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Obama and the politics of crowds

Posted by Richard on October 30, 2008

Fouad Ajami in today's Wall Street Journal:

There is something odd — and dare I say novel — in American politics about the crowds that have been greeting Barack Obama on his campaign trail. Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.

As the late Nobel laureate Elias Canetti observes in his great book, "Crowds and Power" (first published in 1960), the crowd is based on an illusion of equality: Its quest is for that moment when "distinctions are thrown off and all become equal. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd." These crowds, in the tens of thousands, who have been turning out for the Democratic standard-bearer in St. Louis and Denver and Portland, are a measure of American distress.

On the face of it, there is nothing overwhelmingly stirring about Sen. Obama. There is a cerebral quality to him, and an air of detachment. He has eloquence, but within bounds. After nearly two years on the trail, the audience can pretty much anticipate and recite his lines. The political genius of the man is that he is a blank slate. The devotees can project onto him what they wish. The coalition that has propelled his quest — African-Americans and affluent white liberals — has no economic coherence. But for the moment, there is the illusion of a common undertaking — Canetti's feeling of equality within the crowd.

Read. The. Whole. Thing.  


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4 Responses to “Obama and the politics of crowds”

  1. Hathor said

    It sounds of someone looking for a PhD thesis.

  2. David Aitken said

    Reminds me of Ben Franklin’s quote: “Those who trade their liberty for safety soon have neither.” or words to that effect.

  3. rgcombs said

    “”They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    But apparently, Canetti thinks the feelings evoked by the coming together of the crowd quickly dissipate when the crowd dissolves. I hadn’t heard of his book, but it sounds well worth reading. I think his theory of crowds fits more than just politics — the whole coming together, becoming a part of something big feeling exhibits itself also at sporting events, concerts — even movie theaters. It’s a very different experience watching a great film together with 400 others reacting very much like you versus watching it at home — and it’s not just the screen size.

    I also found Ajami’s remarks about his boyhood and the Arab “street” very interesting.

  4. Samuel Adams said

    A general Dissolution of Principles & Manners will more surely overthrow the Liberties of America than the whole Force of the Common Enemy. While the People are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their Virtue they will be ready to surrender their Liberties to the first external or internal Invader.

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