‘We Are The Chosen Ones’: A new hymn to Barack Obama

Telegraph.co.uk – March 06, 2008 – by Simon Woods

Simon Woods, a volunteer for Hillary Clinton, explains how music reveals the strength and weakness of Barack Obama’s campaign

I’ve been volunteering for Hillary Clinton across America, knocking on doors and handing out flyers, giving little speeches and putting stickers on jumpers.

But everywhere I’ve been, from Iowa to South Carolina to Nevada to Texas, the toughest constituency for us Hillary volunteers has been young people. A few weeks ago, covered in Hillary badges, I approached a young couple in California and, as I was about to offer up my pearls of electoral wisdom, they just began singing at me. And they were singing Yes We Can, the song by Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am, whose video has become a phenomenon on YouTube.

That first video, which took as its text Obama’s victory speech in Iowa, was an internet sensation, garnering millions of hits, and solidifying Obama’s support among students and young people all across America. It featured glossy stars such as Scarlett Johansson and John Legend, and encapsulated all that is best about Obama’s campaign – his soaring language, his ability to bring young people into the political process, and to inspire.

But this week, the musician has put out another singalong. The new video captures a different side to supporting Obama: its fanaticism, its breathless, quasi-religious excitement, and its inherent problems. Instead of the text of a speech, the refrain has simply become “Obama”, and its message: “We are the ones.”

Supporting an intelligent and articulate senator from Illinois is, of course, not some kind of cultish mass-delusion, but nor is the evangelical zeal of his supporters a spontaneous or inexplicable phenomenon. It has been created deliberately, systematically, and very successfully.

The Obama campaign uses a religious calling as its central rhetorical trope: “I’m asking you to believe,” reads the banner across the top of barackobama.com. His appeal to voters is an archetype of religious conversion: instead of being asked for support, Americans are exhorted to “join the movement”.

In Georgia, he directly equated his supporters with God’s people: “God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city… and when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.”

Later in the speech, he asked the congregation to “walk with me, march with me… and if enough of our voices join together, we can bring those walls tumbling down.”

Ironically, the Obama campaign has taken the logic of the religious and republican right – “You’re either with us or against us” – and come up with its Democratic alter ego.

Obama has created the impression that Clinton supporters, like the Pharisees in the temple, are obstacles to change: “I want to speak directly to all those Americans who have yet to join this movement but still hunger for change. They know it in their gut… But they’re afraid. They’ve been taught to be cynical.”

It’s not an argument for better government; it’s an exhortation to see the light. It’s not a plan for the Presidency, but a leap of faith.

This idea came to a head in Obama’s Super Tuesday speech, with those much talked about phrases: “We are the change that we seek… We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” This is the language that the second Will.I.Am song has taken on. This marked a new level of discourse, and journalists wrote warily about its “messianic” feel.

But I think that misses the point. The real problem with this is not the cod-religious congratulation of being the chosen ones, but a quieter, more insidious message: that the campaign itself is the change he talks about.

In this way, the Obama campaign is styling itself as a sign of change, rather than an argument for it. As he said in South Carolina: “We are showing America what change looks like.” In that linguistic and conceptual manoeuvre, the goal of accomplishing the specific changes Americans urgently need – in health care, the economy, education – is relegated to the background. You’re not so hungry for reform when you’ve already feasted at the table of self-congratulation.

While the first celebrity song had the energising feel of a rallying cry, this second video features Hollywood types Jessica Biel and Ryan Philippe anointing themselves as “the ones”, encouraging their fans to join them, to become part of the “movement”, to “change the world”.

The result of this self-referential campaign is a shifting of focus from the two key questions Democrats should be asking themselves: who can be relied on to get things done in Washington, and who is most likely to win the general election against John McCain. Those are two questions that I think have only one answer: Hillary Clinton.

While Clinton’s campaign sets out her credentials and her plans for what she describes as “the most difficult job in the world”, Obama’s is a campaign deliberately operating on a symbolic level. Clinton is asking Americans to hire her to do a job; Obama is asking them to believe in him.

Accordingly, they offer two different models for the Presidency: put it in terms of the much discussed “day one”, the Obama model is about the inauguration speech, and Clinton’s is focused on the moment she gets back from the Capitol, sits down at that desk, and starts work.

This second Will.I.Am video is a perfect example of what has swept Obama to this point, but also of what has been his undoing in Texas and Ohio this week and what will be difficult for him the races to come.

For what remains to be seen is whether the American people continue to enjoy watching a bunch of celebrities congratulating themselves on being “the ones.”


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