THE BLOG
03/09/2008 12:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and Clinton: Are the Times a Changing?: A Modest Proposal in Lieu of a Train Wreck: The Rhodes Campaign Part 2

Hic Rhodus, hic saltus

In an earlier post ("A Modest Proposal in Lieu of Badly Wrecked Train") I proposed two possible options to get the Obama and Clinton trains off the mainline back to Chicago 1968. For those who don't remember that was the time and place when and where the wise men (and in those days they were men) of the Democratic Party chose Richard Nixon to be the next president of the United States. The first option was the amicable coin toss for top of the ticket, followed by peace, harmony and reconciliation. Judging from the comments I failed to make clear that this was a logical option, but not one I expected to be taken. The second option, which I called the Rhodes Campaign, after Aesop's fable of the boastful athlete who is challenged to stop talking about his ability to perform impossible feats and demonstrate it: "In Rhodes, the man said, he had jumped such a long jump that no man alive could equal it....A bystander then remarked, 'Alright! If you're telling the truth, here is your Rhodes: go on and jump!'" (Aesopica). The idea of the Rhodes Campaign is to have Obama and Clinton agree not to leave Washington, DC between now and the convention. This means not that they would suspend their campaigns, but that they would continue them as campaigns of deeds. They would campaign from the floor and the committee rooms of the Senate. Instead of calling each other names (monster? Ken Starr? -- great green globs of greasy grimy gopher guts?), each would strive every day to outshine the other in doing the peoples business -- you know -- that thing we pay them for.

I happen to think this would be good for America, good for the world, good for Clinton and Obama and bad for John McCain, who would look rather silly running around the country criticizing two rivals who were spending all their time struggling to outdo each other in translating their supporters' aspirations into legislation. He might even be forced to come back to Washington and do his job too. Unfortunately for him that job would be to protect and defend the most miserable administration in the nation's history from his opponents' relentless attempts to restore the rule of law, attenuate the on-going collapse of the economy, and withdraw our troops from what most voters agree is at best a mistake, at worst, a war for private profit.

Despite what seem to me these obvious advantages, I cannot say that I expect the Senators to follow my advice. How, after all, can you trust advice for which you didn't pay your professional strategists some enormous amount of other peoples' money? Start down that slippery slope and you might end up doing what the voters want instead of trying to convince them to want what you do. There are, however, structural changes underway that provide some hope -- some sliver of opportunity for the voters to get ahead of the candidates and demand they act sensibly.

Over the past week, it has become apparent that the moment in which the Democratic nominee might be amicably decided by the flip of a coin has past. From the point of view of the political consultant class the "system" has worked: which is to say the threat of mass enthusiasm and a hands-on electorate has subsided once again into the more manageable sullen misery to which we have become accustomed. Having been--in the nick of time--refocused on the narcissistic nonsense of a properly managed campaign, we can return to the crucial issues of who is nasty and who is nice, or, more realistically, who is less venal, less selfish, marginally less corrupt.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, adopted a specific word for an emotional side effect of suppressed aspirations: ressentiment.

The slave revolt in morality begins when the ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who are prevented from a genuine reaction, that is, something active, and who compensate for that with a merely imaginary vengeance.* While all noble morality grows out of a triumphant affirmation of one's own self, slave morality from the start says "No" to what is "outside," "other," to "a not itself." And this "No" is its creative act. This transformation of the glance which confers value -- this necessary projection towards what is outer instead of back onto itself -- that is inherent in ressentiment. In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself. Psychologically speaking, it needs external stimuli in order to act at all -- its action is basically reaction. The Geneaology of Morals, 1st essay, sec. 10

Do we need to accept or even work through the complicated and at times repellent, philosophy in which it is embedded to hear the resonance of Nietzsche's ressentiment and our current moment of "going negative"?

