Barack Obama appears to be America's first homegrown global candidate. His core constituency is the New Age tribe of the Internet, which promotes the illusion that we can now start to live in "a world without borders." A posting by an African from Italy on the official Obama '08 website, featured under the headline "For a Cosmopolitan Humanism," reads: "In this Global Era, we need a new vision for a cosmopolitan humanism, that ingredient necessary for peace and justice: Barack Obama embodies this hope."
Similar sentiments abound in the blogosphere. Senator Obama received an A-plus rating from Citizens for Global Solutions, which "envisions a future in which nations work together to abolish war, protect our rights and freedoms, and solve the problems facing humanity that no nation can solve alone. This vision requires effective democratic global institutions." On Care2, a blog devoted to "green living, health, human rights [and] protecting the environment," a self-described Kiwi woman living on the Isle of Man writes: "It should be Barack Obama for the world, not just the USA. We are a global society now."
At his enormous rallies, the distinction between American politician and global celebrity comes close to breaking down. Obama merges the roles. As America's first global candidate, he has about him the aura of a millenarian figure, the leader of a mass movement. In its early stages, the Obama movement was heavily campus-driven, resembling student upheavals like the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s and the antiglobalization movement of more recent years. Like them, Obama '08 wants to "heal this nation" and "remake this world as it should be."
To that end, Obama promises a "new kind of leadership," devoid of the grubby wheeling-dealing of ordinary politics. That is why his campaign rhetoric consists largely of abstract nouns like hope, peace, change, and dialogue, generalities that everyone is for. At times, he verges on fantasy, as in his belief that he can work out America's differences with Iran through direct talks with Iranian president Ahmadinejad without preconditions. By the same token, people all over the world with leftist leanings see in Obama just such a global savior, as if his mere election could alleviate poverty and injustice everywhere.
His closest predecessor in American politics is not the hawkish cold warrior John F. Kennedy, with whom he shares little beyond a youthful vigor and bodily grace, but Jimmy Carter, who also tended to believe that talking to America's foes would be enough to bring peace and that America itself was too often the chief source of the world's problems. Both men share a taste for Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who believed that politics should be an act of penance for America's sins at home and abroad. Obama's willingness to abandon one ally overnight (Iraq) while invading another (Pakistan) also savors of -Carter's tendency to think America's allies or beneficiaries were more deserving of reproach than its open enemies.
Social scientists and political activists are agog at what they hail as the "new global civil society," and Obama's core constituency is the American branch of this new International. His most fervent follower is the kind of Democrat, affluent and conventionally well educated, who sees himself as belonging less to his own country than to an emerging global community of the enlightened, believers in world peace, the environment, and "talking" to others, including lethal enemies, all in the conviction that the nation-state is an outmoded product of global capitalism, greed, and shabby compromise. In this view of things, America, as the world's most powerful nation-state, is the chief impediment to the flowering of a new world order.
Obama's penchant for cheerleading slogans reminiscent of a 12-step program ("Yes we can!") is in tune with his appeal to young people, who have little experience of life's ironies, who may not have noticed how often the sweep of history frustrates good intentions. They are, after all, the product of an educational system that has increasingly abandoned the teaching of narrative history and the distinction between democracy and tyranny in favor of a fuzzy globalism that casts us all as citizens of a coming world community of the ecologically conscious and antimaterialistic.
Many of Obama's followers know no better and are already awash in the sentimentality of "global solutions" that will end poverty and violence everywhere, so long as the world's worst offender, their own country, is finally shackled and defanged by "the international community." Obama's path has been smoothed by several decades of naive one-worldism, the kind that only affluent citizens of a democracy insulated from the horrors of the Mugabes and Assads who rule much of the world could entertain. His most authentic forebears are countercultural movements harking back to the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" or John Lennon's assertion that the world can have peace right now "if you want it."
Seen in this light, Senator Obama's attachment to his pastor, Reverend Wright, resonates with a broad swath of Obama's supporters, not just a segment of African-American opinion. For, stripped of its bumptious rhetoric, Reverend Wright's view of America as a capitalistic oppressor at home and abroad is shared by American leftists of every ethnic hue. Millions of young people have watched the online documentary Loose Change, which debates whether the Bush administration carried out the 9/11 attacks itself or merely allowed them to happen in order to have an excuse to launch unjust wars. Reverend Wright's view that 9/11 was payback time for American imperialism merely echoes the contention of William Blum, author of Rogue State, that 9/11 was "direct retaliation for decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East." Such views are heard daily in lecture halls, not just in dorm rooms and cafés, on campuses across the country; they are corollaries of the tireless teaching of Noam Chomsky. And, to the extent (as yet unclear) that Obama shares them, he is not so much the candidate of the Louis Farrakhan wing of black opinion as he is the candidate of Michael Moore Nation.
When it comes to style, Obama is a princely candidate, the latest and most effective in a line going back to Carter and Bill Bradley who say, in effect: "I am making you the gift of my gracious person. Don't ask what I will do. Trust me." To follow him is the politics of "hope." To seek details or challenge his credentials is the politics of "cynicism." He has gone further than anyone else in merging the realms of politics, celebrity, and New Age tribalism through the elixir of his golden voice and supple presence.
Of course, it is possible that much of this is just a winning rhetorical formula for gaining the presidency. But that's the problem--we don't know.
If Obama were, upon election, to prove less than sincere about the rhetoric, many of us would find it reassuring. Our reassurance, however, would come at the cost of an enormous Monday morning hangover for followers who had thought he really would lift us all to a higher reality. After the soaring promises, such disillusionment could damage young people's faith in the democratic process.
On the other hand, if he is sincere and he becomes president, we are in for a very rocky ride. Obama's idealistic globalism clashes with the reality of a world containing forces whose hostility to the West is often a matter of deep conviction, and rarely the result of a simple failure to communicate.
Waller R. Newell is a professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University in Canada. His new book, The Soul of a Leader: Character, Conviction, and Ten Lessons in Political Greatness, is due out this fall from HarperCollins.