The Two "Barrys" and Movement Politics
by clarkent, Sun Apr 29, 2007 at 02:11:38 PM EDT
Over the last several months, we've read a lot about Senator Barack Obama as the center of a movement. Clearly, something is going on with Obama, as crowds of 20,000 in Austin, Atlanta, Oakland, and Los Angeles show. Just yesterday, he was a sensation at the California Democratic Party convention, as this diary by an Obama supporter would attest. He is raking in donations - over 140,000 so far - to give him a record-breaking haul. Obama was reportedly drafted into the race after seeing the crowds react to him in speaking tours, and after encouragement from draft petitions. One such petition was delivered to him with over 12,000 signatures in December of 2006. Celebrity endorsements, from George Clooney to Oprah, came before he even announced an exploratory committee for a presidential run. Obviously, both his early emphatic opposition to the war in Iraq and direct appeal to people to hold a stake in his campaign have touched a nerve.
But we've also read a lot about the Obama phenomenon as unprecedented, and this is simply not the case. We can draw many parallels with another "Barry"- Barry Goldwater. In 1962, before he really thought about running for president, 18,000 people filled Madison Square Garden to hear Goldwater speak. In September of 1963, 40,000 paid to see him speak at Dodger Stadium, even though a crucial Dodgers road game duing the pennant stretch was televised that same night. In his presidential campaign, Goldwater received donations from over one million contributors in 1964, whereas only approximately 70,000 had donated to the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns combined in 1960. Goldwater had over 4 million campaign workers and volunteers, twice the number on the Democratic side. This despite an overwhelming Democratic advantage in party affiliation.
The above stats come from Rick Perlstein's excellent Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and The Unmaking of the American Consensus, a book I finally got around to reading last month. It's a great read, a romp through the conservative movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's, culminating with the Republican nomination of Goldwater despite fierce opposition by the more liberal GOP establishment. Perlstein's implicit thesis is that despite Goldwater's electoral annihilation at the hands of LBJ, conservatives had begun to organize themselves well enough to hold sway in the Republican Party in the 1960s and elect a prominent Goldwaterite to the presidency, 16 years after the electoral disaster of 1964 had led pundits to declare that conservatism was finished as a political philosophy. As Perlstein put it:
It was learning how to act: how letters got written, how doors got knocked on, how co-workers could be won over on the coffee break, how to print a bumper sticker and how to pry one off with a razor blade; how to put together a network whose force exceeded the sum of its parts by orders of magnitude; how to talk to a reporter, how to picket, and how, if need be, to infiltrate--how to make the anger boiling inside you ennobling, productive, powerful, instead of embittering.
But what does this have to do with Obama?
What's interesting to me is the similar phenomena surrounding two men who differ so greatly, especially in terms of their relationship to the political movements of their time. The phenomenon surrounding Goldwater in 1964 was the product of the new breed of conservative activists coalescing around an uncompromising candidate who articulated their views. This was also true of his political heir, Ronald Reagan, perhaps even more so. In 1964 they were out of step with the nation and got their asses kicked, but by 1980 the country had been changed enough that they won handily. The effect lasted past Reagan, too. 32 years after the landslide of the Great Society, a Democrat declared, "The era of big government is over."
That open connection with a growing progressive movement certainly doesn't appear to be the case for Obama. He is somewhat aloof from the new grassroots, famously telling Kossacks that "we won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate" and that strategy for getting Republicans not to listen to their right wing is to quiet our own left. I'm an Edwards supporter, but I 'm genuinely curious about the "movement" that Obama has. Who supports him and why? What do they hope to achieve? How is his campaign empowering people to do things other than help his own candidacy? After his campaign (whether he wins or loses), will his supporters be energized and supplement the progressive movement?