Monday, February 18, 2008


Cora Currier (The Nation):
There's a new favorite theme emerging in media coverage of Obama's campaign. Apparently, all of his supporters--and especially his young supporters--are in fact glassy-eyed, brainwashed cult worshipers.
It started earlier this month, with TIME magazine's Joe Klein saying that there was "something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism" of Obama's speech on Super Tuesday. ABC's Jake Tapper took up the joke, blogging: "The Holy Season of Lent is upon us. Can Obama worshippers try to give up their Helter-Skelter cult-ish qualities for a few weeks?" New York Times columnist Paul Krugman claimed last week that "the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." Citing the star-studded "Yes We Can" music video as evidence of this cult worship, another Times columnist, David Brooks, quipped recently that the "escalating states of righteousness and ecstasy" in the clip would soon translate to "selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings."

Obama's young supporters are the main targets of the cult claim. Young people make up one of his main bastions of support, and the campaign has successfully marketed itself as the younger, fresher option. The flipside of this is that statements about Obama's supporters being cult-like are automatically pointed at young voters. Covering what it called the "Obama-mania backlash," CNN panned over a group of college-age Obama supporters as the question "Creepy?" appeared on the screen. John Dickerson asked in Slate whether there was "a natural limit to our enthusiasm for to this kind of sweeping phenomenon? Isn't the generation that Obama has so successfully courted usually the first to toss overhyped products, even the overhyped products with which they were at first so enthralled?"

It is essential that young Obama supporters pressure their candidate on the issues that matter to them, and equally important that young voters examine the policies of the candidates before deciding. And many have done that. Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg, a young activist and blogger, wrote a satirical piece recently expressing the concrete policy reasons he is hesitant about Obama. Clinton has managed to draw significant support from young Latinos and non-college young voters in some states by convincing them she's stronger on their issues.

But the "cult" theme, and Dickerson's suggestion that young supporters succumb to and then "toss overhyped products," is insulting to young voters. It reaffirms stereotypes of young people as superficial and uninformed, a notion that the impressive rise in youth turnout in this year's primaries had started to undermine. Young voters deserve more credit-- whether supporting Obama or rejecting him--for being capable of making conscious, informed decisions.

There are eerie parallels here to the way that "Deaniacs" were labeled as fringe extremists in 2004, undermining the enthusiasm that Howard Dean generated in the early days of the primary. A Charles Krauthammer column in January 2004 joked about "orange-cap-wearing, twentysomething vegan Deaniacs" being bereft at their candidate's loss. A USA Today story from the same month speculated that Dean's avid supporters hurt him more than they helped him.

For Obama, however, accusations of cultishness could be far more damaging. The image of Dean as the youth candidate never actually played out at the polls-- Kerry beat out Dean 2 to 1 among youth in the Iowa primary that year. Obama does in fact have the support of many young voters, and they've turned out to prove it. Young people have been derided for years for their lack of participation in the political process, and when they finally do, they are called cultish?
Nothing will take the air out of a movement like being told that its enthusiasm is "creepy."
Howie P.S.: I don't know about Ted Kennedy, but John Kerry doesn't strike me as the "cult-worshipper" type. Currier has another story about Obama, "Generation O," in The Nation.

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