Tales Of The O-Cult

2 comments February 13th, 2008at 10:57pm Posted by Eli


I sell the things you need to be…

Truth be told, I marginally prefer Hillary over Obama, but this cult of personality crap is just overblown:

Every political news outlet, from the networks to the blogs, is abuzz today with the question: Is the Obama phenomenon a cult?

People — particularly Hillary partisans — are eagerly putting this idea out there. I want to make it very clear before I get started that I’m not a partisan of either candidate: there are things about them both that have my skepticism pegged to the limit. Personally, I’m for the Democrat. But when it comes to the topic of what is or ain’t a cult — that’s something I know something about. Or, at least, I seem to understand it a bit better than most of the people who are bandying the term around today.

Any number of religious sociologists have assembled various tools and devices to be used in assessing whether or not a group can be classified as a “cult.”… Perhaps the most comprehensive of the bunch is the one assembled by folklorist Dr. P.E.I Bonewits in 1979, which laid out 18 behaviors that are common to religious cults:

1. internal control
2. external control
3. wisdom or knowledge claimed by leaders
4. wisdom or knowledge credited to leaders
5. dogma
6. recruiting
7. front groups
8. wealth
9. sexual manipulation
10. sexual favoritism
11. censorship
12. isolation
13. dropout control
14. violence
15. paranoia
16. grimness
17. surrender of will
18. hypocrisy

It’s important to note that these criteria describe an overarching pattern: a group needs to score high on at least 10 or 12 of these to be within even hailing distance of “cult” status. On the other hand, just about any group trying to create social change is going to partake of at least a few of these qualities. When people are setting out on a new course, they tend to put out tremendous amounts of energy. They trust their leaders, ascribe all manner of wisdom and magical power to them, accept their words as dogma, and enthusiastically recruit new members. (Or, in this case, voters: Obama is, after all, running a political campaign.) It’s offputting at best and worrisome at worst; but as you can see from the list, it takes a whole lot more than that to make any group qualify as a full-blown cult.

There is no evidence anywhere that Obama is running front groups, using his campaign to enrich himself, sexually manipulating his followers, censoring anyone, or insisting that people isolate themselves from the larger society. There are no draconian efforts at dropout control. Nobody’s arming up out of paranoia. And “grimness” is about the last word you’d use to describe an Obama event.


So if Obamamania doesn’t come close to making the cut as a “cult,” then just what the hell is going on there?

What’s going on is that we’ve finally got a Democratic candidate who understands exactly how the Republicans did it. As I pointed out my very first week on this blog, the GOP didn’t come to power by talking about plans and policies; they did it by using strongly emotional appeals that grabbed people by the gut and didn’t let them go. Theirs was never a movement based on reason. It was, from the very beginning, a movement of hearts and souls. And it was that deep, emotionally sustaining commitment that drew people in so deeply that they were willing to give 25 years of their lives to bringing about the New World Order their leaders promised them. We may hate what they’ve accomplished — but we’re never going to be able to do better until we can inspire that same kind of passion for change.

And Obama’s doing just that. He’s tapped into a deeply pressurized seam of repressed fury within the American electorate, and he’s giving it voice, a focus, and an outlet. Are the results scary? You bet: these people want change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying. Are they unreasoning? The followers may be — but as long as their leader keeps a cool head, that’s not as much of a problem right now as we might think; and the heat will dissipate naturally in time. Is this kind of devotion even appropriate? You bet. You don’t get the kind of deep-level change we need without first exposing and channeling people’s deep discontent. Obama’s change talk may be too vague for most people’s tastes (including mine); but the fact is that if we’re serious about enacting a progressive agenda, rousing people’s deepest dreams and desires and mobilizing that energy is exactly how it’s going to happen. And Obama’s the first candidate we’ve had in a generation who really, truly gets this.

The frustrating thing here is that if Obama were a Republican candidate, this would all be considered perfectly normal, even admirable. But when a Democrat attracts the same kind of unquestioning enthusiasm, suddenly it’s a cult.

As personally unenthused as I am about Obama, I think his charisma and ability to inspire give him the best chance of beating McCain in November. He might even have the coattails to get a few extra Democrats elected to Congress… assuming that he generates mostly Democratic turnout, which is not necessarily a sure thing.

Entry Filed under: Democrats,Elections,Media,Obama,Politics,Republicans


  • 1. Alicia Morgan  |  February 14th, 2008 at 10:05 am

    You are exactly right about the rise of conservatism – it was exclusively an emotional manipulation with no basis in reason or reality. Faith-based economics as well as social policy is what has driven us to the brink of disaster. It’s time for the grownups to step in.

  • 2. Eli  |  February 14th, 2008 at 10:12 am

    Yes, the grownups, exactly.

    *looking around*

    *deepening expression of alarm and dismay*

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