Jim Sleeper: Obama, Crowds, and Power

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.]

As a political movement gathers what seems to be irresistible force, it rides currents of anger as well as affirmation. How it balances and channels those currents determines its fate. A movement can be fired up by outraged decency, but it will come to little -- or worse -- if its participants spend more time and energy venting the outrage than advancing the decency.

Barack Obama understands this unusually well. But how will he help his supporters understand it, when the going gets tough? Answering that question requires knowing a little history, knowing Obama, and knowing ourselves, whether we are his supporters or not.

Outraged Germans had legitimate grievances in the early 1930s, but those grievances were rebuffed by the powers of the time, then stoked and perverted by a movement that became irresistible but was doomed because it subordinated its affirmations to its fears and rage.

Outraged African-Americans had pent-up grievances then, too. But in the 1950s and early 60s the civil-rights movement did not subordinate its affirmations to its rage. When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery and young men in clean shirts sought service at a lunch counter in Greenville, they did so with the disciplined dignity of citizens lifting up American civil society, not trashing it as inherently racist and damned. Their movement became irresistible, but because it emphasized positive liberty, it also endured against fierce crosscurrents and undertows that emerged against and even within it.

In the late 1960s, in another movement, outraged young Americans of all races had legitimate grievances against the Vietnam War, and many of us petitioned for redress of those grievances at first with a kind of innocent nobility that perhaps only young white Americans of the time could expect to sustain. But our movement imploded when some among us forgot the activist Norman Thomas' admonition not to burn the American flag but to wash it and tried, instead, to "Bring the War home" against a republican spirit of trust that should have been our strongest defense against powers that were otherwise greater than ourselves.

Outraged pro-lifers, aggrieved by the violation of their belief that life is a sacred, intergenerational thread that must not be broken by individuals or states, sometimes practiced the dignified civil disobedience of the best anti-war and civil-rights activists. But some acted like the other movements' most nihilist renegades, making demagoguery and murder seem more irresistible than faith and moral witness.

Finally, outraged Americans had compelling grievances against terrorism after 9/11, but our yearning to bond and be worthy of the courage we were witnessing in New York was swiftly misdirected against the wrong targets in an orchestrated storm of fear, intimidation and lies. This time, no anti-war movement destroyed the balance of anger and decency; it was the Iraq warmakers themselves, and their cheerleaders, who did that.

They made the war seem irresistible during the run-up to it late in 2002 and early in 2003. Yet Barack Obama resisted it, in part because he had good reason to know that it was doomed. He knew this, because he had let Rosa Parks and Norman Thomas teach him why and how to balance anger with disciplined love, something the pro-war movement wasn't even trying to do. And his recognition of that bodes well for the political movement he is now trying to build.

That he still has some dark forebodings about what he is trying to build bodes well for it, too The morning after the New Hampshire primary he warned supporters that harsh, underhanded attacks were coming.Two nights ago,on winning the Potomac primaries, he warned, "Change is hard" and sketched the odds against undoing the failed politics of recent years -- the politics that protects CEOs' bonuses rather than pensions, for example.

But Obama hasn't said much about the inevitable temptations to self-congratulation and self-righteousness that also come with success, the almost irresistible seductions of power that accompany cascades of money and applause. Overcoming such temptations will test his faith and prowess and his supporters' character in new ways.

The ancient historian Thucydides is often touted by the grand strategists who are destroying this republic in their misguided efforts to save it by stampeding Americans into wars and other mobilizations of a national-security state. But Thucydides cautioned Athenian democrats that

"The idea that fortune will be on one's side plays as big a part as anything else in creating a mood of over-confidence for sometimes she does come unexpectedly to one's aid, and so she tempts men to run risks for which they are inadequately prepared. And... each individual, when acting as part of a community, has the irrational opinion that his own powers are greater than in fact they are. In a word it is impossible... for human nature, when once seriously set upon a certain course, to be prevented from following that course by the force of law...."

That is the secret of any movement's irresistible power, but also the secret of its great peril to its members' and others' dignity. It is no small point in Obama's favor that he knows this secret and has declined to trade cynically on illusions of power in crowds: "Cynicism is a sad kind of wisdom," he said, almost offhandedly, in his speech the other night. Would that fear-mongering neoconservatives were secure in themselves enough, and sophisticated enough, to understand that..Would that they could understand columns like Michael Tomasky's beautiful "The Wisdom of Crowds," just posted at The Guardian online.

Now Obama will have to teach the secret of the dangers of collective power to his supporters, and they to one another. His movement needs teachers, mentors, and lieutenants who can strengthen it in a faith deep enough to transcend power's illusions. A movement's and a republic's power lies not only in its armies, lawyers, and wealth, indispensible though they are, but, ultimately, in the very vulnerability a republic sustains in a canny ethos of trust.

That's what people have managed to sustain in movements that have been successful. If they can't sustain it now, what seems irresistible in the movement of this moment will not endure, and what seems powerful in it will not leave its supporters free.

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Arnold Shcherban - 2/17/2008

Obama gather "crowds" (almost mythical and associated with danger force) that he has to teach "law and order" obediance and prevent their even unconscious rise against dominating the US political and economic life plutocracy; Hillary's and the Republican candidates' supporters (apparently, real common American people) are well within the plutocratic groove and, therefore, need not be tutored.