On Policy Polemics Vs. Inspirational Rhetoric


Obama speaking 

Killing Us Softly with his Song 


The role of the Charismatic Revivalist

           Barack Obama’s critics, led by an increasingly hysterical and unprincipled Hillary Clinton, were making a mantra of the charge that his speeches are “all sound and fury signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare says at the conclusion of Macbeth. But considering the fact that the electorate is still largely composed of politically ignorant consumerist that are mostly concerned with pocket book issues – which means that those who are not preoccupied with the struggle for bread and shelter, are daydreaming about the next trinket or amusement they can afford – it is best to keep the message simple.  Like decadent Rome, we are living in an age of “Panem et Curcensus:” Bread and Circuses,” ala cable TV and endless sports spectacles that are reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum, albeit far less bloody, in the final days of that great empire.   And the Emperor Diocletian’s shrewd observation remains true: “Give the people bread and circuses and they won’t notice that the empire is crumbling.”  Hence critics who argued that Obama’s speeches were not detailed enough on specific policy issues were missing the point.

Although he has since made several substantial speeches since this earlier period, including his magnificent performances in the presidential debates, from the outset anybody who cared to read his detailed positions on policy matters could always find them in position papers online.  But make no mistake, Barack Obama is not just blessed with the gift of gab, the brother is real swift on the cap too!  Barack was President of the Law Review at Harvard and a professor of Constitutional Law at the prestigious University of Chicago; he is a brilliant intellectual for whom immersion in detailed policy debates are as natural as a shark in water.

As his wife Michelle, whom Barack affectionately calls “my rock,” has repeatedly pointed out: her old man is the real deal.  Not just shadow but substance.  And those of us who took the time to study his speech on race in America got a glimpse of his fine intellect.  When Barack began his campaign he was quite the wonkish law professor, determined to show how deep his understanding of the issues are.  But early on he was pulled aside by a group of politically savvy scholars, led by his former Professor Charles Olgetree of the Harvard Law School, and told to either lose the professorial rap or lose the election; that’s when the poet and political preacher emerged and the policy wonk was unceremoniously cast asunder.

This was luminous advice, because there is abundant evidence showing that in a sound bite culture where political messages must compete for the public’s attention with MTV and ESPN, most people do not decide whom they will cast their vote for based on weighty polemics about policy matters.  If that had been the case neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush would ever have been elected.  When asked by reporters to name his favorite political philosopher during his first campaign Bush said: “Jesus Christ.”  And he couldn’t name the leaders of countries with whom he would soon have to conduct diplomacy.  Yet many voters turned against Al Gore because they said he was “too smart,” and George Bush was the guy they would feel most comfortable “drinking a beer with.”

Never mind the fact that the Bush family is a paragon of the WASP elite, America’s version of aristocracy, Joe Six Pack from Bensonhurst thought they had something in common with the Kennybumport crowd!  Republican strategists well understood that H. L. Mencken’s “Boobus Americanus,” who symbolized the mindless American masses, was alive and well and could be seduced into the voting booths with simple inspirational slogans like “George Bush will restore dignity to the White House!” without further elaboration.  I am convinced that they actually factored the ignorance of the electorate into their equation for victory, while duplicitously praising the “wisdom of the American people.”   That’s why they were confident they could win the most powerful office on earth with a bible thumping charlatan ignorant of the ways of the world, spouting sweet nothings, oxymoronic phrases like “compassionate conservatism.” And they were right.  They played it so nice they turned the trick twice!

Ronald Reagan was so clueless he was once described by the ultimate Washington power lawyer, Clark Clifford, as an “amiable dunce,” and Reagan’s publicly stated belief that he could call nuclear missiles back once they were in flight confirms that he was dangerously uninformed about decisions concerning life and death that he was entrusted to make for millions of people.  Alas, the unpleasant truth is that the world dodged disaster during the Reagan era only because his Russian counterpart, Andropov, was a former Director of the KGB and had no illusions about the dangers of brinksmanship between two heavily armed nuclear powers, whose atomic arsenals were on hair trigger alerts with computerized systems that targeted each others cities. Andropov was well aware that one mistake could reduce our world to a radio active wasteland where cockroaches would be the most complex living organism to survive, and those with the courage to live on in the immediate aftermath of the disaster would envy the dead.

Since I have lived with this terrible knowledge ever since my stint in the Strategic Air Command under General Curtis LeMay – who was the proto-type for the general who accidentally starts a nuclear war that ends the world, in the hit movie Dr. Strangelove – I believe that Andropov’s intimate knowledge of the consequences of atomic warfare restrained him from acting as recklessly as Ronald Reagan, who attempted to unilaterally abrogate the ABM treaty, the greatest diplomatic achievement in the nuclear age and may well be the reason that the US and Russia didn’t blow up the world during the cold war era.  Alas, Ronnie Reagan’s ignorance about life and death issues of government and foreign affairs was scandalous!

