The Politics of Bitterness
UPDATE: Some comments from Anglachel added to the bottom of this post.
Yesterday, Mayhill Fowler at The Huffington Post reported some remarks by Sen. Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser last week. I'm reproducing these comments below (emphasis mine, throughout this post) and will add my observations.
So, it depends on where you are, but I think it's fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people feel most cynical about government. The people are mis-appre...I think they're misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this contest have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to 'white working-class don't wanna work -- don't wanna vote for the black guy.' That's...there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today - kind of implies that it's sort of a race thing.
Sen. Obama obviously sought to distance himself from the false charge that white working class voters are not voting for him because they are racist. However, it is rather hilarious that he used this opportunity to advance the entirely false claim that "everybody" believes that racism in the white working-class is the reason why he is struggling to win their votes. What is most insulting about his statement is that it is Sen. Obama's supporters who have been spreading the destructive meme that working class whites aren't voting for him because they are racist. I'd love to believe that he disagrees with this notion, but when his campaign and supporters have gone out of their way to falsely smear the Clintons as race-baiters or racists (something that egregious fact-challenged jokers like Donna Brazile have been only too happy to propagate) let's say that I am not entirely convinced just yet.
Sen. Obama continued:
Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter).
But -- so the questions you're most likely to get about me, 'Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What's the concrete thing?' What they wanna hear is -- so, we'll give you talking points about what we're proposing -- close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama's gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we're gonna provide health care for every American. So we'll go down a series of talking 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. So it's not surprising then that 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.
Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you'll find is, is that people of every background -- there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you'll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I'd be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you're doing what you're doing.
I guess my first observation is that it is entirely revisionist history that people in these small towns were not helped by the Clinton administration - the kind of history that one would normally attribute to Clinton-hating Republicans. It is precisely because many of these people were helped during the Clinton years - as opposed to the Bush years (and also because they see the Clintons to be unlike the usual elitist Democrats who talk down to them - more on this below) that many of these voters love the Clintons and are supporting Sen. Clinton in this primary. In fact, Sen. Obama sounds like a mainstreamed version of the fact-free Clinton haters who keep posting brain-dead comments or diaries trashing the Clinton years as somehow having been destructive to Americans when the reality was quite different and overall very positive, even if it wasn't perfect. Of course, it is his prerogative to run his campaign by rewriting history in a way that is destructive to the Democratic party and one of its most popular presidents, so, I'll leave it at that. That said, let me say something about his unfortunate claim that these voters are "bitter" and therefore "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment".
Luckily for him the lapdog press is on his side during this primary, so his proxies in the media will keep coming up with benign explanations (i.e., W.O.R.M.) for everything he says (example). That aside, I strongly disagree with this kind of sweeping generalization about working class white voters - especially working class Democrats. It is exactly the kind of nonsensical and insulting generalization that his elitist supporters keep making that will only make these voters more suspicious of the Democratic party. For example, describing their often reasonable religious bent with terms like "cling...to religion" and likewise describing their use of guns - which often has nothing to do with their "bitterness" (see the recent comments of Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer in this context which should teach Sen. Obama a thing or two about reality) is way beyond stupid.
You can see in this link that Jeffrey Toobin, a guy I like, made a series of unfortunate comments on this episode (Jack Cafferty, ever the predictable Clinton-hater did not surprise of course). Here is one of the stupid exchanges from the panel of the clueless:
TOOBIN: I just think it's remarkable that Barack Obama, this guy who grew up in a single-family household with no money, who lived in Indonesia, who came from very modest upbringings, somehow he's the elitist? That's really a pretty extraordinary sort of contortion of his background. I mean.
BORGER: It's that Harvard, Yale thing.
CAFFERTY: He did not make $109 million in the last eight year did he?
It really doesn't get more clueless, elitist and out-of-touch than this. Where do we start?
The perception that someone is elitist often has nothing to do with their wealth, "Harvard, Yale thing" or upbringing. Can these people seriously argue that Bush Jr., when he got selected President and in the first several years of his Presidency was in any way considered "elitist" by working class voters because he attended Ivy League colleges and came from a family of incredible wealth? Indeed, FDR would have been the very embodiment of "elitist" if you use these stupid and misleading definitions. He came from a family/dynasty of great wealth, his private school education and even part of his adult life was funded by his family's wealth, and he and his family were a highly integral part of New York elite circles. However, once he seriously began campaigning on a progressive agenda (there was a time earlier in his life when his agenda wasn't that progressive) he aggressively reached out to working class and rural voters that had long been written off by Democrats - not using silly Unity Pony appeals that minimize the importance of policies (*updated with link) but by treating them with respect and repeatedly talking about the issues that mattered to them and about real solutions to real problems. Let's pick up the discussion in Jean Edward Smith's book FDR during the New York gubernatorial race in 1928. By then, FDR had been struck by and was recovering from what is believed to be polio:
For four weeks FDR barnstormed the state, sometimes speaking as often as fourteen times a day. Rosenman marveled at his strength and courage, noting that merely to stand up and sit down was, for Roosevelt, "more exercise than the ordinary man takes during an entire day." ...When he spoke in many upstate cities, the turnout was twice as large as the number of registered Democrats.
