So what to make of Obama? The NYT's David Brooks, who can be trusted to always find traditional values in the unlikeliest of places, argues that Obama is a new puritan, a post-ideological pragmatist and empiricist who will be requesting similarly Protestant sacrifice from all American citizens, thereby reuniting a divided country. According to Brooks, America has been riven, over the past fifty years, by what Francis Fukuyama calls a series of "Great Disruptions" which have destroyed community and created a new culture of narcissistic individualism:
The information economy began to disrupt the industrial economy. Thefeminist revolution disrupted gender and family relations. The civil rights revolution disrupted social arrangements. The Vietnam War discredited the establishment... These disruptions were generally necessary and good, but the transition was painful. People lost faith in old social norms, but new ones had not yet emerged. The result was disorder. Divorce rates skyrocketed. Crime rates exploded. Faith in institutions collapsed. Social trust cratered.... As community bonds dissolved, individual autonomy asserted itself. Liberals championed the moral liberation of individuals. Conservatives championed their economic liberation. The combined result was a loss of community and social cohesion, and what Christopher Lasch called a culture of narcissism.... Instead of ending ideology, the Great Disruption produced ideological politics. The weakening of social norms led to fierce battles as groups vied to create new ones. Personal became political. Groups fought over basic patterns of morality.
According to Brooks, Obama can disrupt the Great Disruption by replacing the culture of narcissism with that of shared responsibility and sacrifice. Brooks calls this a "Grand Bargain" in which all Americans agree to share the burden of fixing healthcare, Social Security and the government deficit. He sees Obama as a page turner who can get America to its "next chapter" of its history.
The problem with this argument is its ahistoricism. As an American conservative, Brooks' future lies in a very local past. Thus, for Brooks, Obama is a reinvented founding father and his value is in his Franklinesque "discipline, equipose and self-control." But what Brooks doesn't acknowledge is that the global forces which have created the individualism and autonomy of the Great Disruption are, if anything, more powerful now than they've ever been. We live now in Elsewhere America, a radically individualized and personalized place of home offices, BlackBerry moms and economic anxiety. And Obama, with his beloved BlackBerry on his buckle, his individual identity monetized by a successful book deal, his disintermediation of traditional media via the Internet, his ability to effortlessly glide above all institutions and groups, is a new paradigm of an entirely autonomous individual in an infinitely fragmented and transient world in which community and social cohesion have evapourated.
The other problem is that all this talk of the end of ideology is itself the product of a highly individualised culture. Rather than a sociologically rooted figure, Obama seems to have come from no particular culture or community. He can be everything to everyone because he came from nowhere. Obama, then, is just Obama. He is indeed a post-ideological individual in an age of radical individualism where nobody wants to acknowledge group economic interest or solidarity (which is what "ideology" traditionally means). It is indeed true that Obama rejects the idea of ideology. But that's because he's the owner of the most valuable brand in the global digital economy, and not because he's the second coming of Benjamin Franklin.