Are you puzzled about Barack Obama's popularity? Are you scratching your head, befuddled about his rock star status? Do you find yourself seeing the massive gatherings of supporters and wondering "why, why why?"
This post will explain exactly why Barack Obama is riding a wave of unprecedented (in my lifetime, anyway) political popularity. Maybe not. I could be very wrong.
Why is it happening? Simple. Barack Obama has a message that appeals to most of the voters. How so? Dumb people love him. So do smart folk.
Here's why it's perfect: It appeals to the two most important groups of people in the electorate. Barack Obama is loved by the idiots and the intellectuals--for two very different reasons. The Obama campaign may have a reasonable level of support in the middle of the bell curve, but the outliers represent his rabid fan base.
DUMB PEOPLE LOVE OBAMA
Dumb people love Barack Obama. The simple version of his message and dominant theme of his campaign appeals to them. Hope and Change. Those are nice, warm, fuzzy concepts and people love them. Those ideas work really well with dumb people who are incapable of considering how one goes from concept to implementation. People who don't understand the difference between the legislative branch and the executive branch of government adore these messages.
They want change because things could and/or should be better. They want hope because it gives them a reason to get up in the morning. The actual dirty work of getting creating change and fulfilling hope, however, is too complicated for them. They don't want to dissect the pros and cons of mortgage freezes. They don't want to spend a lot of time discussing the proper role of diplomacy in the conduct of foreign policy.
They want to kick the bums out and get the good guys in. They want change and they want a reason to believe things will get better. If you serve up a dish based on those two ingredients, you're halfway home with the dumb.
And don't be fooled, the dumb vote. They vote in droves. The other night, I was watching that annoying pollster Frank Luntz. You know the guy. He has these little focus groups that he babysits during the debates. He gives them all paddles from old Atari 2600's and records their reactions to what the candidates say, giving us an idea of what "works" and what "fails".
Luntz is an aggravation for 200 different reasons and may be the subject of a later post. That isn't important with regard to this conversation, however. The actual members of his focus group are. These are undecided voters. They may lean toward one candidate, but they haven't expressed outright support for either. They watch the debates and Luntz is then given an opportunity to quiz the shit out of them on a series of cable networks after the top-level spinners do their things.
These focus group members are dumb. Plain old stupid. I'm not talking about "I can't read and I speak like a character from some hillbilly-bashing movie" dumb. I'm talking about "I look like a normal person and I am, which means I'm also stupid as shit" dumb.
You see, most people are sort of dim-witted when it comes the whole governance thing. They spent civics and government classes checking out the ass on the girl sitting in front of them. They worried about the prom committee. They sketched pictures of hot rods or wrote notes to friends during class.
Their intellectual curiosity may have been sufficient for them to limp through college in a similar fashion. Now, if they do any investigation of anything, it's usually because their stuck in a doctor's waiting room with nothing but an old Golf Digest and a 1998 Newsweek at their disposal. If they read, they read horrible Mitch Albom shit or mystery novels. If they watch the news, they go local in hopes of finding out how lousy the weather is going to be be or they seek out the more "exciting" form of television news--shows where people yell at each other in a constant partisan circle jerk. They're dumb.
OK, they might not be clinically stupid. In terms of selecting quality leadership, however, they are dunces. They are stupid, naive, and easily swayed by Hope and Change.
Luntz's focus group participants--people who are sufficiently engaged to participate in a debate-watching and analysis session--are evidence of this. These morons inevitably reference whatever has been the prevailing headline of the last 96 hours and/or incredibly easy-to-understand but amazingly trivial arguments about the not-so-important when they're quizzed. They can get downright heated about the Obama "plagiarism" bullshit, but they're completely baffled by the difference in Barack's and Hillary's health insurance schemes.
They WANT to be involved and they WANT to "get it", but they're unequipped. They don't have the background. They don't do the reading. They haven't been bit by the policy or politics bugs like the people who are probably reading this blog. They can't. They fall into the diversionary traps of campaigns and they fall in love with the simplistic and positive.
Dumb people are a core constituency for Barack Obama right now.
Don't read that as a criticism of Barack. That's not my intent. The winner of a Presidential election probably always gets the stupid vote majority. I'm sure Bill Clinton cleaned up with the dummies. GW Bush probably did, too. The stupid outnumber the bright, and if you can get the not-so-with-it crowd on your side, you're in damn good shape.
Note that I'm exaggerating a bit for effect. I'm not really saying that these folks are "dumb" in a traditional sense. They're just, shall we say, political ignorant? You know what I mean, wink-wink.
SMART PEOPLE LOVE OBAMA
Smart people adore Barack Obama. That's because the sentiments and analyses underlying his simple Hope/Change message form an a priori critique of American politics. Obama's articles about the nature of political discourse, the divisiveness of standard partisan politics and the need to redefine both technique and goal in order to better govern the USA are just what the PhD in poli sci ordered.
