A blog . . . in spite of how pathetic blogging actually is.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell-izing Obama

If President elect Obama can actually manage to introduce the post-partisan era to America then surely a good number of her citizens will feel like their day has finally arrived. The past sixteen years have had us tied up in a political culture seemingly more comfortable at the edges than the much more believable middle. Impeachment was supposed to be the worst of it, but then the ubiquity of talk radio and a multi-portal, perpetual news cycle drew more and more of us into believing that a political identity could actually be crafted like a watercolor painting.

Keith Olbermann said something. If I'm on the left, I need to believe it.

Bill O'Reilly said something. If I'm on the left, I shouldn't believe it.

Pretty easy stuff. Doesn't require a lot of thinking. Identity politics never does. I've long been wary of people who say they're conservative or liberal because, well, how would they know? Have they addressed every issue out there and come up on one side every time? Really? I'm supposed to believe a "Yes" on that one?

Karl Rove may like to call Barack Obama "the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate," but that's the kind of language you never use on a true-false question (when writing the test) because it'll always be false. It's too extreme. You're serious, Karl? Bernie Sanders? Russ Feingold? Any Republican who voted for the bailout? The President elect (now a former Senator, actually) beats them all?

The truth is, Barack Obama wouldn't have been able to win the way he won (or at all, for that matter) had he truly worn colors of the definitive left. And George W. Bush (just in case we forgot) won in 2000 with a reputation of being a Governor who was quite adept at bringing bipartisan production value to government. His Texas record suggests there's some truth to the reputation (which makes the past eight years only that much more of a mindfogger).

I like Mr. Obama. He strikes me as being incredibly smart, and this is a time for incredibly smart people. Incredible smartness isn't a guaranteed solution (See the Hoover and Carter Administrations), but it at least gives you a chance (See the Lincoln and FDR Administrations). The country appears ready to find an off ramp. We've been on this anti-intellectual highway for too long . . . which, incidentally, reminds me of a thought I had the other evening: Will the new GOP be rebranding itself in a manner that's more embracing of intellectualism? of curiousity? of the left-associated tendency to acknowledge complexity in the world? I believe they will. Listen to Bobby Jindal speak when you get a chance. The old (aka, pre-2008) GOP will either react with alienation or get on the train. Only one option leaves hope for the party's future. Above and and beyond all else, the lesson of 2008 will be, simply, that Americans don't want middling IQ's . . . or even the appearance of middling IQ's. If Barack Obama could find an appropriate way to send a thank you card to the 'just folks' hockey mom illuminati (who likely repelled more Republican votes than they gained), he should (but only after sending an even bigger one to the standing President).

The world is a complicated place. For a number of years, Republicans did well for themselves by making fun of Democrats whenever Democrats tried to point out that the world was a complicated place. Democrats reacted like 7th graders at a school sponsored dance by trying to pretend like they also thought the world wasn't a complicated place. Then a bunch of stuff happened (Iraqis in Baghdad not acting like the French did in Paris, the realities of rampant market deregulation, Vladimir Putin's judo video, etc.) which demonstrated, pretty clearly, that the world actually was a complicated place.

And Barack Obama was who he was . . . and was at where he was at . . . when the light bulb went on.

Al Gore and John Kerry respectively lost to the same guy for lots of reasons, but part of the problem was their perceived nerdiness. Both were actually told, on various occasions, to dumb down their rhetoric so they'd have a better chance of beating the Texas Governor/standing President. Even though it didn't work, the advice might not have been all that bad. The same advice (dumb down your rhetoric so you can get ahead of that Obama guy) fell flat on its face November 4th.

Americans don't like their politicians to be too intellectual. This is an assumption we've grown comfortable with to the point of accepting it as truth. But is it . . . true?

'Buying a house is a good investment', 'Windows Vista is a bad operating system', natural ability is the main influence on whether or not you'll be a success in life: These are just a few more examples of assumptions we make . . . that just might be flat-out wrong.

I teach in a fairly left leaning community, so I'll get into a little hot water for suggesting this: But Barack Obama is one hell of a (smart, collected) lucky guy. His obvious talent, while important, may have only been a dash of spice in an otherwise highly complex recipe that had more in common with the fable of stone soup than any entree at Jules Verne Restaurant. All skill sets put aside for the sake of argument, the overwhelming reality is this: He had the great fortune of coming around when, all of a sudden, the traditionally big liability in electoral politics (being an intellectual) suddenly became the big advantage.

Go do this. I've tried it twice. Grab a clipboard and hit the streets. Stop ten people randomly and tell them you have a one question survey: In your opinion, could Barack Obama have won the Presidency in 2004? You'll be lucky (I predict) to get more than three "yes" answers; furthermore, it doesn't matter where you're at. Start in the President elect's version of Crawford, Texas (otherwise known as Chicago's south side). You might be lucky to get one there. He is, indeed, an amazingly capable guy; but please don't leave out his unique upbringing, meeting Michelle, the planet aligning randomness of his chance to speak at the 2004 convention, and, at the risk of sounding angry, the wholly disasterous results of America's decision to go with the guy who'd be the best beer drinking buddy for the past eight years.

This country's bad breakup after a torrid yet dysfunctional love affair with anti-intellectualism made nerdiness so hip that we forgot about populism. The rules of engagement changed overnight. If you want to give Barack Obama credit for any of this, you're in denial because he had about as much influence over it as sun spot activity did on the Cubs playoff performance last October. But, again, he's really smart, and the state of the union is NOT strong, so you might want to become a Democrat of convenience if nothing else (at least for the time being) because a partisan America is now, in a flash, soooooo pre-11/4/08. I don't care what your politics are, you should want to see the President elect take the ball and drive the lane . . . fearless, playing by a new set of rules, shaking things up. If he actually can manage to introduce the post-partisan era to America then Malcolm Gladwell might conclude that America itself was ultimately in the right place at the right time . . . lucky as a day is long . . . to cross paths with the Barack Obama outlier.

Let's hope so.


looking for light said...

personally i'm a huge fan of randomness, it accounts for much of my existence...

John Jacobson said...

Whether we're fans of randomness or not, Gladwell would contend that we need to give it an equal spot at the table (right alongside ability and hard work).

I've long been a fan of this way of thinking (particularly when arguing for progressive tax structures).