The Ron Paulization of Obama

This primary season has seen an unprecedented rise in Democratic voter turnout and the man to thank seems to be Barack Obama, whose charisma and message of political change has prompted a surge in grassroots political activism. But as gratifying as it is to see otherwise apathetic voters—especially students—getting excited about politics, much of the Obama grassroots has focused not on substantive policy-based support, but on mindless hero-worship. To see this phenomenon firsthand, there’s no better place to turn that than that ubiquitous record of the modern zeitgeist: Youtube.com.

It all began last June when Amber Lee Ettinger—also known as “Obama Girl”—captured America’s hearts and minds with her music video, “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama.” The video, which features Ettinger lip-syncing and dancing next to photos of Obama, is noticeably lacking in any real political message, but nonetheless became an overnight internet sensation. This was followed by range of similarly inane videos. Some, like the “Babies for Obama” series—in which parents goad their confused children into saying things like “I love Obama”—took Obama obsession to a new level.

Recently, members of mainstream entertainment industry also seem to have drank the Obama Kool-Aid. The “Yes We Can” video, which features the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am, Scarlett Johansson, and other celebrities chanting Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech, has popped up all over the internet. From the feigned emotion on these celebrities’ faces, one would think they were reading from the Bible or Shakespeare, not from a relatively well written but somewhat politically banal stump speech. Nonetheless, this nauseating video has now become the new symbol for Obama’s grassroots support.

All this may constitute what some pundits have labeled a “cult of personality.” Unlike a traditional cult, however, the rise in Obama worship seems to have emerged as a groundswell from among the general public, not as the product of a planned campaign strategy. Indeed, Obama seems to be the latest victim of a political trend that most recently subsumed Republican candidate Ron Paul. A staunch Libertarian, Paul is certainly one of the more eclectic politicians running for president—his opposition to the Iraq War and free trade made him a pariah in most of the Republican debates.

Despite how unusual Paul’s political views may be for a Republican candidate, the intensity, persistence, and downright craziness of his grassroots support overshadowed his official campaign through primary season. Paul’s supporters, including many members of the “9/11 Truth” movement—those who believe that the U.S. government was complicit in 9/11—released a range of unofficial videos and pamphlets idolizing Paul as a kind of Messianic figure. The conspiracy theories and cult-like behavior of Paul’s grassroots supporters has alienated many voters and forced Paul to repeatedly distance himself from much of his unofficial support.

The problem with the mindless, cult-like behavior that sunk the Paul campaign and is now beginning to take hold of Obama backers, is that this kind of support often takes on a life of its own and becomes unmanageable by politicians or official campaigners. Although Obama probably doesn’t have to worry about his supporters embracing conspiracy theories, there are other potential political liabilities to the rise in Obama worship.

What has recently become clear is that an obsessive love of Barack Obama seems to go hand-in-hand with an obsessive hatred of Hillary Clinton. The more Obama’s supporters idolize him as a Messianic, transformative figure, rather than simply supporting him because of his political position or qualifications, the more they attempt to demonize Hillary Clinton as the anti-Obama—the calculating, deceptive anti-Christ out to sabotage Obama’s chances of becoming president. While Clinton-bashing was once solely the domain of the Right, Obama supporters have recently entered the fray with a barrage of anti-Hillary videos and blog posts.

Though Obama may now be leading slightly in the delegate count, it is by no means certain that he will take the party’s nomination. If Hillary Clinton were to win, the Democratic Party would be faced with a large number of obsessive Obama supporters not at all interested in supporting the woman who shot down their beloved champion. This scenario would surely mean victory for John McCain.

Although much of this Obama-obsession has been a grassroots phenomenon, out of Obama’s control—as in the case of Ron Paul—the Obama campaign has done little to quell the tide of Obama hero-worship and Hillary bashing. Indeed, they have at times encouraged it. For example, Michelle Obama recently said that she would “have to think about” supporting Hillary, if she emerged as the Democratic candidate, a statement which bordered on treason from the perspective of the Democratic Party. The campaign also sent out the Black Eyed Peas’ “Yes We Can” video in their official e-mails, thus promoting the hype. Finally, the campaign has consistently portrayed Obama as the idealized “candidate of change” far more than they have highlighted his impressive policy proposals. While “change” is indeed a fundamental part of Obama’s platform, failing to adequately link this message to genuine political issues laid the groundwork for the kind of character-over-substance mentality of many Obama supporters.

If the Obama campaign wants to demonstrate that they care about the future of the Democratic Party as much as they care about Obama’s own political aspirations, they need to tone down the more sensationalistic aspects of Obama’s political persona. It’s time to see more concrete ideas and less flowery oratory in his speeches. But more importantly, he needs to distance his official campaign from Obama Girl, Black Eyed Peas, and the rest of the grassroots, Obama-obsessed rabble. Cult-like behavior should be left to Ron Paul’s campaign, where it belongs.

Jacob M. Victor ‘09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.