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.
In recent days, those vast Obama crowds, though, have recalled for me the politics of charisma that wrecked Arab and Muslim societies. A leader does not have to say much, or be much. The crowd is left to its most powerful possession -- its imagination.
From Elias Canetti again: "But the crowd, as such, disintegrates. It has a presentiment of this and fears it. . . . Only the growth of the crowd prevents those who belong to it from creeping back under their private burdens."
The morning after the election, the disappointment will begin to settle upon the Obama crowd. Defeat -- by now unthinkable to the devotees -- will bring heartbreak. Victory will steadily deliver the sobering verdict that our troubles won't be solved by a leader's magic."