Will an Obama collapse bring political apocalypse?

Call it the Obamalypse, if you will. Andrew Sullivan makes an interesting argument that a Hillary Clinton victory over Barack Obama could create “mass flight from the process” as disillusioned voters embrace apathy and reject electoral politics altogether. He thinks that killing it would be 1968 all over again:

What I think this misses are the cultural and social consequences of beating Obama (or McCain) this way. I don’t mean beating Obama because the Clintons’ message is more persuasive, or because the Clintons’ healthcare plan is better, or because she has a better approach to Iraq. I mean: beating him by a barrage of petty attacks, by impugning his clear ability to be commander-in-chief, by toying with questions about his “Muslim past”, by subtle invocation of the race card, by intermittent reliance on gender identity politics, by taking faux offense to keep the news cycle busy (“shame on you, Barack Obama!”) and so on. If the Clintons beat Obama this way, I have a simple prediction. It will mean a mass flight from the process. It will alter the political consciousness of an entire generation of young voters – against any positive interaction with the political process for the foreseeable future. I’m not sure that Washington yet understands the risk the Clintons are taking with their own party and the future of American politics.

Pete Abel at The Moderate Voice disagrees. In an open response to Andrew, Pete says that the voters would only have themselves to blame for buying what the Clintons are selling:

Please. If the Clintons beat Obama this way, there’s no one to blame but us, we the people, we the voters. If an entire generation lets the Clintons turn them off from politics then I guess those ‘Yes we can’ chants were nothing but empty rhetoric after all. The facts of the matter are relatively simple: If we want a different kind of politics, if we truly believe ‘yes we can,’ then we better start acting like it. Mud-slinging won’t stop until mud-slinging is proven ineffective. And the only viable proof is this: For the buyers to refuse the sale.

Andrew has the better argument here, I believe, but the Clintons are not completely to blame. We have seen massive reform movements take to the streets when elections have been rigged or perverted, such as in Ukraine with the Orange Revolution. When voters start building expectations higher than anyone can deliver, their disillusionment can take very passionate form. I think Andrew estimates the potential destructive impact reasonably and realistically.

However, Abel points out where the real disillusionment will be placed. The Clintons have never really pretended to be anything other than ruthless, relentless pols who will do anything to win. In fact, that’s really been the Hillary message for the last couple of weeks. She’s tough enough to answer that red phone, and she’s tough enough to go toe-to-toe negative with Mr. Nice Guy. She’s going to win or collapse in the direction of the finish line, whichever comes last.

Obama himself will be the real source of the disillusionment. No one in politics could live up to the expectation he set for himself and his campaign, especially one who comes out of Chicago, as we are all learning. Unlike John McCain, who seems to take a bit of delight in delivering bad news to voters, Obama tended to tell people what they wanted to hear. The demagoguery over NAFTA came from a relentless pursuit of populism that hadn’t been a characteristic of his early campaign.

That doesn’t make Obama any worse than most politicians, and probably still a league above the Clintons. It does strip him of his New Politics conceit, though, and he has little else to offer. As David Brooks put it, even that New Politics identity has never translated into any specific policies or concrete improvements in American life, and his three short years in the Senate hasn’t shown any evidence that he’s tried to apply it anywhere except on the campaign stump.

The real Obamalypse might be better described as a little more maturation in the electorate. Instead of buying into soaring rhetoric without any track record of its application, voters might pay more attention to policy and experience in its pursuit. That isn’t as sexy or exciting as fainting over the next political messiah, but it will result in better candidates and better campaigns — and will eventually chase hucksters like the Clintons out of the arena.