The manufacture and exploitation of ressentiment have been defining characteristics of our political discourse for some time, but for a moment ressentiment seemed like it might be losing its grip. The Republican Party has had a lot of success in recent years rendering resentment, fear and frustration as creative values. Its message has always begun with the expectation that the voters feel bad about themselves: "Is your world going to hell in a hand basket? If so, it's because of the baby-murdering right-to-lifers, the gays, the liberals, the terrorists, the effete-latte-drinking-snobs, the welfare queens, the beneficiaries of affirmative action -- all those people who are privy to some secret enjoyment, some pleasure and advantage denied you precisely because you are a person of values -- a real American. The operant message in all this is 'you are suffering because you are righteous and by implication you have no direct control over your own condition. If God let the towers fall because the Godless were killing the unborn, you might be called upon to call upon government to forestall the Godless in their slaughter of the innocents, but you also get to reaffirm your own victimized righteousness in the process. And of course government did not ask you to give up your SUV so as to defund the terrorists. You were not part of a world that made or tolerated terrorism, but its helpless victim. Values become inverted from "I must stop injustice," to "I am a victim of the injustice of others -- who are trying to guilt me into taking responsibility for them."

Remarkably, however, the assembly line at the ressentiment factory begins to stutter. Demystified as political theater by antics like the Terry Schiavo affair and confronted by the growing realization that every one every where knows at least one quite decent person who happens to be homosexual and has one extended family member in need of an abortion, the social agenda of Karl Rove evangelism loses traction.

At the beginning of the current election season it seemed that immigrants were slated to be the cause of all domestic ills, but two possibly connected things happened, first actual immigrants took to the streets in huge numbers, thereby confronting the fantasy immigrants of Rep. Tancredo and his ilk with the substantial reality of human beings who live and work here, and second, only a relatively minor portion even of the Republican base cared; witness the fact that the one distinctly anti-anti-immigration candidate secured the nomination.

Of course the failure of immigration as a wedge issue is significantly indebted to the infrastructural conflict between the urges to profit from demonizing immigrants and to profit from immigrants. Therefore McCain was able to avoid isolation by standing with Bush's prior acquiescence to the need for "guest workers," and rather than ramping up ressentiment, the anti-immigrant campaign risked pulling aside the curtain to show the conflicts of real interests from which actual policy results. Still it is significant that the last man standing in the Republican contest is the one whose campaign was least dependent on using ressentiment to fashion "values."

With immigrants and the godless failing to produce enough ressentiment to effectively disempower the electorate, which actually showed the activist temerity to enforce a change of leadership in Congress in 2006, what's left to sell is fear, that mainstay of the Cold War and founding buttress of the national security state.

But here too there appears to be sand in the machine's ever-turning gears. How afraid can we be after the worst has already happened? It's difficult to fathom how we can be more terrified by the prospect of who will answer the red phone at 3 AM after January 20th 2009 than we are by our knowledge of who is answering it tonight. If George W. Bush, who has failed to stop the attacks of 9/11/01, failed to apprehend Bin Laden, failed to effect favorable outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq, failed to respond to natural disaster in New Orleans, allied us to a politically unstable yet nuclear-armed Pakistan, run the country into fiscal bankruptcy, allowed the unregulated rapacity of the mortgage lenders to give us a rerun of the Savings and Loan fiasco, and turned the mighty U.S. Dollar into the currency no body wants, can answer that red phone, we can just as well train a hamster to do it.

So the infamous red phone ad may or may not have had some traction in the March 4th primaries, but, barring an unmentionable event -- and who can bar anything on Bush's watch? -- it seems highly unlikely that this is going to be a "national security election." If it were to be one, the Rhodes Campaigners would be the ones actually doing something to protect us by staying in Washington and fighting for oversight of the executive. If security were to become real issue and not an aspect of inchoate resentments directed at unreal adversaries, we should look for candidates who were too busy protecting us from Vice President Krusty and his gang of Bozos to worry about 3 AM phone calls.

With its usual unwillingness to look to the underlying distribution of power and authority when an argument based on the ephemera of personality is ready to hand, the media has misrepresented the significance of the huge increase in voter turn out in this year's primaries, the giant buoyant crowds at Obama's rallies as functions of Obama's charisma. I suppose Obama is a charismatic speaker -- although he hasn't had much emotional impact on me -- but I suspect that the charisma adheres not to him but to his supporters. In plain words what is scaring the bejesus out of the political establishment is not his political talent or his oratorical appeal but the possibility that he is fronting a MOVEMENT. In this respect the apparently vapid chanting of "Yes we can" might mean something important "Yes we can--with or without you." Apart from the broad demystification consequent to the over-reaching menace of the Bush administration, a few structural changes in the electoral environment persuade me that this may be a moment when "Yes we can" may come to mean "yes we will."

