Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Obama Comes to Kansas

Perhaps in more ways than one.

Senator Barack Obama's visit yesterday to El Dorado, KS, yesterday was historic. I don't mean historic in some sort of overtly, teary-eyed "meaningful" way; I mean it's simply an event out of the whole sweep of history that deserves notice. The evolution of our political system, and Kansas's politics as well, has resulted in a state of affairs that has made Kansas, as a state, as a sovereign and component part of the patchwork that is the United States of America, mostly irrelevant in the rarefied world of presidential politics, or at least presidential campaigns. The last time a president or presidential candidate visited anywhere in Kansas during an election season was 44 years ago, when Lyndon B. Johnson dropped by to say hello. There are probably more than a few other states that have gone through a similar drought, but none others, I think, that have come down so far from what was, at one time, a vitally important and radically unpredictable place in our national politics. So for Senator Obama to make a stopover here--and not just a stopover, but a genuine rally, complete the requisite inspiring speech and local connections--is one that'll go down...well, if not in the annals of presidential campaigning, then at least in some record book the Kansas Democratic party is no doubt keeping somewhere.

And not just an official record book of some sort, now that I think about it: it's probably recorded in a few hundred personal journals or Facebooks or blogs as well. John Buass, one of my favorite Kansas (indeed, Wichita) bloggers was there; I can't wait to read his reactions.

As for me...well, I'm divided. The Obama magic that so many people talk about hasn't quite happened for me; he's a fine speaker, sure, but I'm not captivated by his persona or packaging. As for his message, it's the usual mixed bag: some stuff I love, some stuff I like, some stuff I roll my eyes at and think is simply nonsense, and a couple of things that I'm profoundly opposed to. But that's not an unusual reaction, at least for me--when you've a crazy, not always coherent, populist/traditionalist/Christian socialist like I am, you're never going to find anyone in representative politics who isn't a mixed bag at best, whether on the local or national level. And after all, I've never before been a particularly strategic voter (this is the man who voted for Nader twice, remember); for me, it's always primarily--though not entirely--been about self-expression, or rather about expressing oneself collectively through a movement behind an idea or cause or a constellation of such. You're not going to like every and all parts of that constellation, and you're going to have dissents from and disagreements with parts of that idea or cause (or candidate); but that shouldn't stop you, if the magic strikes, from throwing yourself in and being heard, even if it's only by a few. For me, thus far this season, the only candidate who has seemed for me at least to have any of that magic--any of that odd alchemical combination of views and intentions that make me seem him or her as a thinker, as someone at least somewhat plugged into the real crises and opportunities that face us as a people--is Mike Huckabee. Which is certainly unexpected, at least for me; I've never before, when it all gets put together, seen a Republican candidate for president I've truly thought worth supporting, either intellectually or with my vote (as I've said several times, in my perfect world a slightly different--more culturally conservative, less single-minded--John Edwards would be leading the Democratic pack). Still, there it is: the admittedly imperfect Mike Huckabee does indeed manage, as Patrick Deneen almost ruefully admits, to occasionally say things and take positions that radical reactionaries and crunchy cons and all the rest of us "left conservatives" (all eight of us) cannot help but leap out of our chairs and scream "At last, the truth!" at. Obama has never made me do that, and I don't expect that he will.

And yet....

I think about my govenor's, Kathleen Sebelius's, response to Bush's final State of the Union address. Some of the smartest bloggers I know, on the left and the right, have ripped her speech to shreds, calling it banal or weak or pathetic or sleep-inducing. I didn't find it filled with memorable oratory or brilliant ideas myself. But still, I couldn't help but be impressed by her determination to follow through rhetorically on the inchoate but ever-present conceptual premise behind Obama, the person and candidate. (This was written and delivered before she announced her support for Obama at the El Dorado rally, incidentally.) Much of her supposedly post-partisan "heartland" talk doesn't really going anywhere near where I live, emotionally or intellectually, in my own little corner of the heartland, here in Wichita, and I found it wearying; but I could still admire her for believing in it (or in him?) enough to stick it into her response nonetheless. "A national call to action." "Leaders who, rather than asking what we can do for our country, ask nothing of us at all." "[To] focus once again not only on the individual good but on the common good." Obama the civic republican, the communitarian? Not likely; running through his list of positions, aside from an interesting glimmer here and there (what he has to say about promoting national service and attacking excessive CEO salaries, for example), there isn't much to suggest a vision of the American polity as anything other than a strong, liberal state. But her words reminded me of those of Peter Levine, another fine blogger and observer of the political scene, who assessed Barack Obama nearly a year ago:

