American elections are a cross between religious revivals and military campaigns. Both of the aforementioned activities require intense moments of mobilization and emotion. They tend to disrupt, both physically and mentally, the normal functioning of society in the name of achieving some higher purpose. The measure of how successfully a revival or military campaign has been comes from both what is achieved in the moment of peak intensity - who wins a battle or how many are converted - and how effectively these forces can be re-ordered or demobilized into the societies that have been disrupted. Effective demobilization is the key to ensuring the passivity of change - i.e. placing limits on non-elite actors ability to exercise changes independent of elite goals.
Examples abound. The poor demobilization of the Second Great Awakening by 18th century whites in North America created a series of unintended consequences. The movement destroyed the influence of the Anglican Church thereby empowering and given cultural unity to a new elite. Simultaneously, new cultural unity opened the social door to feelings of nation providing a cultural, if not political, basis for the American Independence movement. Even less intended was the fact that the change from Anglican to non-conformist Baptist and Methodist religion shifted the emphasis from the text to oral pronunciations of faith thereby allowing for mass slave conversion. Slave literacy and social cohesion grew out of their new institutional affiliation.
Military demobilization has had a similar importance throughout history. The inefficient re-establishment of social controls has allowed for the rise of a series of regrettable social actors such as Adolf Hitler, Timothy McVeigh and John Muhammad (the D.C. sniper). From the left, we can recognize the terrible fate of thousands of brave anti-apartheid fighters upon their return to a post-apartheid South Africa which fell far from expectations. Conversely, un-managed expectations following the return of black soldiers from the successful defeat of fascism in WW II played a fundamental role in spurring on the civil rights movement.
Keeping these ideas in mind, president-elect Barack Obama acted swiftly, allowing his supporters less than 24-hours to enjoy high expectations. Obama's demobilization campaign began almost immediately after his electoral victory. Sensing that the war was over and that the victorious troops (in this case the millions of Obama voters) were now the biggest danger, the Obama sought to quell "unreasonable expectations." This was done in two ways - by public calls for calm and through early cabinet appointments.
The public calls were delivered primarily through Obama's staffers. Roberts Gibbs, described as a senior adviser to Obama said, "There has to be a realistic expectation of what can happen and how quickly." Former official in the Clinton administration, Leon Panetta was even more blunt, "He's [Obama's] got to lower some expectations, indicate the limits he's confronting." In less than 24 hours the tone had been transformed from "hope" and "change" to the management of expectations. Obama himself suggested that supporters defer the typical 100-day examinations of his presidency in favor of a 1,000-day (more than 2 1/2 years) approach.
The nature of the early appointments sends an even more ominous, though less well recognized by the general public, message of what is ahead. For a campaign which promised to change politics as usual in Washington, the appointment of ex-Clinton official Rahm Emmanuel as Chief of Staff is a devastating blow. Emmanuel has been a fairly rabid supporter of Israel, often going beyond proposals made by Republicans. Consequently, he was a vocal supporter of the invasion of Iraq though he claimed that President Bush did a poor job of selling the invasion of the American public. Emmanuel has also been a very vocal critic of both Howard Dean and the organizing efforts of the Moveon.org group putting him at odds with what passes for the "progressive" wing of the Democratic Party. Additional appointments point to a return to power of a variety of Clinton supporters intent on rapidly driving public expectations into the ground. To be sure every signal is clear, Obama chose to hold his first meeting with an advisory committee that features billionaire-investor Warren Buffett, former Goldman Sachs chief and Clinton economic architect Robert Rubin and a slew of corporate CEOs.
The message is perfectly clear and rings quite similar to the post-911 advice offered by a whole host of public officials. No need to worry (or in this case hope) go back to business as usual - work, consume, borrow, work. Trouble is that most of the hopes and expectations projected onto Obama are immediately realizable. America can have a rational universal single-payer health care system - it is called H.R. 676. The government can raise sufficient state funds to pay for serious economic stimulus plans - it is called progressive taxation. And, we can transfer the spirit of the mobilization to elect Obama into a new ethos of participation - that is called self-management and participatory budgeting. All three are already in place in many other parts of the world.
The problem is that Obama will not be the person who delivers such things. It will take serious social movements willing to make just demands and unwilling to have their expectations managed by elites intent on preserving their power. The struggle for healthcare, economic justice and political participation is open to all those who elude the management of their imagination. Anyone remember - yes we can? It was not so long ago.