizing ever greater aspects of private life. Every problem becomes political. Every solution requires a new law. This election made one thing clear: Americans tend to believe in big government power, they just disagree about whom it should be directed against.

Why do people have so much secular faith in politics and in ‘transcendent’ men like Obama? It seems this trend has coincided with a loss of faith in the institutions which used to give life meaning and purpose. Things like family, community, the local school or the local church have been marginalized. We’ve become less about the local and more about the federal. Big government has become the mediator in a world that has become ever smaller, pushing out the local relationships. People have used the government to enforce their moral outlook on the world, the entire world. Once life used to be about the community. How many of us even know our neighbors anymore?

People are actively seeking a way to bring meaning to their lives. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, says men can find meaning in their lives in three ways. First, through work that matters. Second, through relationships with other people. Third, through the attitude which we choose to have when we encounter the suffering life inevitably throws our way. Today’s America is largely made up of people who are alienated from their work, they see it as merely a vehicle to pay off their mortgage. The trend has been for us to recognize our work as less than the work we want to do with our lives. Most of us do not find meaning in our work. We labor, sweat, but gain no fruit.

The family has also been marginalized, reduced importance due to too much time looking at the television, e-mailing and texting constantly. We’re completely free to pursue our individual goals and desires and selfish pursuits. We have more ways than ever to communicate but we find ourselves alone more than ever.

Church and community have suffered in much the same way as the family but on a much grander scale. We moved from the mid-west to the west coast. The biggest shock to the family was the lack of community even among members of our congregation.

Most Americans don’t suffer anymore. We were born into a world of plenty. Plenty of energy, plenty of credit, plenty of food, plenty of surplus. Suffering in the modern world has no redeeming value – no value at all. When we do suffer it is a self-imposed torture of sorts. We voluntarily go to the gym, we commute through harsh traffic, we suffer through work. Superficial suffering. These aren’t in the service of any worthwhile purpose. They do nothing to give our lives meaning.

Barack Obama gave people something to which they could tie their wagon, gave them something to make them feel like their lives had meaning by voting for him. I don’t really understand how he pulled it off. I did see this, though, on the news when the media would show his rallies. People used to find meaning in the day-to-day relationship. Family, friends, neighbors. The cult of individual materialism and the Nanny State paternalism has made the relationship between a man and his government more important than any of these. This is rather depressing.

I fear people are going to ultimately be disappointed. Some may even be devastated. Political rhetoric can make you feel good for a while, something like that feeling we get when our sports team wins the championship. The sun always rises the next day and life remains the same as it did before – all the challenges, fears, hopes and opportunities are still the same. Mr. President-elect cannot live life for us. He cannot pay our mortgage, fuel our cars, make our jobs gain meaning they didn’t already have. He cannot fix our love-lives or our other relationships. Life is still the same as it was before the election. Seriously, wherever we go, there we’ll be.

So, the President-elect has a big job ahead of him. The task ahead of him may be greater than the man. In fact, I think it is probably greater than any man. John McCain and his team would be in the same boat but would not be burdened with the extreme expectations that accompany Barack Obama. My good wishes are with our President-elect. God’s speed.
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