In New York, Smith trailed Hoover [in the Presidential race] by 100,000 votes. FDR was running ahead of the ticket but was still 25,000 votes behind Ottinger, with much of the normally Republican upstate vote still to come in. Shortly after midnight the morning papers appeared, trumpeting a GOP sweep. Franklin browsed through them, took the loss philosophically, and said he was going home to East Sixty-fifth Street to get some sleep. Newsmen and campaign workers drifted away, and the big ballroom in which the Democrats had planned a victory celebration went dark.
At 1 A.M. Ed Flynn detected a stronger than expected showing from the returns trickling in from upstate.....At two o'clock the mood in the room lightened. Flynn could recognize a trend as well as any politician in the country.
By 4 A.M. FDR had pulled ahead. The Democrats would hold the Governor's mansion. The final results gave Roosevelt 2,130,238 votes to Ottinger's 2,104,630 - a majority of 25,608 out of more than 4 million votes cast. [pages 227- 228]
Once he became Governor:
Roosevelt's interest in agriculture was also of long standing, a natural product of his avocation of gentleman farmer at Hyde Park and Warm Springs. Whereas Al Smith had written off New York's farmers as inherently Republican ("I never made any impression on any considerable number of them." ), FDR made farm relief the centerpiece of his legislative program....Not only did Roosevelt's interest revitalize the Democratic party upstate, it also helped him balance between the urban and rural wings of the party at the national level.  [page 238]
This is not very different from the approach that President Bill Clinton took in the 1990s and Sen. Clinton has taken - both in her NY Senate race - and in her Presidential campaign. While she has been rightly criticized for not competing effectively in the February caucuses, there is no mistaking the fact that Sen. Obama's victories in the majority of the states has been most often facilitated by higher turnout amongst the traditional Democratic vote in the cities (including in the red state caucuses), African Americans (especially in Southern red states) and the youth vote, along with some Republican and independent votes. Sen. Clinton on the other hand has done reasonably well with the traditional Democratic vote, especially in the largest states, but she has also been very successful in tapping into the working class and rural vote (particularly the female and Hispanic vote) that was won by her husband in the 1990s. For example, this includes some Democrats who did not vote for Sen. Kerry (e.g., in Ohio) - and not because of his race. Even setting aside Ohio, she overwhelmed Sen. Obama's huge advantage in traditional liberal cities by bringing in a large working class voter contingent to the polls in Texas giving her a decisive win in the high-turnout Texas primary. Not only that, in Texas, she demonstrated that she brings better coattails for Democrats compared to Sen. Obama:
Backers of both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton turned out with passionate support for their candidate in last week's Texas primary. But once they got in the voting booth, they did something different.
Obama supporters were more likely to vote in the presidential race and then skip the other contests than Clinton supporters, who tended to continue voting down the ballot, a Dallas Morning News analysis finds.
More than 80 percent of Democratic voters in the Texas counties where Mrs. Clinton had her largest victory margins went on to vote in the U.S. Senate race, the leading statewide contest on the ballot after the presidential race. By contrast, only 71 percent of voters in Mr. Obama's strongest counties did.
In Dallas County, where Mr. Obama got nearly two-thirds of the vote, the falloff was nearly 30 percent.
A review of the Texas vote shows that among the 15 counties Mr. Obama won with his biggest margins, the voter falloff between the president and Senate races ranged from 22 percent, in Harris County, to 38 percent, in Jefferson County.
The biggest falloff was in Republican-heavy Collin County, which Mr. Obama carried by 55 percent. Four in 10 Democratic voters who cast ballots in the presidential race didn't vote in the Senate race.
Republican strategist Royal Masset said the Collin County vote illustrates a big reason for the voter falloff – Republican crossover voters who wanted to influence the outcome.
Although some conservative talk show hosts had urged Republicans to cross over and vote for Mrs. Clinton in order to keep the contest going, there was little evidence that happened.
According to exit polls, only 9 percent of Democratic voters statewide identified themselves as Republicans, and they went for Mr. Obama, 53 percent to 46 percent.
