Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bitterness in Rural America

Obama's "Gaffe:" Some Perspective

I had to take a second to find an article that wasn't ridiculously biased, and included analysis on both sides of this. This blog entry seems pretty good for that.

We're dealing tonight with a classic Kinsleyian "gaffe," where a candidate says what he means and then is forced to account for it. Let's separate, for the moment, the politics of Obama's words from the argument he is making.

At his San Francisco fundraiser, Obama was sketching out a variation of the Thomas Frank argument about working class voters who seem to choose candidates whose policies cut against their economic interest. In Obama's version, working class voters in the Midwest have been inured to promises of economic redress because both Democrats and Republicans promise to help and never do; since government is a source of distress in their lives, they organize their politics around more stable institutions, like churches or cultural practices, like hunting. The outlet for their economic duress is in lashing out, in giving voice to their grievances; In Obama's formulation, Republicans are especially eager and willing to exploit cultural trigger points.

"But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

There is some truth to this. Even John McCain has expressed a similar sentiment about immigration politics.

But the perilous words for Obama are "bitter," "cling to," "guns" and "religion." Those disinclined to put themselves in Obama's head will read the sentences and see Obama dismissing both religion and American gun culture the opiates of the masses and suggesting that their faith and lifestyle are the product of their bitterness. Voters may believe that one's position on cultural issues is a better reflection of their inner values than one's position on economics.

The substance of what Obama said has the makings of a very good Firing Line broadcast. (Alas...)

The elite media and most Democrats will say... "yeah.. .So? Obama is simply describing world as we know it." His opponents and people who are inclined to view Obama as an elitist will say, "he is dismissing the culture and religion of working class whites."

Indeed, the responses to Obama's words have proven (to Obama allies) a part of his argument. Conservatives are already portraying Obama as liberal, elite, out of touch with the values of ordinary Americans -- exactly the type of legerdemain that Obama was pointing to.

So there's a debate to be had about substance.

But the politics are unquestionably dangerous for a candidate whose appeal depends on him transcending traditional political adjectives like "liberal" or "elite."

Despite his working class upbringing, Obama's hyperconfidence sometimes translates as holier-than-thou, elitist, aristocratic, Dukakis-esque. Republicans know that these attributes aren't popular in middle America, so they will use every opportunity to remind independents and moderates about them.

Obama's professorial disquisition at a fundraiser reinforces in real time these stereotypes. And the complexity of his subject matter does not lend itself to an easy response.

One bright spot for Obama: his campaign's response to the story was quick and strong. Obama himself extemporaneously incorporated a defense of his remarks about an hour and a half after the story broke; the Obama campaign sent reporters examples of similar comments made by Hillary Clinton; the campaign entrusted Tommy Vietor, a mid-level spokesman, to give its official response; had a more senior campaign official given the response, it would have conveyed panic.

Obama's response is as follows:

And for 25, 30 years Democrats and Republicans have come before them and said we’re going to make your community better. We’re going to make it right and... nothing ever happens. And of course they’re bitter. Of course they’re frustrated. You would be too. In fact many of you are. Because the same thing has happened here in Indiana. The same thing happened across the border in Decatur. The same thing has happened all across the country. Nobody is looking out for you. Nobody is thinking about you.

And so people end up- they don’t vote on economic issues because they don’t expect anybody’s going to help them. So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on. But they don’t believe they can count on Washington.

So I made this statement– so, here’s what rich. Senator Clinton says ‘No, I don’t think that people are bitter in Pennsylvania. You know, I think Barack’s being condescending.’ John McCain says, ‘Oh, how could he say that? How could he say people are bitter? You know, he’s obviously out of touch with people.’

Out of touch? Out of touch? I mean, John McCain—it took him three tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he’s saying I’m out of touch? Senator Clinton voted for a credit card-sponsored bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to get out of debt after taking money from the financial services companies, and she says I’m out of touch?

No, I’m in touch. I know exactly what’s going on. I know what’s going on in Pennsylvania. I know what’s going on in Indiana. I know what’s going on in Illinois. People are fed-up. They’re angry and they’re frustrated and they’re bitter. And they want to see a change in Washington and that’s why I’m running for President of the United States of America.

I've lived in small-town midwestern America since I was twelve. And, uh... yeah. He's in touch with me. He's in touch with the people I know who vote for officials and politicians who don't give a fuck about their economic interests simply because they've stopped trying to find politicians who care about their economic interests. The best they can do is find someone who'll let them keep their guns, who'll let them build churches on every corner so that they can turn to God to solve problems that mortals in office don't seem to be interested in fixing.

It's bitterness plain and simple to label the government as hopelessly and unfixably corrupt, and to take that one step further and deny that anyone should even try to do better. That's bitterness, and bitterness is often a natural reaction to being seriously seriously screwed over. Rather than, oh I dunno, stop screwing people over, Clinton and McCain are just denying that the bitterness is there.

So you decide for yourself who's demeaning and devaluing the feelings and experiences of rural Americans. The candidate who acknowledges that bitterness and traces it back to political injustice, or the candidates who want to hide that people are upset in the first place?

People are bitter. They are upset. Like Obama said, you would be too. Acknowledging that is not disrespectful or condescending to rural Americans. Ignoring it is.

1 comment:

Scott Ferguson said...

The more you look at this race, the more you realize that there is not populist in the bunch. All of them are somewhat aloof and, as you said, holier-than-thou (or more-patriotic-than-tough in McCain's case). This fact may blunt the long term political damage of Obama's "gaffe." After all, who the hell else are you going to vote for?!

Keep sharing your thoughts.