Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Yes, We Can! Obama Sounds Like Populist, Does NOT Use the D-Word

Last night we were very fortunate to attend the political rally/ Wisconsin Primary Victory Speech of Senator Barack Obama. M.O.W. sat alongside 19,000 chanting, cheering, waving Texans and we can confirm that any report that you might have heard of the junior Senator's rock star appeal with the people is true. What is more interesting in this era of pseudo-events and faked for tv emotion is that M.O.W. observed that the people's love for Obama was decidedly genuine, and not just made for tv.

The People Love Obama. Let's see why, shall we?

1. His Populist Message:

The first reason why the people love Obama is because, as you can tell as you listen to his speech above, Senator Obama loves the people. Obama is for healthcare--just as good as his as Senator--that everyone can afford. Obama is for raising the minimum wage so that Americans who work are not poor. Obama is for ending the Iraq War because those soldiers who are giving their all for America deserve America to give its all to them. Obama is for lowering taxes on the lower & middle classes and raising them on the wealthy. Obama wants you and your children to be healthy. He wants your kids to get a good education--and he wants them to do some service work in exchange for college tuition money. He wants the rich to pay their fair share of taxes. He wants to improve your standard of living. He wants to get the nation out of a war that is killing your kids and making the world that they will inherent less safe.

Yes, indeed, fellow Founder stalkers, Senator Obama wants all of these things for you. He does not want the presidency because he wants power for himself. No, he wants the presidency because he wants to empower you. Furthermore, Senator Obama wants you to act to make these changes. As you know dear Founder stalkers, we care very much about whether our leaders desire power for its own sake or whether they desire power so that they can do something good for the people. We believe that Senator Obama desires power for the very best possible reason: to give the people the chance to make this country the kind of country that they want it to be.

Let's just listen to what he said and try to believe--we know that it is hard--that Senator Obama is earnest, and try to meet him half way by dropping a wee bit of our own ironic distance:

"I was convinced, most of all, that change in America does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up."

"I am here to report that my bet has paid off and my faith in the American people has been vindicated, because all across the country, people are standing up and saying, "It is time to turn the page. It is time to write a new chapter in American history. We want to move forward into a better tomorrow."

"We'll invest in you; you invest in America. Together, we will march this country forward."

That my friends, is what good old fashioned American populism sounds like. His message is that we've got problems, but they are problems that we can solve if we all do this together. The catch is that he wants you, you the people, to solve the problems. He will lead, of course, but Senator Obama seems to believe that the people should be empowered to act to solve America's problems themselves. Yes, we can.

2. His Rhetorical Style

Senator Obama has been criticized for his popularity with the people and for his rhetorical abilities. We find these criticisms predictable and absurd. For who would criticize a presidential candidate for being popular with the people except for someone who did not trust the people to know who or what they should like? In other words, Obama is accused of being a demagogue by those who do not like the people or believe that the people are capable of judging for themselves. We say we see you to those who would find fault with a popular candidate merely because s/he is popular. That kind of circular reasoning leads back to elitism on the part of they who hurl the abuse in the first place.

The second criticism--that Senator Obama is merely a good speaker and that his speeches are "empty rhetoric"--follows from the elitism of the first criticism. If you do not trust the people to make good decisions, then you must believe that the demagogue is able to control the people easily with his words. In this view of rhetoric--found in Plato, among others--rhetoric is a kind of trickery or a drug that enables demagogues to control the people against their will. Rhetoric is inherently bad; the people are inherently stupid; and the demagogue is inherently power hungry.

Yet, this view of rhetoric and the people cannot withstand scrutiny. Rhetoric is a tool, nothing more or less. We use rhetoric everyday in everything that we do and say. We cannot escape rhetoric, it is everywhere, everything. Nor should we want to escape rhetoric. For it is only by rhetoric that human beings can live together in groups. We persuade one another and that allows us to avoid violence. Rhetoric itself is not violence. Of course, there is good rhetoric and bad rhetoric--we have seen much rhetrickery over the last seven years--but we cannot assume that merely because a presidential candidate is popular, that s/he is a demagogue and that their rhetoric is rhetrickery. To do so is sloppy thinking and belies our hatred of the people.

Last night's speech was full of the kinds of stylistic devices that others have noted as characteristic of his style in general: parallelism, chiasmus, antithesis, anaphora. As Aristotle would recommend, Senator Obama argued by example and by enthymeme. In short, it was a well crafted speech and the crowd in Houston went bananas for it.

And it is no wonder that they did for Senator Obama's rhetorical style mimics the populism of his message. Each of these stylistic devices is meant to bring your audience into your speech, to allow them to participate in the rhetorical moment by prompting them to finish your thought, to follow your pattern, to engage in your speech not just as a mere spectator, but as a co-creator of the speech itself. Yes, we can!

