Back in the late 1970’s I had the, perhaps dubious, privilege of working on a case at law in which we were defending our client against an organization generally associated with what was called the religious cult movement. There were a number of such groups, some of which ended up in trouble with the law, while others eventually lost their allure.
Along the way we consulted with some psychologists and psychiatrists who were projected as possible expert witnesses when the case went to trial. A question was posed to one of them about why so many middle and upper middle class people became involved with our opponent and similar organizations, while people from low income, inner city populations rarely did so. The answer we received was interesting. According to our expert the more educated, more affluent people were also more inclined to be idealistic and looking for “answers” that brought many of them into the “human potential movement” or groups that promised them a way to improve their lives, and become part of a transcendent future.
On the other hand, the less affluent folks were more street smart and understood that the person making promises might well have ulterior motives, or be looking to take advantage of others. Because they were more attuned to a philosophy of personal survival and less trusting they were not easy prey for new age hucksters.
What the hucksters were selling was all a lot of hooey, but that didn’t stop them from attracting a lot of attention and making a lot of money in some instances. What’s more, they were frequently hailed as the start of a new age in human evolution. Compare that with the behavior of political hucksters; particularly those of the first half of the 20th century. Lenin and Mao were going to create a perfect society based on the communist idealism. Hitler was going to restore Germany to its proper place in Europe and the world. Mussolini would build a new, glorious, modern Roman Empire. None of them was successful, nor were others not mentioned here.
Twentieth century America largely avoided political hucksterism but in the 21st it suddenly became enamored of a political huckster in the form of Barack Obama. This man made grandiose statements about how he would transform America, and how the world would view America differently because of his election. And so on. He inferred that all of this would be to the nation’s ultimate benefit. He used symbolism such as the O symbol; “the office of the president elect” seal, and the infamous Roman columns at his convention speech as image enhancers. Sloganeering, such as the incessant use of “yes we can” added to the picture and provided the audience with something to repeat, mindlessly, to help cement their loyalty. Then there were the “halo” pictures and the media figures that portraying him as something larger than life. It was the same tactical style previously used by various religious and political cult leaders.
One of the more important factors in large scale political behavior is faith. Faith, in this instance is non-religious, but can take on a semblance of religious behavior. The two most potent non-religious faith ingredients in the first half of the 20th century were, in many nations, patriotism and nationalism. These ingredients helped create Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. They were key ingredient in Japanese imperialism. And patriotism also spurred the American “Greatest Generation” to action in World War II. But by the second half of the century American patriotism was being eroded and replaced through the actions of political activists. Their preferred faith was a form of anti-patriotism based on a doctrine of false morality. Instead of teaching American exceptionalism based on true history the educational model was shifted toward one that distorted American history and the American experience to a negative perspective.
At this point, Obama, as a transcendent figure, tells the audience that he and he alone can restore American prestige in the world. He and he alone can end racial divisions and other social problems. He and he alone can bring about a thriving economy with, as was implied continually, government benefits for all at no cost to anyone except the wealthy who have too much money, anyway. It is the same as Lenin touting Communism as the answer to Russia’s problems, Hitler and Nazism as the route to success for a defeated Germany, or Mussolini rebuilding the Roman Empire. It was all posturing for the crowds, but a lot of the people watching and listening wanted to believe it. That creates the faith element. It is the same phenomenon seen in the “transcendent” cult leader who claims that he or she can lead the congregation to some better, brighter future, until it turns ugly as was the case with Jim Jones and the People’s Temple mass suicide, which, perhaps more than anything else led to the demise of the cult movement.
In 2008 America was looking for answers. The answer too many of them found was to put their faith in one man and his supposed ability to solve all problems because he was smarter and more caring, and could change how the world sees America, and even how America sees itself. Many who fit the middle and upper middle class “idealist seeking answers” model fell for it. Others, who saw Obama as the “black man” who could lead the oppressed masses who look like him to prosperity did as well, because they had been raised on the idea the somehow skin color makes a difference in one’s political behavior. It can be asserted that the residents of “the hood” deserted their street smarts, thinking, as did the, now vanished from the scene, Peggy Joseph that they would no longer have to pay their mortgages or be concerned over the price of gasoline. One man was going to make everything work. Obama became their stand-in for God, with Reid and Pelosi as high priests. America would now become perfect.
Of course, it didn’t happen. Obama was just another political adventurer willing to sell himself to a new group of suckers. He perfectly bears out that old maxim that a sucker is born every minute. America is now viewed on the international scene as an unreliable ally, too weak militarily to be of help in a crisis. At home the economy limps along with the books cooked to disguise the effects of anti-business and anti-employment policies. Race relations may be worse than ever. And to top it off, government officials have shown levels of lawlessness and corruption that make the Nixon administration’s malfeasance look like a parking ticket.
As is always the result when we trust a charismatic “leader” to solve our problems the problems don’t get solved, and in this case, they get worse.