Cult-like chant does not translate into real change

Three words have been running through my mind ever since I finally forced myself to watch the YouTube video sensation that features an all-star cast singing one of Barack Obama’s speeches. Yes. We. Can. In the video, this three-word refrain gets picked up at an increasingly frenzied rhythm, with celebrities entering trances at every utterance of the word “change.”

It is difficult for me to watch all four minutes of this video without feeling alarmed, perhaps because I am one of those cynics that Obama denounces. Paul Krugman’s labeling of the Obama movement a “cult of personality” was much derided by the Senator’s supporters, but how can that description be avoided when electoral speeches are now being recited as sacred creeds, even stamping their chanted slogans in the heads of skeptics like myself?”

It is one thing to be inspired by a social leader whose rhetoric is a call to action and to reorganization. But inspirational power is dangerous when exercised in the political realm. The Illinois senator’s speeches are often compared to those of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. But there is a major distinction to be made between figures like King, who use their oratory prowess to voice demands that can be directly acted upon, and politicians like Kennedy, for whom seducing a crowd is first and foremost designed to get elected. One thing that history has taught us is to always maintain a distance with political authority and to keep a skeptical watch on our elected leaders. When has reciting a politician’s words and admirably talking about fainting spells at a political rally ever been a idea?

Just imagine how uncomfortable we would get if Bush’s speeches inspired people to tears.

“Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change,” says Obama and the chorus in the video. Voiced by an activist during a strike or a rally, such a statement would be powerful and its rhetorical strength capable of moving mountains. But pronounced by a presidential candidate, that change is nothing but the leadership of one man, one individual with a magnetism so great as to unify the nation behind his speeches. When listening to Obama (and to this video), it is difficult to know what exactly we are being inspired to do — beyond voting for him — or what it is that we are proclaiming is within our ability to accomplish. And it is telling that “Yes we can” has long been a motto that unions and advocates of immigration reform use to further their agendas — a motto that is now trivialized in these acontextual chants.

I, too, want change. But I do not believe that one man by himself can represent change, nor that we should passively be waiting for it — or is it him? — to arrive. When a political candidate draws upon such rhetoric, he reduces activism to the simple act of casting a ballot. This is not to say that voting is unimportant — such a claim is laughable after George Bush’s two terms — but it is tragic to believe that the demand for change begins and ends on Election Day.

It is unfair to say that Obama’s message is all talk. The senator is very well versed in the issues of the day, and holds his own when the discussion turns to substance. It certainly doesn’t help that he has stayed as idealistic as possible in his speeches, and I for one find Obama much more effective in debates where he has to showcase his mastery of policy.

I will naturally support Barack Obama if he becomes the Democratic nominee. But how will progressives hold him accountable when he is surrounded by such an aura of fanaticism? At least there is this video to reassure me that yes, “we can repair this world” while achieving justice, equality, opportunity and prosperity. All of this is within our reach next Election Day, if we first cast our vote for one man.

Unfortunately, none of this evokes a particularly new chapter of American history. It merely proves that we can still chant our way through elections.

Daniel Nichanian is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


  • Anonymous

    Ah, what penetrating insight. The author is right: I can't think of anything more dangerous than having a political leader that we like, respect, even admire. How would we ever hold such a person accountable? Clearly Congress, the courts, the mass media, advocacy groups, and social movements would all just fade away if Americans felt they had a leader they could trust. How would our democracy ever survive???

    Okay. That was sarcasm, but it wasn't hyperbole. The author's entire argument is that politicians who inspire us are somehow inherently dangerous, so instead we should settle for someone we don't really like or respect as much because others will find it easier to slap them down. If we all took his advice we would condemn ourselves eternally to a government of generally unsavory politicians constantly fighting each other while the public looks on, hoping that at some point "accountability" will take place. Not all that different from what we have now, really.

    And while we're at it, it's worth pointing out that the least accountable president in modern US history - George W. Bush - also has some of the lowest approval ratings we've ever seen. Just because nobody likes you doesn't mean you're going to be held accountable.

