New Model, Old Coalition

What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door for no particular reason.

I thought of that joke when reading James’ recent comment alluding to his (excellent) post from 2008 about how Obama’s grassroots movement was like the New Model Army. In both cases the movement’s unprecedented breadth and power, once unleashed, was fearsome in battle—but one couldn’t ride that Army into power and expect anything less than revolution. As James put it: “What [Obama] won’t be able to do is shelve his sweeping promises and govern from the technocratic, establishment centre like Bill Clinton. He will have to be a great reforming president or fail.”

I think this is half right, in the way the joke implies. Obama for America had the tone of a movement: it relied on faith- and hope-based rather than instrumentalist motivations, adopted the cadences of the Civil Rights movement (much against Obama’s own personal inclinations), built a pretty successful ethos of fellowship and organization for their own sakes, and yes, could be very moralistic. But while the movement’s tone expressed zealotry, its purpose had no trace of Puritan precision.

Obama for America wanted Change: a thorough repudiation of the policies of George W. Bush. And we lived by Hope, i.e. an irrational belief, which by self-fulfilling prophecy became rational, that we could through new communication techniques—not unlike the Puritans’ sermons, camp meetings, and pamphlets—defeat the formidable hierarchies of Charles Bush and Clinton, Laud Rove and Penn. But to what end? In hindsight, we can see that there were several competing Puritan agendas. To some of Obama’s supporters, purging the polity of Dubyan corruption meant, above all, ending wars and restoring civil liberties. To others, it meant ejecting the corporate money-changers from the political temple by freeing politics from lobbying and campaign money. To a third group (more numerous than many progressives realized), it meant what Obama very often said it meant: overcoming the bitter partisanship of the Bush years so that we could all seek common-sense solutions in measured tones. To a final group, the one most likely to listen to Obama’s policy proposals while discounting his rhetoric, it meant repudiating the politics of oligarchy and putting government back on the side of equal opportunity and social welfare.

The first group has been the most disappointed by Obama in office; the last, most impressed. (If Obama has turned out to be less of a populist than many of his supporters hoped, he’s also been much more of a classic New Deal/Great Society advocate of the welfare state.) But it is clear now, as it was not clear in 2008, that not all of these Puritans could be right about what the movement was most centrally about—and that it was almost certainly impossible for all of us to get the kind of (incompatible) revolutions that we wanted.

Michael Walzer, who read the New Model Army as the first modern ideological movement to take over a regime, called the English Civil War the “Revolution of the Saints.” But the saints had a common purpose, that of purifying the true Church and ending its liturgical and political corruptions. And they had a common enemy—a King asserting Divine Right and an Anglican Church that backed him—that united them in spite of splits between Presbyterians and Independents, burghers and Diggers, Rainsborough’s democrats and Ireton’s elitists. Obama’s movement had a common feeling of sainthood without the common theology that would render that feeling a source of unity rather than division. As a result, each of its sects has ended up convinced both that it contains the true saints and, just as dangerously—but wrongly—that we once did agree on the True Religion and that it’s Obama’s fault that we no longer do.

This is Obama’s fault in a sense, but not the sense that Obama’s most fervent critics normally intend. The problem is that Obama for America objectively speaking was, always was, a garden-variety political coalition, with all the common and cross-purposes, shared and clashing interests, that any catch-all political party inevitably contains. But Obama, half-knowing the costs, fooled us into thinking we were a movement.

We were Unitarians who thought we were Witnesses. The question now is whether anything will get us to knock on doors the way we used to.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.