Yet contemporary Republican candidates for president compete with each other in their attempt to claim the “Reagan Legacy” – which is compelling evidence that the eight years of George W. Bush has been such a disaster for the nation and the Republican Party that they are running away from the Grand Old Party’s standard bearer like a stampede of wild horses fleeing a forest fire.  Not so for Senator McCain however, since his support among the evangelical right is so low that he could actually profit from an endorsement by Bush.  The point here is that Reagan could not discuss policy issues because he knew so little about them; according to the public testimony of cabinet members such as Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and Budget Director David Stockman, who have written in their memoirs that they never had a single serious discussion of economic or fiscal policy with the President.  A shallow figure head with nothing on the cap, Reagan was forced to rely on sloganeering.

Although Ronnie Reagan might have stumbled upon this strategy because of his severe intellectual shortcomings, it proved to be effective because slogans are the best method of conveying complex ideas to masses of people whom a leader is trying to inspire to action.  Hence the slogan “It’s Morning in America,” uttered by a handsome and smiling eternally optimistic Ronald Reagan reciting his lines like the professional actor he was, turned out to be far more effective in mobilizing masses of people behind an obviously flawed Republican program than all the weighty intellectual exegesis’ exposing it as smoke and mirrors; remember “Reagonomics”?   The same thing can be said of Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism.”

Barack Obama has cast himself in the role of a transformative leader offering a new politics, and all of the great transformative movements in history were organized around simple slogans that could be elaborated on with deepening degrees of complexity by intellectual theoreticians. This rule holds true regardless of the specific ideology of the movement; it matters not a whit if the are on the left or the right.  “Workers of the world unite!” heralded the international communist movement, and “Jesus saves!” has proved amazingly effective for the Christian evangelical movement; it largely accounts for the dramatic growth of the evangelical protestant movement in Catholic Latin America, and even areas of the world with non-Christian traditions.  Just as “Allah uh Akbar! – God is the Greatest!”-  inspired the Arabs to charge out of the deserts of Arabia and conquer much of the world, erecting the greatest civilization of the Middle Ages.  “Black Power!” and “Sisterhood is powerful!” did much to win converts to the black liberation and feminist movements of the 1960’s that transformed American society in fundamental ways.  “Deutschland Uber Alles!- Germany over All “– was the slogan that, when uttered by a lowly Austrian corporal and well practiced orator who once observed “It is the spoken word not the written word that drives the masses to action,” served as the rallying cry that mobilized the highly intellectual German people behind the insane Nazi program.

One of the reasons that Reverend Jesse Jackson has been such an influential presence in reform politics on the American scene for so long, despite the absence of a strong organization and a limited budget, is that he is a great orator with a mastery of the art of sloganeering.  For a generation this political preacher with a peripatetic approach to political issues moved the bodies and souls of multitudes, black and white alike, with the slogan: “I am somebody!”

Presently we are witnessing the power of Barack Obama’s clever sloganeering.  Shouting “Yes we can!” to the swelling cheers of his audiences at the climax of orations outlining the pressing problems that he seeks to solve, while eloquently sermonizing about “The audacity of hope,” Obama is driving crowds into frenzies that resemble rock concerts or old time revival meetings, a sort of newly minted civil religion lifting them to a higher consciousness on the wings of his powerful and poetic oratory.  This is the proper role of charismatic revivalists, those secular preachers who galvanize a people’s emotions by speaking truth to power and inspire them to mass action that transforms societies.  If the essence of charisma is the ability of a leader to personify the aspirations of his followers, then Barack is playing it to the max, wowing the cheap seats as well as the crème de la crème.

Not only are baseball cap wearing working class white men screaming out his name in unison with Harvard men, while women of all hues faint with regularity under the weight of his words, they are also giving him their hard earned money on an unprecedented scale, then going out and voting for him in such impressive numbers that the Republican pundits and talking heads of right-wing radio are loosing their minds and becoming hysterical in their response to the Obama Phenomena.

Senator Clinton is faring no better; she has been driven to such desperation that as I write a swelling scandal is engulfing her.  The Senator from New York has been caught fabricating war stories to support her pretensions to the office of Commander-In-Chief.   Since John McCain, with his stiff bumbling style and Rip Van Winkle conception of what time it is, doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance competing with the silver tongued Illinois Senator, the best orator from that state since Abraham Lincoln, in pleading his case to the American people from the podium, Barack Obama should continue to do what he’s doing: Exhort the masses with clever power packed slogans, and give a great inspirational speech every chance he gets.  It will continue to prove a winning combination: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!



By: Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York 

March 2008



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