    If Hillary supporters want to make an argument for their candidate, there are certainly legitimate arguments to be made. But could they please stop elevating themselves and their intelligence over everybody else all the goddamn time? People like me who support Obama haven't joined a cult, we haven't been duped, and we're not choosing based on "emotion" rather than reason. Most of us have actually taken a cool, levelheaded look at the two candidates and decided that a candidate with broad bipartisan appeal, an inspirational message, and a stellar record of policy judgments will be more likely to actually create change than a candidate with a record of awful judgment and a Machiavellian political machine, who 47% of Americans already say they definitely won't vote for. If you can't allow for that possibility and give Obama supporters the benefit of the doubt, then you're just in denial. "Cult-like chant"? Please. There's a way to support your candidate without being a dick about it.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, agreed 100%. Obama supporters are very self-righteous, and they think that their candidate's having a good life story and speaking abilities is enough to make him president.

    To the previous comment: How can you say such things when the main point of Obama's campaign has been that no one likes Hillary (we supposedly only respect her) whereas Obama inspires such great inspiration and hope? The main point of Obama's candidacy is that he is so much more appealing, so much more charismatic. He told her "You're likable enough."

    That comment also says "The author's entire argument is that politicians who inspire us are somehow inherently dangerous, so instead we should settle for someone we don't really like or respect as much." Well, I like Hillary a lot. The difference is that I know what she would and what she stands for. I don't have to repeat change over and over again.

  • y08

    So true. Sad that American elections have become huge marketing schemes.

    Yes we can… elect individuals based on their ideas and not their slogans.

  • Osama

    Obama does not have bi-partisan appeal!!!!

    His voting record (when he bothered to vote) shows that he is more in lockstep with the Democratic Party line than the Party's own leadership!!

    Obama is more of the same old BS.

  • Anonymous

    I support Hillary Clinton. The word "cult," however, is too offensive.

    My objection thus far has been with self righteous Obama supporters who approach Hillary bashing as a malicious competition. That said I do not think describing Obama supporters as cult-like is okay. Hillary supporters will be dubbed hypocrites and we will have little to say back.

  • Anonymous

    "It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing."

  • je2010

    right on. Obama is a demagogue.

  • aburkett

    I thank you expressing exactly how I feel in a better way than I possibly could. One thing that is also constantly overlooked by the media is that charismatic personalities are not always or even often benign. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. They keep quoting Kennedy or King or FDR. Kennedy's record is quite checkered given the vietnam war, but of course there was much worse than that from other charismatic leaders. George Bushes charisma lead us into Iraq. Napolean's to Frances overeach and downfall, and need I even mention Germany? Ok, I believe I will vote for Obama if he is the nominee however I am very concerned about the character of a man who willingly presents himself as so "special" and the potential abuse of such power when people believe that. I pray he doesn't believe too much of his own hype, and that's saying a lot since I'm an aetheist.

  • Elizabeth St V

    Again, Nichanian closes dialogue among campaigns as he reduces grassroots support for Obama to a brain-washing phenomenon, citing the misleading phrase, “cult of personality”. This is, of course, the sort of reductive analysis that popular media encourages. As news pieces that curiously analyze black women or latinos, wondering whether race will trump gender, whether interracial conflicts will inform people’s voting strategies – this piece similarly uses well-known tropes, the blind sheep American people, in an attempt to reduce the complexity of this election.
    Hillary and Barack are remarkable candidates so let’s give the American people more credit in their decisions.

  • Not a Messiah

    It's ironic that people blame Obama for presenting himself as special. This is not really true given that much of the accolades he receives have not been the result of his personal, ambitious self-construction as the messiah. In fact, if you take a closer look into the rhetoric of his campaign you will find that he regularly invokes the mantra "what you can do for yours country" rather than what he himself can. The admiration he's received for his personality is far more reflective of the ways in which he, as a charismatic/black individual whose popularity extends beyond a black community is a compelling image. Obama's popularity is not the result of something he has engineered entirely of himself. It is largely a matter of what he signifies for the possibilities of a post-racial America. It is with this image that America has become enamored.