Have you ever actually read the kind of stuff really smart people tend to write? I'm not talking about run-of-the-mill smarties. I'm talking about PhD candidates and those who make a living out of intellectualism. They're writing and reading articles that apply history to theory, that test core concepts of democracy and governance, and that question things the rest of the world takes for granted.
In the rarified air of the ivory tower, the day-to-day stuff doesn't matter all that much. An academic may be interested in what a grocery bagger's motivations are and whether her job in a supermarket represents a multi-level subjugation of woman via simultaneous commodification of the the Goddess Earth and the gum-chewing teenager. An academic probably isn't that interested in how the bagger pulls the paper sacks out of the rack or figures out how many cans of vegetables to put in a single sack.
The academic is interested in concept and theory, not in the purely pragmatic. The technocratic concerns of actual operation and policy take a backseat to the critique and the construction of intriguing meta-arguments.
The intellectual Obama supporter is enamored with his meta-critique of the process and doesn't have a really good idea of what difference the presence or absence of mandates in a healthcare policy will make.
Like the dummy, the scholar will fall in love with Hope/Change. Oh, some of it is a matter of the concepts tugging the right heartstrings, but it's mainly about the theoretical aspects of those ideas. "The power of ideas". You hear phrases like that from smart people all the time. They believe it and they think about it--a lot. The nuts and bolts, however, aren't all that interesting.
WHAT ABOUT THE MIDDLE
In Democratic circles, it seems like the middle is voting for Hillary. We're talking about people who aren't necessarily dummies but who don't spend hour upon hour reflecting on the meaning of liberal democracy. Nuts and bolts people. Technocrats and their ilk. The hands-on folk who have some understanding of the machine called government are probably leaning toward Hillary.
Hillary speaks to them. She codes her campaign in vague-as-hope notions like "Solutions" and talks about "readiness", but those keywords are a wink to those who put political nuts and bolts above ruminations on the theoretical.
Hillary fans like to talk about policy differences more than do Obama buffs. Clinton's backers have concerns about experience, just like a prospective employer might prefer and experienced machine operator over a novice.
The middle understands Clinton and her concerns with the question of "how" while the intellectuals ruminate on "why". The dumb? They're still back in the world of simple appeals.
DOING THE MATH
Dumb + Smart > In the Middle
Thus, Obama wins.
That's simple. If you look at in those terms, you'll also find a theory that fits the overall narrative of this campaign. Hillary's supporters grow increasingly frustrated at their inability to win over voters even though they believe they are winning policy debates. Obama isn't having a policy debate. He's having a mindset debate. He's talking about paradigm shifts while Clinton talks about policy construction. The intellectuals chuckle at her for not understanding that you can't answer the Obama critique with discussions of policy mechanics. The eyes of the dumb glaze over and they reach for the positive antidote to boring old political arguments they think they've heard a million times. Hillary loses.
I fall into the intellectual crowd. My (somewhat reluctant) support of Obama is based less upon my assessment of his abilities as an administrator and is premised on the ideas he represents and his apparent dedication to altering the perspective and priority of governance on a "higher" level than that of "mere" policy.
You'll notice I'm sort of hard on the smarty-pants crowd in this post, even though I'm in the club. That's because I recognize the tendency among those who think my way to be self-important and wrapped up in the abstract instead of rolling up our sleeves and actual DOING something. At the same time, I thoroughly believe that smart critique and a recognition of its message are essential to creating paradigmatic changes that are a prerequisite to serious positive change.
(LIMITED) SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
As this campaign pushes forward, I'm beginning to have a little sympathy for Clinton supporters. Not for the weak-ass "let's say he plagiarized and that's why Hillary should win" bullshitters, but for the ones who think she really is the better candidate in terms of getting things done. I see them struggling to understand why others aren't getting their message. I can sense their frustration. They just aren't keying into the idea that many of the smarter folks believe there are prerequisite issues at play that prevent any real policy success until they are addressed. They don't understand how powerful simple, positive concepts are with those who don't spend all day reflecting upon the theoretical.
Clinton is winning her arguments, on some level. The problem is that the debate itself has already been redefined and she didn't get the memo. HOW you do it is of secondary importance to WHY you are doing it right now. The debate is more about IF anything big can happen if monsters far larger than any policy proposal aren't first slain.
Hillary isn't talking to me right now. She's not talking to the disaffected and frustrated, either. They're with me. They might be with me for different reasons, but they're here. That leaves Hillary with the "pretty smart but not academic/intellectually-oriented" crowd of can-do action people. They're a minority.
My sympathy for Hillary is limited, however. Instead of debating on the more theoretical level and engaging the reservations of those who believe that more than clever policy is necessary, she's decided to take the low road way too often. Her campaign seems to live and die by one-day mini-issues that do little more than distract from the meta AND from her own more policy-oriented positions. She's running a down and dirty old school campaign in a setting where that doesn't resonate with ANYONE. Whoops. That's why March 4 is looking more and more like her Alamo.
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