Cargo cults were a brief phenomenon scattered across the South Pacific in the wake of Western expansion into the region, with some of the most striking examples following World War II. American forces would arrive on islands with no significant prior contact with the outside world. Their technology, abundant food supplies, and exotic appearance led the natives to assume they were gods come to Earth.
After American troops departed, these natives would build wood and bamboo airplanes, vehicles, and other replicas of Western technology as idols, hoping to propitiate the great king Rusafel (Roosevelt) to return with cargo. It was magical thinking, hoping to summon abundance and prosperity.
Listening to the Clinton speech last night, I came to realize the Democrats are no longer a party: they're a cargo cult. The speech was an invocation to magical forces to make the Democratic Party great again and to an economic theory grounded in government as the prime mover of both society and the economy. But while Clinton's political invincibility and ease with people, his gift for demoralizing Republican opposition and his ability to bend the press to his will were all on display last night, it was hollow at its core.
Reading today's gushing, glowing, fanboy coverage of Clinton, you might disagree. His speech was designed not to move numbers in the voting population, but as a guided weapon back into the hearts of the press. His speech was about convincing the Gang of 500 the Big Dog still has it and that he could confer his mojo on Barack Obama.
But the Democratic cargo cult (and a meaningful fraction of the media) can't understand the modern nature of things. The old gods are gone from the island.
Bill Clinton survived (barely) because he lived at the dawn of the Internet age. When he took office, there were still only a handful of media outlets that shaped the opinion reaching the majority of Americans. There was a Newspaper Of Record and its little friend, the Washington Post. There were three networks and CNN. Their power to shape public opinion was, at that time, unimaginably strong. Sure, there were outside voices on both ends of the debate, but the were de minimis in comparison.
You want to talk about narrative? They set it, and it took massive, exogenous forces and personalities to make them deviate from it.
I'm shortcutting slightly, but Matt Drudge had a different idea, and we're where we are today largely because he forced their hand on the Monica Lewinsky story. It went from a world mediated by a few hundred reporters, television talking heads, editors and operatives who imparted their consensus reality to the masses to a glorious, sloppy circus where information became unmediated and political action followed.
Until then, it was a (for all intents and purposes) a one-way dialogue. When Clinton lied, the media's instinct was to shove it aside. It had been building long before, but at that moment that the fundamental trust between Americans and the press was broken.
After that door opened, sometimes in fits and starts, news and opinion has become radically democratized. The emergent phenomenon of conservative activists communicating via the Internet (and since 2009, largely Twitter) and redefining the social media landscape as the central political battlespace is what makes a Clinton so impossible today.
The charm, rhetorical skill and sly wit of Clinton depended on you never seeing behind the curtain and on the speech never being fact-checked by the proverbial Army of Davids. In the old world, you had to believe in the character he played on TV, not the atavistic, predatory, dry-humping sexual harasser-in-Chief.
In another time, and another world, the Clinton speech's power and magnificence would have been reported as a gamechanger, and it might have been true.
The reaction to it now will be shorter, more shallow and less persistent because there is no universal mediating function in the press to make it so. It's not a game changer because they can't make an economy in crisis disappear from the minds of an increasingly connected electorate. A snappy rejoinder to Romney and a finger-wag can't disappear the insane debt we've accumulated or the darkening economic picture for young people. Promises of investments and green jobs and a unicorn-powered economy can't erase a failed stimulus and the mounting stable of Solyndras.
Clinton's speech will make a page or two in the after-election instabooks, but as for history, he no longer has the power to shape it to his will. Twitter is still talking, and shaping opinion beyond the fanboy coverage of today.
The reporting you're seeing and the spin you're hearing is just the Democratic and legacy media Cargo Cult, sitting on the beach, waiting for Bubba the Sky God to return, and bring them back their power.