Are We the Ones We’re Waiting For?

Published Friday, March 7, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” When Barack Obama offers these words and others like it, is he uttering some profound insight into human and social development? Or is it just so much new-age mumbo jumbo, that sounds great but means nothing? It’s suddenly an important question for Oregonians and the answer is, “It depends.” Many in the youngest generation of voters hear truth. Older voters are more likely to hear bunk.

It’s looking like Oregon’s primary on May 20 may matter to the Democratic presidential nomination. We should get ready.

We will be choosing between more than two extraordinary candidates. We will be choosing between generations. We will be choosing between competing ideas of authority, government, society, and ourselves.

Listen to the candidates’ speeches and notice the pronouns they use. Barack Obama prefers the plurals; Hillary Clinton speaks in the singular. They don’t just talk differently; they think differently.

Both began their political careers as community organizers, but “community” means something different to each. So does “organizing.” Obama’s most fervent followers grew up with the Internet, e-mail and chat rooms. They think in groups. Why pick up the phone to call a friend, when you can chat online with a dozen friends at once?

Clinton’s most solid supporters grew up during the popularization of psychoanalysis. They won the Cold War, proving that Soviet-style central planning cannot compete with capitalism’s market forces. Individualism reached its peak on their watch. “The customer is king.”

As former Oregon Congressman and Southern Oregon University lecturer Les AuCoin has pointed out, “community” in this world of individuals is used very strangely. The term is appended to a myriad of identities and interests, declaring solidarity with others by differentiating themselves from the whole of society. The “animal-rights community” aligns with the “vegetarian community,” but only to decry the shortcomings of the “carnivore community.” Community serves as a soft-focus synonym for “special-interest group.”

The Baby Boomer generation uses an us-them model to understand the world, even if they each see different usses and thems. When the term “we” describes anything other than their specific tribe, they’re usually hiding something with imprecision.

Web sites Google and Digg and Reddit and Facebook and Myspace have offered a profoundly different model to the younger generation of Millennials, using the Internet to collect any number of individuals into instant groups. Every group can find its members easily. Each member belongs to many different groups. Soon the group’s members intersect with other members’ other groups. The whole world is within six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

“We” to this crowd is not a vague generality. It describes the world as they see it. The government is not a “them” that exists to serve any particular “us.” It’s all connected; all one — including the leader, who is first among equals. Power flows not down from authority, but up from the engaged masses. Encyclopedia Britannica is out; Wikipedia is in.

Obama has attracted donations from more than a million Americans, most giving less than $100. The size of the contributions matters less than the number of contributors. The campaign’s unstated goal is to have every American invested in Obama’s success. Their stated goal is to “unite America.”

Clinton is fighting back, emphasizing her individual credentials and questioning Obama’s readiness. Her supporters have responded when she goes negative. Watching a “fighter” in hand-to-hand combat befits their ideal of leadership. Recall Clinton’s husband’s words in 1992: “I will fight for you until the last dog dies.”

Negative campaigning turns off younger voters, which might double Clinton’s incentive to use it. If voters dislike the tone of the campaign, they can do one of two things. They can vote for the less negative candidate. Or they can refuse to vote and express their displeasure that way.

Do you see Obama’s dilemma? If he demonstrates his strength by matching Clinton’s attacks, he risks losing the generation that has carried him this far.

But the risk is more than Obama’s. Young voters have turned out in droves to make “change” the watchword of this campaign. If they revert to the nonvoting ways we’ve come to expect of young people, they’ll prove again that hope is hard and disappointment is easy. And we’ll prove, whether we mean to or not, that we are NOT the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has degrees in English, Psychology, Journalism, Religion and Art History. In other words, he has a short attention span. He published the Comic News in Eugene from 1995 until 2005. He now blogs right here.