To see these changes we can look at two earlier instances: the founding of MoveOn.org in 1998 and the Howard Dean Presidential bid of 2004. Two individuals -- a married couple -- who had made some money in the software industry having founded and sold the company that gave us the flying toasters screen saver, started Move On in September 1998 as a response to the Clinton Impeachment. The name signified their conviction that the congress should censure Clinton for his escapade and "move on" past the absurdities of the President's sex life to address real issues. The web site posted a petition to that effect and collected signatures in support. A week or so after the petition launch, they had a hundred thousand signatures and an unexpected new career. This is evidence of a movement. The two people, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, who started Move On were not professional political operatives, nor were their personalities a significant force behind the organization's success. They themselves were taken by surprise. When it became a major and apparently permanent political lobby, Move On evolved from its origins as an organization that operated in some sense on behalf of Bill Clinton, initially by pushing back against partisan exploitation of the Lewinsky peccadillo, to the vehicle of a dynamic mass movement. The separation from Clinton is apparently now achieved, as after polling its on-line membership, the organization endorsed and has begun to work for the nomination of Barack Obama. Move On's now highly substantial fund-raising support cannot be seen as an ephemeral response to the charisma of Obama. On the contrary, he gets that support by persuading members not that he is what they need, but that he will be what they want. This is a very important distinction. When Ross Perot shuffled off the scene, the party he funded fell to pieces. But the Move On members are not waiting for Obama to show them the promised land. Should Obama disappoint, Move On will move on, and look for some other instrument to advance its agenda--an agenda which is constantly being worked out on-line through thousands of semi-anonymous interactions.

Howard Dean's 2004 campaign dropped the other technological shoe. It demonstrated that one could raise enough money on-line through a multitude of small donations to compete with and even overtake the corporate cash on which national campaigns have previously depended. The argument that one can only be elected by maintaining viability with corporate donors is now gone. Politicians may, for various reasons, prefer bundlers, lobbyists and larger corporate donors, but they can no longer straight-facedly say they need them.

So, the dissatisfaction with government under the Bush administration coincides with the emergence of internet communities that can effectively challenge the business as usual of politics. These are the components of lasting change of which the Obama enthusiasm is, I suspect, an effect rather than a cause. This also explains why Obama's frustrating reluctance to articulate a vision of how he would govern may indeed be his greatest strength. As long as the Senator remains a cipher the emerging structural movement toward a self-fulfilling sense of empowerment over disabling ressentiment can project itself onto him. Cynical as it may sound, I believe this is a good thing, to the extent that this is not a case of the candidate cagily manipulating the voters, but rather of the candidate offering himself as a conduit for the will of the voters. The fervent wish for change that stimulates Obama's crowds is not simply a desire for different policies but for a renewed--and newly interactive--social contract. I support this hope because it seems possible that an aroused electorate is about to get out ahead of its elected officials, and I see no reason not to trust its collective wisdom over the reactionary fumbling of our established political class. When I ask myself what is the worst that can happen, I look at the past seven years and am reassured that the worst has already happened; the hope is not that any single individual will work a miracle, but rather the feeling that the electoral worm is finally about to turn.

My suggestion that Clinton and Obama move their campaigns to the floor of the Senate and conduct them as demonstrations of political practice is an earnest one. Clinton especially has a lot to gain from such a shift in venue. It would be a declaration of independence from the foolish wisdom of professional handlers like Penn and Wolfson, whose investment is in the status quo that richly feeds them. Their paternalistic condescension to the voters has been a particular plague of the Clinton campaign. It now offers her, at best, a phyrric victory. Yet, with her mastery of the intricacies of legislation and her tenacity, she would probably do quite well in campaign based on day to day legislative achievement -- without pandering and manipulation. Such a campaign would offer her a way to rehabilitate herself in the estimation of those now supporting Obama. Any estimation of what she has to lose needs to ask what value she puts on the alternative, a nomination narrowly won--at the cost of alienating half the party's voters?