Barack Obama so far represents a different strain of populism. He says that we American citizens should play a central role in defining and solving our common problems. We are in a "serious mood, we're in a sober mood," and we are ready to work together. "We are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven't done for some time.....we are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics....All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate"....For Senator Obama, asserting our values means deliberating together as a diverse population and developing ideas that may be new and unexpected. In philosopher's terms, this is civic republicanism, and it's truly different from mainstream recent liberal politics. To make it work, Obama will have to overcome two challenges. First, he will have to develop an answer for grassroots Democratic activists who are furious at Republicans and consider the Bush administration to be our nation's central problem. Obama believes that both parties are responsible for marginalizing citizens, and what we need are broader public coalitions. The Senator will have to find a way to talk to Democratic primary voters who are not in the mood right now for non-partisanship and cooperation. Second, Obama will have to find a way to respect the voice of American citizens while also saying something concrete about issues such as health care and taxes. He needs to respect the public's voice but also perform the main duty of a candidate, which is to put ideas on the table.

Senator Obama as not failed, or at least not yet entirely failed, to follow through on Peter's ideas here. He's put meat on the bones of his proposals; he's given the American people details, and he's drawn contrasts, sometimes very sharp ones, between himself and his opponents, both primary and general. And yet, for all that, he really does play down the anger and competitiveness on the campaign trail, so much so that you sometimes even hear his supporters admitting that there's probably some truth to the assumption that Senator Hillary Clinton and her people are the superior attack dogs out there, and thus more capable of defeating the Republican war machine. Obama, by contrast, speaks and acts as though he assumes that there is still real work that voters--as citizens--can do rather than just waste their time worrying about war machines, left or right. This is the point of the change he exhaustively talks about; this is the appeal--to the idea of politics as national and multiracial and still worth participating in--that made the Kennedys (still besotted with the myth of JFK and the brief, too-soon destroyed promise of his brother Robert) so greedily embrace him. This is what has moved James Poulos--no populist he!--to grudgingly admit:

For all his liberalism, Obama is unique in his ability to inspire the desire for that kind of respect and real political participation. Astonishingly, he can get rooms full of liberals to chant "USA! USA!" and "Race doesn’t matter!" There is a profound desire in the culture today to escape from politics and citizenship--to enjoy the feeling of togetherness rather than do the hard work that makes togetherness worthwhile. Obama’s style and substance tempts and rewards this desire. But it also tempts and rewards its opposite....Obama inspires people to not abandon politics to the experts, to recognize the goods of taking control of their own lives to common purpose. I may disagree with him on nearly all the issues, but I earnestly hope that the chance he presents, especially on the left, is seized before all the life of true citizen politics is drained away.

I don't disagree with Obama on nearly all the issues; as I said above, what I hope for, above all, is to be able to productively put my voice to use as a tool of expression. And expression something that at least hints a Laschian themes of "not abandon[ing] politics to the experts" or "recogniz[ing] the goods of taking control of their own lives to common purpose"....well, that's not the full package of cultural and economic sovereignty that I'm looking for--that indeed I tend to believe Kansas at one time expressed better than any other state--but it's not nothing, either.

Anyway, I have some more to say about the man, but mostly I'm going to be watching Obama closely, especially over this next week, before we have our state Democratic primary. With Edwards now dropped out of the race, I'm going to have to watch him very closely indeed.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I must admit that I have felt the Obama magic. It will be very disappointing to me if he loses to Hillary. Of course my pro-life scruples always means I get cold water dumped on me whenever I get excited about a Democrat. For Republicans I don't need the cold water.

I'm not really a populist, I'm just a kind of modified liberal. I think that entails a desire for some regular bureaucratic and policy competence rather than a right-wing or left-wing messiah. So as symbolic and inspiring as Obama is, for me it's good that he's also just a darned impressive person, a smart as heck wonky type in the vein of Clinton c. 1992without the depravity, and more to the left.

If I squint my eyes at a 100 yards and remember the Huckabee of two months ago, I can get a little excited. Then I remember that his tax policy is basically a book report and his foreign policy team consists in claiming he talking to John Bolton on the phone once. I don't care if a guy like that does fill in all the right blanks, issue-wise. He has to be up to the job. Personally and rhetorically on smoe issues I'me really sold, but a presidential candidate should spend more time getting ready than I spent prepping for the semester.

Jeremiah J.

John B. said...

Russell,
Thanks for the "pre-plug," I guess you'd call it. Here is the post, such as it is.

matt said...

Kansas irrelevant? I'll believe that when someone publishes a book entitled _What's the Matter with Wyoming?_