I've been cheering for Barack Obama in his Democratic war with Hillary Clinton for both positive and negative reasons. Positive: He's a terrific talker, he didn't seem antagonistic toward Christianity, and we could use a president who inspires college students and twentysomethings not to be so cynical. Negative: A been-there, done-that feeling concerning the Clintons.
But now I have that déjà vu sense concerning Obama as well. For 25 years I've taught at the University of Texas and seen the arrogance of academia and the belittling of the purportedly benighted masses. Obama's San Francisco comment about small-town (and small-minded) people clinging to religion out of bitterness does not indicate any change from standard-issue college liberal thought—or from the attitudes of most Democratic nominees since 1972.
Obama has publicly regretted his wording—"I didn't say it as well as I could have"—while standing by the substance of his indictment of non-Obama America. As a result the picture is becoming clearer. Pieces of the puzzle include the Rev. Wright's jeremiads about "the U.S. of K.K.K.," Michelle Obama's critique of a broken-souled, "just downright mean" America, and Obama's voting record that, according to National Journal, shows him to be the furthest to the left among 100 U.S. senators.
I originally thought (or hoped) that Obama had something new to say, but all he is offering are imprecations familiar on any major college campus. He is channeling Herbert Marcuse, who saw Americans in the throes of "false consciousness"; John Kenneth Galbraith, who saw middle-class Americans as preyed upon by corporate advertising; and historian Richard Hofstadter, who saw non-liberals as paranoid.
Obama is also emerging as a more eloquent version of four recent Democratic presidential candidates—Mondale (1984), Dukakis (1988), Gore (2000), and Kerry (2004)—all of whom polled well early in their campaigns but faltered as they failed to understand and convey the truth that the United States is a country founded on ideals rather than tribal ethnicity or simple economic interests.
That idealism moves some millionaires to vote Democratic for environmental reasons and some poor folks to vote Republican for pro-life reasons. And those voters who do put economics first often think long-term. William McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and 1900 because many workers cared more about opportunity for their children than maximization of current income. George McGovern in 1972 was surprised to find the working poor opposing his guaranteed income proposal because they saw themselves as upwardly mobile and wanted others to compete as well.
Many academic liberals see themselves as eminently rational and others as warped or dumb. Some conservatives readily grasp the importance of worldviews because, surrounded as they are by generally hostile big media, they come to see how people look at the same facts and come to different conclusions. Many liberals aren't forced daily to think presuppositionally, so it's easy for them to view dissenters as psychologically or intellectually inferior.
I was in Ethiopia as the story of Obama's San Francisco declaration rolled through the press, and from the vantage point of Addis Ababa's slums it's hard to accept. The homes of the American poor are not pressed-together shanties of cardboard, mud, and corrugated metal that sit precariously perched on slopes of mud and feces. Our health system can be frustrating but people with fractures don't wait for days in dark corridors without medical attention.
The audacious part of Obama's hopefulness is now clear: He wants all Americans to move to the liberal side, and then we'll have unity. He audaciously characterizes millions of contemporary Americans as crippled individuals whose only hope is the nanny state. He will bring us together not with new ideas but with eloquent repackaging of the same old same old.
The sad part of this saga is that young people excited by Obama's eloquence may slide all the way to bitterness if Hillary Clinton somehow grabs the nomination or, as is more likely, John McCain plays the Electoral College map well and wins in November. Four years of Barack Obama would educate those who have been following this season's Pied Piper, but the tuition cost would be more than this nation should bear.