Barack Obama is in hot water over his suggestion that working-class voters are bitter over their economic disenfranchisement and that they’re seeking solace in such distractions as guns, God, and religion. Here’s the quotation that’s causing the brouhaha, in case you’re even further behind the news than I am:
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic rightly points out that the trigger words here are “bitter” and “cling.” Also “guns” and “religion,” which suggests we’re in big trouble if you can’t even mention either term except to praise them. I’ll get to them too in a moment.
Aren’t people embittered? On this score, Obama said nothing new. It’s basically the same argument that Thomas Frank put forth a few years ago in What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank himself, interviewed by Sam Stein for the HuffPost, confirmed that he found a country rife with bitterness when he researched his book. Even apart from economic issues, there’s plenty of cause for embitterment, starting with our lost war and eviscerated Constitution, and ending with eight lost years when it comes to energy independence and climate control.
“Cling” was a crappy choice of word, and I won’t try to defend it. It makes people sound weak – and who wants to see themselves as a weakling? Had Obama left out that word, he might’ve avoided this shitstorm. Instead, both of his opponents immediately attacked him as “elistist.”
Democratic guru Bob Shrum points out at the HuffPost that it’s the other two candidates, Clinton and McCain, who are far more deeply rooted in the economic and political elites:
Ironically, Obama’s the one raised by a single mother. He’s the one who only recently finished paying off his student loans. He doesn’t know what it’s like to have $100 million. The opponents who are attacking him are the ones who inhabit that financial neighborhood. …
The Clintons haven’t lived in the real world for at least twenty-five years; they’ve been in a bubble surrounded by aides moving from one mansion to another. This doesn’t mean they don’t care or can’t empathize. But it does make it awkward to damn the guy who was a community organizer helping laid-off steelworkers as someone who is out of touch.
The Clinton-McCain axis can portray Obama as elitist partly because it’s clear to them, and to much of America, that as a half-black man Obama can’t be part of the working class, no matter how humble his origins. This assumption is rooted in real material conditions, on one level: Those laid-off steelworkers are overwhelmingly white men. But it’s primarily ideological. Ever since the Reagan era, many white Americans “know” that poor blacks belong to the underclass. It’s evident that Obama’s too well-educated for that, so he must belong to the elite. There’s no middle ground in this ideological binary, which of course willfully ignores the actual existence of America’s black middle class.
The elitism smear sticks a bit too easily to Obama because his education left an imprint on him that’s familiar to anyone else who’s enjoyed a highly privileged education. I didn’t go to Columbia and Harvard Law, but I did study at two fancy-pants private universities (with oodles of financial aid, which Obama must have received too). I recognize his ability to project an almost aristocratic intellectualism and an aura of deserving to lead – both of which are by-products of that sort of rarefied education. I suspect this is just as recognizable to people who’ve been shut out of privilege. To the extent this inspires resentment, Obama’s opponents can exploit it.
Probably more importantly, as long as Clinton and McCain are willing to kowtow to unreason and anti-intellectualism, they can paint Obama as elitist merely because he refuses to genuflect guns and fundamentalism. But why do “guns” and “religion” set people off? Why does their mere mention make a candidate vulnerable to charges of elitism? Like opposition to immigration, which Obama also cited in his remarks, NRA-style pro-gun advocacy and fundamentalist religion are rooted in profoundly irrational human impulses. These are pre-Enlightenment refuges.
By contrast, Obama expresses a faith in human reason, decency, and civil discourse that’s rare in our political culture. This, more than anything, may be what’s read as elitism. We live in a time when reason, intellectualism, and science have all been smeared with the mud of elitism. The Republicans have succeeded brilliantly in discrediting all of these things as weapons that a powerful class of liberal intellectuals wields against the common man. In fact, this is all a smokescreen for the Republicans’ own manipulations, but that doesn’t hamper them from casting people like me (me!?!) as the enemy of ordinary people. Does it make any sense? Let’s just say I haven’t shipped anyone’s job overseas lately. Does that matter? Heck no.
Seen from this angle, a certain kind of elitism – leadership, myth-busting, wisdom, and discernment – might be just what’s needed to dismantle the illusions the right wing has constructed. I’m not much of a Marxist, but the old Marxian notion of “false consciousness” doesn’t seem like an entirely wrong label for those illusions. I’d prefer to see myself as a radical constitutional democrat (small D, this time). But when people have been so thoroughly misled about their own interests that they consistently vote against it, maybe a dose of benevolent elitism might be a necessary corrective.
Non-dogmatic kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?