Let My People Go? Why Barack Obama and Liberals (Like Me) Would Do Well to Read Exodus Before the Next Election

If you’re a liberal like me you probably scratched your head after the Massachusetts Senate election this week and asked yourself:

How did Democrats lose so dramatically in the most liberal state in the country? And what does it mean for liberals in 2010 and Obama in 2012?

After thinking about it a bit this week, here’s my answer: It means we’re toast.


Because we’re caught in the Book of Exodus. I don’t mean literally. I mean metaphorically. We’re toast for exactly the same reason that the Pharoah was toast: we’re not letting a large segment of the population, in its cultural uniqueness and autonomy, alone. And as God, through Moses, told Pharoah (Exodus 8:2):

If thou refuse to let them go, I will smite thy borders with frogs.

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Fox News, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, the tea-partiers: they’re the frogs—they’re the symbols of judgment on the way we are practicing our liberalism. They’re croaking very loud on behalf of their people. And they aren’t going away.

Throughout its history, America has had this contending Exodus subtext at work:

  • The early British settlers imagined themselves as leaving Egypt (England) and settling in a Promised Land (bad news for the Native Americans, who were set in the role of the Canaanites)
  • The throwing of tea into Boston Harbor was not just an assertion of Israelite-like independence from the English “Pharaoh,” but an echo of one of the plagues of Egypt (turning the waters to blood)
  • The Civil War was the white Southerner’s attempt to separate from the “Egypt” of Lincoln’s Washington
  • The American civil rights movement was an Exodus from white oppression led by a black Moses (“I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”):
  • And, of course, Barack Obama tapped into the Exodus-Joshua narrative as well (leading the nation out of our collective Bush-Cheney Egypt into a New Land)

But now that Barack Obama, the liberal America’s Joshua to Martin Luther King’s Moses, has symbolically conquered Canaan, he suddenly finds himself in the very ironic position of being the new Pharoah—the lightening rod that energizes the American conservative fantasy of a new Exodus. Suddenly, white conservatives see themselves as under the yoke of Big Government, and Big Government means to take away from them their money, their way of life, their dignity, and their independence.

Is the white conservative response to Obama and the Democrats this past year an overreaction and an indulgence in nostalgia for a post-WWII era that will never return? As a liberal, I think that it is. But it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is the conservative perception, and the energetic Exodus narrative that conservatives have plugged into. In policy terms, I think it means that Obama and the Democrats need to figure out how to make national policies that somehow manage to leave conservatives as alone as possible.

I’m not sure what a liberalism that does this might look like, exactly. Conservatives seem to be on a hair-trigger over things that most liberals regard as ridiculously benign public policy proposals (think, for example, of the conservative freak-out over old-style hot lightbulbs being phased out for energy efficient compact flourescent lightbulbs). But one thing, I think, is certain. If we (and I mean liberals) don’t figure out a way to govern in such a way that we either get on the right side of the Exodus narrative again—or make conservatives feel that we have no intention of disrupting their lives—then we will find our political chariots at the bottom of an electoral Red Sea in 2010 (and maybe 2012 as well). Cultural autonomy, however irrational from the vantage of outsiders, is a form of human freedom that it is not wise to mess with. Ask Pharoah.

I talked to a friend last night about the conservative reaction to Obama’s first year in office, and shared my Exodus theory with him, and he suggested the Neil Young song below. At some point, American conservatives will come to terms with the 21st century in a less hysterical—and more psychologically integrated—fashion, but a lot of them ain’t there yet. And they vote.

My friend also noted that the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama” contain a dissing response to Neil Young’s song. That’s something that I hadn’t registered before. And I think that this is exactly where we’re at politically: on a cultural fault line.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Let My People Go? Why Barack Obama and Liberals (Like Me) Would Do Well to Read Exodus Before the Next Election

  1. Robert Feeley says:

    MSNBC Getting Desperate Trying to Catch Fox in the Ratings:


  2. Pingback: Understanding the Tea-Partiers Underlying Psychological Motivation « Prometheus Unbound

  3. Texmom says:

    Any conservative would tell you that they were none to thrilled with Bush by his second term, either. Why no tea parties at that point? The anger just hadn’t risen to that point, but it was simmering. remember how angry conservatives were about the bailout? And that was on Bush’s watch.
    So much more was poured on top of it that it finally boiled over.
    Bottom line; many (most) see this as a battle between socialism/Marxism and remaining a capitalist republic. That is what it is really all about. Really.

  4. santitafarella says:


    If it’s about socialism/Marxism then you’re boxing with the air. Neither Obama nor the Democrats in Congress are Marxists—or even socialists. They are mixed economy liberals. There is a difference.

    What the right has done is substitute reality with a phantom—a hysterical perception that rejuvenates and energizes a reactionary cultural movement.

    The right has made its own reality—and it seems to be working for them.


