Brian Brown: Obama’s 1930s-style call to nationalist collectivism shows just how fundamentally he misreads the times.
Unlike my congressman Doug Lamborn, I didn’t skip the State of the Union out of sheer rudeness. But like him, I did miss it, so I only caught up on it this morning. The speech underlined something; a conversation I’ve had with dozens of social media gurus since 2008; a reason Obama’s going to have a much harder time winning the Millennial vote that helped put him over the top in 2008.
Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic says the speech made him realize just how much Obama doesn’t get America. The main reason Friedersdorf came to this conclusion was that Obama framed the speech in military terms; he kept using military analogies for the country, talking about how we need to function more like the military, and so on—the prevailing ideological theme was that America as a nation needs to function more like a well-oiled machine. (Friedersdorf has assembled some good selections from the speech; you can read them over there.)
And that’s what’s so strange.
To review: Obama was elected in large part on the strength of the best campaign use of social media up to that time. Best of all, that use was heavily localized—in other words, you didn’t just join the Obama 2008 national Facebook page; you were plugged in to your local group of Obama fans. The rhetoric of Obama’s campaign told us that if you believed in him, you should not perish but have meaning and influence in your local community again. Scott Goldstein, Obama’s brilliant social media guy, really understood what was attractive about social media—it wasn’t about keeping up with the celebrity; it was about connectedness and the legitimate feeling that you could affect your environment (which is one of the most intoxicating feelings in a functioning democracy). A generation of young people who were cynical about politics, and said in polls (in overwhelming numbers) that they didn’t think their votes had any significance, suddenly thought they might have been wrong—that far-off world of politics-by-the-bureaucrats-and-corrupt-people might finally be coming home to where we could reach it again.
Then we elected Obama, and he quickly made clear he did not understand—I mean at all—why he’d gotten our votes. We voted for him because we thought we might finally get a truly liberal president; somebody who promoted policies that empowered us both individually and as groups; somebody who listened and let democracy work–who proved wrong our skepticism about the process. Instead, he made decision after decision that took even more power out of the hands of the people and gave it to Harvard snobs who thought they could tell us how to run our lives. Some decisions were probably good, some probably weren’t–we disagree with each other on which are which, but not on whether we feel included. Millennials firmly believe the 21st century is the century of bottom-up politics—of the Tea Party (eew), of Occupy Wall Street, of Twitter, of people getting a voice again. And Obama’s policies have been more top-down than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. (Just to be clear: we don’t have a problem with liberal politics or government intervention or the welfare state; but, um, are we allowed any voice in them at all?) We’re stupid, self-important young people; the thing we want most is to feel like somebody’s listening. And we’re pretty sure nobody is.
On top of that, Obama has spent half his presidency going on TV to lecture us about how we’re lousy citizens (note to everyone: not a great way to motivate us). He has realized that people don’t step in line to follow the leader as quickly in real life as they do in a campaign and it clearly drives him nuts. Those stubborn, ignorant masses won’t listen to him, so he lectures some more and then tries to get around them. Clue to Obama: this is a far cry from the two-way dialogue we’re used to; thanks to social media, even those big evil corporations are more responsive to our desires than this. The social media structure Obama used in his campaign is still there, but it’s clear by now that it’s a facade; the content behind the structure doesn’t match. Nobody’s listening; after all, what do normal people know about how to run their own lives?
And just in case we’d missed the message, the State of the Union brought it home—at least to the four or five of us who’ve studied history well enough to notice some similarities. You know who else talked obsessively about national unity and wanted to mobilize the country like an army to solve our national problems? The nationalists. Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt…the Progressives from the 1890s to the 1930s (and their more hardline contemporaries like Mussolini and Hitler and Lenin across the pond). We’re pretty sure the world has changed since 1930. Nationalism is out (Obama reminded us of that when a guy named Bush was president)…we’ve been more into internationalism and globalism for, like, two generations (to us, that’s forever—they didn’t even have cell phones back then). And nowadays, we’re getting into localism. In short, that speech from Mr. I’m-Going-To-Change-The-Way-We-Do-Politics would have been cutting edge about fifty years before we were born. Nothing wrong with hanging on to old ideas if they’re good ones, but we voted for this guy precisely because he swore he wasn’t going to do that.
Today, on the other hand, he’s not only behind the times; he also misreads them dreadfully. We’re the generation that’s been told in graduation speeches and pep talks our whole lives to chart our own course, follow our dreams and passions, and the like. We’ve also been told (or figured out) that if we’re privileged to have a college degree, we’re supposed to give back; to plug in. Granted, we’re often naive, but we’re expressive individualists looking for community, not Russian peasants looking for militant nationalism. We already have meaning in our own lives and communities, and we just want our politics to reflect that—we just want to feel like somebody’s listening, like we can affect the little corner of the world we live in. Our president, though, seems to think we’re just disgruntled, selfish people who need to get in step with what’s best for America (in the view of the experts, of course). It hasn’t worked for him since January 2009, so his tone is more frustrated and testy than it used to be, but the message is still the same—that he wants to “assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.” (Oh hang on, that quote was from FDR’s first inaugural.)
I wonder if they’d let Scott Goldstein run the country.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.