Friday, May 09, 2008

Follow Up From dday

mileyehawkeye's comment about the "cult of personality" of Hillary and mithras' and other's anger at that usage when applied to some of Obama's supporters has made me think a lot about Max Weber and the notion of the "routinization of Charisma." Calling something a "cult of personality" isn't really a knock on it, its just a descriptor. It doesn't mean the follower is a wild eyed zombie, or stupid, or made the wrong choice. Its just a description of a very significant kind of leadership formation and revolutionary movement. My Weber is still packed and I last read this stuff a long time ago but basically every successful movement, to his mind, grew out of the charisma of a leader. The really successful movements were able, eventually, to figure out a way to capitalize on that charisma, to run with it, and eventually, when the leader falters or fails or dies, to "routinize" it and either go on without it or replace it with a new charismatic leader. This is something dday explores today over at Hullaballoo, following up on Stoller's piece. I urge you to read the whole thing. I plan to get out there and register voters myself next time the event rolls around locally. And I truly admire what Obama and his activists are trying to do--I think its incredibly necessary. But its important to keep our heads and realize that Obama can't and won't solve our problems and an Obama centered politics may be, in the long run, a dicey choice for progressives and liberals. He could be another FDR, or he might not. Here's dday:

Still, outside amplifiers are going to be needed to enact Obama's agenda. There's a myth that progressive groups like MoveOn** would dry up without a lightning rod like Bush to oppose but I don't think that's true. People aren't only mad with Bush but really are seeking legitimate solutions and will get excited about them. If Obama is shutting out these organizers who are positioned to help him put through those solutions, can he possibly build a parallel movement big enough to combat the institutional barriers in Washington? I actually think it's possible he can, but the more important question is this: what happens the first time that an agenda item fails, when Congress suddenly finds its backbone and starts acting like an independent branch of government again, when a media which loves to raise heroes only to trash them engages in that familiar cycle, when Obama experiences a legislative loss? It's bound to happen, and the question is how he'll keep together his movement, built on his image, without outside help? I appreciate the washing away of the Clintonite strain at the top of the party, which I think is out of step with the historical moment, so much so that Hillary Clinton has spent three months running away from it. But wresting away ALL the power and consolidating it is I think a misunderstanding of how inside and outside groups can be mutually reinforcing and part of a more vibrant cultural and political movement, and how the culture is moving toward more decentralized, more viral, looser networks to organize. Obama's movement, based on unity and hope, is working because politics is of the moment, a fad, Paris Hilton. To sustain that, you must institutionalize engagement, civic participation, awareness and action, even in a non-horse race year, as a necessary facet of citizenship. And there's no reason to shut down reinforcing progressive structures that can keep it fun and interesting and vital.

We are not yet here to stay. The progressive organizations, the advocacy groups, even the blogosphere may be ephemeral if it doesn't sustain itself. If the flow of money keeps moving in only one direction, less people will be able to continue the work (I hate that Obama isn't paying his organizing fellows, perpetuating that myth of "psychic income" and barring entire classes of people from the process). Obama is not trying to sweep us off the table or anything, but certainly he has his own power base and his own ideas for how best to movement-build. There's a bit of overlap, but our role is going to be radically different and to a degree unwanted at first; see the Barack Obama MySpace page incident. There's a happy medium here, but it requires a great deal of consideration and study.

**Where I see dday making a mistake is in thinking that what Obama is doing is as thin as what Moveon has done. If Obama and his people do this right he is going to forge something more like Chavez's neighborhood block groups or more like a local church or school community in which people actually know each other, know local issues, and come together locally enough times a year to have their own opinions and ideas. Moveon, to my mind, has always been too top down and too wedded to the "emergency alert" model. When it works it works but Moveon has literally no way to communicate with its people, or to get its people to communicate with each other, absent this pyramidal structure. When Obama gets done with local communities, hopefully, people will know *which of their neighbors* shares their political and social interests and which of their neighbors they can count on in a pinch to come out and rally or work on a cause.