In short, just as Obama has promised to empower Americans to act, he delivers speeches that empower his audience to think and act with him. No wonder other politicians are scared of his rhetoric. When a speaker's message and their rhetorical style are so completely in sync and when both promise to empower the people, then it might mean that the speaker actually means what s/he says. Senator Obama sounds like a populist, acts like a populist and populism is very, very scary to some politicians.

3. His Humble Confidence

Senator Obama's populist rhetoric is supported by his humbly confident leadership. As our fellow Founder stalkers well know, the Founding generation took great care to appear to be from the people--think of Tommy's expansive mansion that was cleverly designed to appear like a fairly typical middle class home from the outside or GW's constant concern over whether or not it appeared that he was power hungry and whether or not history would portray him as the American Cincinnatus. Likewise, Senator Obama presents himself as a man of the people who feels the call of duty:

"And I had to explain to them I'm not running because of some long-held ambition...I'm not running because I think it's somehow owed to me. I'm running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now, the fierce urgency of now."

"The American people have spoken out, and they are saying we need to move in a new direction. And I would not be running, as aware as I am of my imperfections, as clear as I am that I am not a perfect vessel, I would not be running if I did not believe that I could lead this country in that new direction, that we have a unique moment that we have to seize. But I have to tell you, Houston, I can't do it by myself. No president can. Remember: Change doesn't happen from the top. It happens because of you."

"You know, I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was 2. So I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. And they didn't have money, and they didn't have fame. What they could give me was love, they gave me an education, and they gave me hope.

And so I talk about hope. I put "hope" on my signs. I gave a speech in Boston at the convention about hope. I wrote a book called "The Audacity of Hope."

But now some are suggesting that I must be naive, that if you talk about hope it means that you're fuzzy-headed, you're not realistic, you're peddling in false hopes, you need a reality check. The implication is, is that if you talk about hope that you must be passive and you're just waiting for good things to happen, and you don't realize how mean and tough the world can be. But understand that's not what hope is.

Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is not ignoring or being ignorant of the challenges that stand between you and your dreams. I know how difficult it will be to provide health insurance to every American. If it was easy, it would have already been done. I know how hard it will be to change our energy policy, because the status quo serves many powerful people. I know how hard it will be to alleviate poverty that has built up over centuries, how hard it will be to fix schools, because changing our schools will require not just money, but a change in attitudes. We're going to have to parent better, and turn off the television set, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children, and that's going to take some time.

I know how easy it is for politicians to turn us on each other, to use immigrants or gay people or folks who aren't like us as scapegoats for what they do. But I also know this. I know this because I have fought on the streets as an organizer, I have fought in the courts as a civil rights attorney, I have fought in the legislature, and I've won some battles, but I've also lost some, because good intentions aren't always enough. They have to be fortified by political will and political power. But I also know this, Houston: that nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened except somebody somewhere was willing to hope."

In other words, Senator Obama was not born a member of the elite. He really is a man of the people and while he recognizes that he isn't perfect, he feels the call of duty to try to do his best to lead this country through the changes that must come if we are to improve our economy, our enviroment, our healthcare, our energy policy, and our relationships with the rest of the world. Senator Obama admits that he is not perfect--he is humble--but, he knows that he can lead Americans. Yes, he can.

Founder-Chic Bonus Analysis:

We would like to note one more thing about Senator Barack Obama's populism: Senator Obama somehow managed to give an entire speech in which he advocated for the power of the people without using the word democracy at all. As we have noted here on many occasions dear fellow Founder stalkers, America's political discourse is full of the political elite making "democratic" appeals to our desire to control the government. They often promise us power and call it democracy, but democracy is a lie. The elite have always used democratic rhetoric against us; they have used our desire to control the government to control us.

Thus, what could it mean that Senator Obama delivered a populist speech without relying on the democratic fiction? We believe, we hope, that it means that Senator Obama actually means what he says and that he actually does desire to empower the people.

"That's what hope is. That's what hope is, imagining, and then fighting for, and then working for, struggling for what did not seem possible before...It will not be easy. But at some point in our lives, we all have to decide, as hard as it's going to be, we are going to join together, lock arms, and go about the difficult but noble task of remaking this nation, block by block, county by county, state by state. Houston, this is our moment. This is our time."

Yes, we can!

1 comment:

GayProf said...

I don't trust the people. The people have frequently screwed us -- particularly racial minorities. The people have often voted against their own best interest in the past decade.

The thing that made me nervous about Obama is that he dismissed criticisms about his lack of experience by claiming that he would just surround himself with smart, experienced people. We heard that exact thing from Georgie Bush in 2000. He was also popular with "the people."

Of course, I imagine that Obama would still be oodles more competent. I mean, my cat would be more competent than GWB. Still, I have not jumped on the Obama bandwagon quite yet.