Question: how many defining moments equal an epiphany?
The reason I ask is because David Brooks seems to be having a lot of defining moments about Barack Obama and the Democrats in general recently.
The Democratic presidential primary campaign began around Christmas 2006, and it may end Tuesday night. But of all the days between then and now, the most important was Nov. 10, 2007.
On that day, the Democratic Party of Iowa held its Jefferson-Jackson dinner and invited the candidates to speak. There were thousands of Democrats sitting around tables on the floor of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, and rowdy thousands more up in the stands.
Clinton rode the passion of the crowd and delivered an energetic battle cry. And in many elections that sort of speech, delivered around the country, would clinch the nomination.
But this is a country in the midst of a crisis of authority, a country that has become disillusioned not only with one president, but with a whole system of politics. It’s a country that has lost faith not only with one institution, but with the entire set of leadership institutions. The cultural context, in other words, allowed for a much broader critique, a much more audacious vocabulary.
And Barack Obama leapt right in.
Obama sketched out a different theory of social change than the one Clinton had implied earlier in the evening. Instead of relying on a president who fights for those who feel invisible, Obama, in the climactic passage of his speech, described how change bubbles from the bottom-up: “And because that somebody stood up, a few more stood up. And then a few thousand stood up. And then a few million stood up. And standing up, with courage and clear purpose, they somehow managed to change the world!”
For people raised on Jane Jacobs, who emphasized how a spontaneous dynamic order could emerge from thousands of individual decisions, this is a persuasive way of seeing the world. For young people who have grown up on Facebook, YouTube, open-source software and an array of decentralized networks, this is a compelling theory of how change happens.
Clinton had sounded like a traditional executive, as someone who gathers the experts, forges a policy, fights the opposition, bears the burdens of power, negotiates the deal and, in crisis, makes the decision at 3 o’clock in the morning.
But Obama sounded like a cross between a social activist and a flannel-shirted software C.E.O. — as a nonhierarchical, collaborative leader who can inspire autonomous individuals to cooperate for the sake of common concerns.
I get it. Hillary Clinton is General Motors, Barack Obama is Google. She’s the old style of leadership, he’s the new. And Mr. Brooks concludes, sadly, that it’s the old that wins out.
Clinton had sounded like Old Politics, but Obama created a vision of New Politics. And the past several months have revolved around the choice he framed there that night. Some people are enthralled by the New Politics, and we see their vapors every day. Others think it is a mirage and a delusion. There’s only one politics, and, tragically, it’s the old kind, filled with conflict and bad choices.
His concern over this tragedy might sound a little more sincere if he hadn’t gone positively ga-ga last week over John McCain (who truly does, in more ways than one, define the Old Politics) and in doing so savaged Sen. Obama for campaigning in exactly the manner he describes here. This is the method of the Polite Concern Troll.
What I think is really behind this defining moment is that Mr. Brooks is setting up the field so that if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton and the campaign proceeds as a true fight to the death between her and John McCain, David Brooks can go on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer and shake his head sadly that the Democrats had a chance to raise the level of the debate and begin a new era in presidential politics, but instead went with the old. He can write pithy columns about the Dream being Deferred and the dashed hopes of the Face-bookers and YouTubers (I know, that sounds like a genetically engineered potato) and haul out the old clichés about the Wisdom of the American Electorate who needs to be convinced that this nation is ready for enough change to trust the presidency to a white woman or a black man. He is thus providing himself with job security for his punditry at least through November.
Not to be completely cynical, I will give credit to Mr. Brooks for at least recognizing that the old order is decrepit, although he is doing everything he can to keep it in place, and acknowledging the fact that there might be something to this hope thing after all; if only to give him yet another defining moment to wax poetic.