  5. Former soviet slave says:

    Your liberalism looks like global warming. No proof, but a lot of noise, lie, and politics.
    Mister Obama, Let My People Go.

    Remember Lenin: All power to soviets (bureaucrats)
    You knows result: Hundred millions were dead in Gulag

  6. santitafarella says:

    Former soviet:

    You sound hysterical, and I suppose those who share your hysteria will have a rousing electoral victory come November 2010. It’s a shame your distortions of a good man—Barack Obama—might end in reward.


  7. Former soviet slave says:

    Don’t label me like I sound hysterical.
    O, yes, their philosophy is socialist/Marxist
    When I listen them, I feel, like: Kommisars are talking
    You do not see difference between country and state.
    America will always be country of my love. And I do not want that state USA became like USSR or Russian Federation state
    Let my country go

  8. santitafarella says:

    Former Soviet:

    Barack Obama is a moderate man, and you have erected your hate on him (and so you see what you want to see, which is a ridiculous distortion of reality).


  9. Former soviet slave says:

    Barack Obama is a moderate man, and you have erected your hate on him

    It is not true. He is my president.
    Do not change subject of our dialog: country or state? people or bureaucracy?

  10. santitafarella says:

    Former Soviet:

    Your categories are too stark. There are gradations in such questions.

    Nobody wants a Hobbesian state, but you also don’t want Hobbesian corporations that have no entities powerful enough to regulate them. Think of the lead in toys issue at the end of Bush’s presidency. Conservatives like yourself are replacing one Hobbesian nightmare for another. I prefer a balance of powers (with no Hobbesian entities—governmental or corporate—strong enough to dominate the system).


  11. Former soviet slave says:

    Your referral to mechanistic materialism in 16 century a little bit unusual. I prefer to extend definition of separation of power between country and state
    Never written regulations are able to substitute natural relations.
    Please, do not use terminology with wording “conservatives”, “Bush’s presidency” and etc.
    I also prefer “a balance of powers”, but plus and after separation of responsibilities and prioritization.
    С уважением

  12. santitafarella says:

    Former Soviet:

    I was referring to Hobbes’ “Leviathan” as a contrast to the type of state that John Locke preferred.

    I think that most Americans, including Obama, are more with John Locke than Hobbes with regard to what government should look like.

    As to state’s rights, there needs to be a balance of powers. And I’m fine with “natural relations” wherever they will work (in place of written regulations). Unfortunately, with regard to things like earthquake codes for buildings and lead paint in children’s toys, there are a lot of unethical people in the world who would misrepresent the nature and quality of their products to consumers if the government did not regulate such things.

    Here’s a bit more on Leviathan:



  13. Former soviet slave says:

    Thank you for your answer
    I would like to ask you one question about “unethical people in the world … if the government did not regulate such things.”
    What method is better, “Stalin’s atrocity”, when they were punished in Gulag, based on beautiful regulation?
    Or “capitalistic atrocity”, when they “naturally” loose their own business because their failure?

    I do not include criminals in scope of discussion, because I believe that widest freedom of the business is very important as much as freedom of the people despite on possibilities of crime.

    However, my experience of living in Soviet state tells me that, more regulations and more severe punishment, then more crime and corruptions. This is fundamental law of socialism. Proof? Almost one hundred years of history.
    However, there is an answer.
    С уважением

  14. santitafarella says:

    Former Soviet:

    I’m with you in terms of business freedom. And I see the former Soviet Union as being akin to Nazi Germany. You get no argument from me on such issues:


    Where I think that your view is distorted is in its either/or thinking: we either don’t regulate business at all or we regulate it Soviet style. As with anything else in life, it is possible to balance competing goods, and Japan and all the Western democracies show that rational balances between capitalism and the state can be made and sustained without leading the world into a totalitarian hell-hole. We can have sensible and moderate trade-offs without them leading to gulags.


  15. Cody says:

    I’d have to agree with you, Santi. The middle ground is what should be sought when it comes to corporations and the free market in this country. People hear anything about market control and they instantly jump to calling Obama a Socialist, Communist, what have you, and I think this stems from the fear of the misunderstood.

  16. Former soviet slave says:

    It is not so simple that “we either don’t regulate business at all or we regulate it Soviet style”

    Cody, you are right, that the subject includes also “about market control”

    My point that this is most unproductive and dangerous method of controlling of business by State.

    It similar to redesign of engine when you driving your car.

    When business and market are running, please, be patient and let them perform their job. Government should trust country.

    This is biggest mistake of any socialistic system that there is not separation of power during execution of business.

    My understanding, the Founders of American democracy allowed the State to govern our society only by the dependencies (laws), but not by the orders/instructions.

    The country is not a computer and can not be programmed by instructions.

    Of cause, the market control sounds attractive, but it decreases predictability of complex system. It will work as noise and will not help the conductor during performance of symphony.
    С уважением

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