Did We Expect Too Much From Obama?

Cross-posted from TPM Cafe Book Club, from a discussion of Max Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party.


NOTE: As part of discussion that's been taking place all week at TPM Cafe Book Club, Max Blumenthal jumped off from a premise of his fine book, Republican Gomorrah, about the right's use of what he calls a "salvation narrative" to shape its politics to ask if the left did the same in its embrace of Barack Obama in the presidential campaign. This is my response.

Max Blumenthal is onto something significant here with his idea, laid out in his post, Obama, the Fallen Messiah, that the enthusiasm shown Obama during the presidential campaign by progressives stemmed from a sort of secular salvation narrative. I suspected something like that during the campaign, just gauging from my own emotional response to Obama's campaign speeches. If I, a jaded reporter, was getting that lump in my throat, then how much more deeply were activists feeling the Obama magic?

In Republican Gomorrah, Max quotes Eric Fromm in Escape From Freedom:

If we do not see the unconscious suffering of the average automatized person, then we fail to see the danger that threatens our culture from its human basis: the readiness to accept any ideology and any leader, if only he promises excitement and offers a political structure and symbols which already give meaning an order to an individual's life.

Although Blumenthal uses that quote to illustrate how religious right leaders stuck by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay even after evidence emerged of his corruption, I think Fromm's formulation applies as well to the left in its wild embrace of Obama during the presidential campaign. The apparent difference between the left and right is that the left allowed itself to feel betrayed by the cold shock of reality when Obama proved to be something that did not comport with its ideology.

For years, I have believed that America is a traumatized nation, especially in the course of the last decade. (I'll have a piece on AlterNet next week on precisely this topic.) The trauma, I believe, is felt as deeply by progressives as right-wingers, though processed through different narratives.

The American trauma of the new millennium didn't begin with 9/11; it began with the 2000 presidential election. Never before in their lifetimes had Americans seen, in an obvious way, their electoral system near to collapse. The month and a half of not knowing who the next president would be, and how that decision would be arrived at, totally screwed with our sense of self as a nation, which hinges on the perceived sense of the strength of our democracy. We're all raised on the belief of American exceptionalism. It's in our bones, whether or not we accept it intellectually. So, when the decision of our presidential election was taken by a Supreme Court fiat, progressives, understandably, were reeling.

Then there was 9/11.

Then the invasion of Afghanstan.

Then the virtual suspension of the Constitution with the USA Patriot act, and later the abuse of the FISA surveillance law.

Then the invasion of Iraq, on false pretenses -- pretenses many progressives believed were false all along. Yet they witnessed Democratic senators and members of Congress go along with the president so as not to look wimpy. Obama was among the few who voted "no" on the Iraq war.

Then Iraq got ugly.

Then there was the 2004 election, which many believe was stolen by Bush in Ohio.

Then the economy tanked.

So, yes, progressives were, indeed, a traumatized lot by the time of the 2008 presidential election. Never mind our personal stories of whatever familial dysfunction shaped us as individuals: Abuse and addiction are hardly limited to those on the right (though, as Max seems to suggest in Republican Gomorrah, they may be overrepresented in the religious right), but we use different tools to address them.

Along comes Obama, a man whose very appearance spoke to the progressive urge for racial reconciliation, and whose ability to speak to the best in us was nothing short of inspiring. And he had his own redemption story, as outlined in his memoir, Dreams From My Father. He went through a dark spell, he tells us, of drug use and racial resentment. He came from a dysfunctional family and never knew his father. He came through all this to win his way through Columbia University. Instead of going to a white-shoe law firm upon his graduation from law school, he became a community organizer -- which, for progressives, is roughly analogous what a commitment to tithing means to adherents of the religious right.

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