Republican pollster Mike Baselice said a 9 percent to 15 percent crossover vote is typical in Texas, and early-voter analysis indicates many of the "new" voters had some history of voting Democratic in general elections and were only new to a primary.
On the Clinton side, her top 15 counties had a substantially lower voter falloff, from 11 percent in Webb County to 24 percent in Bowie County and 26 percent in Hidalgo County.
In South Texas, a Clinton stronghold, more people likely voted for both president and Senate because of the presence of a Senate candidate with a Hispanic surname.
Removing the South Texas counties from the equation did not significantly change the falloff numbers...
There is a broader lesson here. As Lambert (Corrente) said:
Funny how Hillary’s going around giving detailed and wonky bullet points on policy to supposedly low information voters—and though our famously free press yawns, the crowds eat it up with a spoon.
Meanwhile, our supposedly high information voters, exemplified by the “creative class” [cough] types, have all gone gaga for the Unity Pony.
’Tis a puzzlement!
Tell me again who the people are who really care about politics, how government works, and the way the country is going might be.
It's not just the traditional press that yawns at Hillary's issue-based campaign theme as opposed to the campaign theme of um, hope, change, unity of her opponent. Some Obama supporters also have disdain for Sen. Clinton's approach because they simply think back to the Bush era and assume that many (working class) voters don't care that much about the issues. This is a bad assumption. These voters care about the issues but they also care about the credibility of the candidate in their eyes. It's not an either/or. An issue-based campaign did not help John Kerry in 2004 and Al Smith in 1928. However, it helped Bill Clinton in the 1990s and FDR in 1928 (and beyond). So far, it's helping Sen. Clinton with working class voters because they also like her as a candidate even if they may have some misgivings about her.
Naturally, it doesn't help when Sen. Obama adopts the model of "just stand your ground" by continuing to stand by his comments and making it worse by saying things like this:
"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.
This is just offensive garbage. Democrats have been doing a lot for these voters for 25-30 years. Bill Clinton did a lot for these voters in the 1990s. Sen. Clinton will do a lot more for them. It is the Republicans who have blocked much progress for these voters. Just makes me wonder who exactly is bitter here.
Hey, I can tick off five people I personally know who more or less match that description, except that they aren't thumping bibles and they aren't bitter and they are leading pretty darn normal lives, but they keep voting Republican.
Obama's statements today are paradigmatic of the wine-track attitude and are particularly shocking coming on the heels of his own plea that the nation not judge him harshly for his associations and pastimes, that he be allowed a complex identity that could encompass both his grandmother and his pastor. Fair enough, and an argument that elicits a certain sympathy from me on his personal behalf, though it fell far short of explaining why we should not question his political judgment based on the company he keeps. What he requires we do for him he refuses to do for others, preferring to dismiss an entire class of people in a high-handed manner. Graciously excusing them from racism and then turning around and denigrating their lives in an even more fundamental way is not going to win over a lot of hearts and minds, Barry.
From a political theory perpsective, Obama offered a singularly sophmoric Marxist argument about the voters of Pennsylvania (and by extension the entire working class) as suffering from false conciousness. They are simply bitter about not having jobs and thus they are clinging to the markers of Bubba/Bunker-hood - God, guns, racism (oops, guess that slipped back in), xenophobia, and anti-economic growth (free trade). Gee, what would that look like if we drew a picture? Of course, they had a lot more jobs under Clinton than under any of the Republicans bracketing his administration, but lets not let facts get in the way of a good myth. How does he know they suffer from false conciousness? They fail to vote for him. If they could just rise above their bitter and narrow particularity, then they would see the light and vote for The Precious.
They have guns because they like shooting stuff. They hold to their religion because it provides them with something they value. I may be a secular humanist myself, but as the child of a very devout father, this dismissal of faith went down sideways with me. (It also makes me want to ask, so what the f*** keeps your skinny ass in the pew of your church, given how you characterize the faith of those who do not support you?) Their identities are every bit as complex as Obama's, and as grounded in the dense fabric of their lives as what he claims for himself. It is not epiphenomenal, something to be shed when the scales fall from their eyes and they understand their role in his march to greatness.
[...] The poor bitter rubes of Pennsylvania actually want universal health care, which you aren't delivering. They want Social Security, which your advisor Goolsby wants to privatize. They want an orderly and honorable end to the Iraq occupation, which you are now waffling on. They want deecent education for their kids, a relief from predatory lenders, some privacy, and an end to the assumption that they should be ashamed of themselves because they don't aspire to be upper class.
In the end, what Obama's blather today has done is expose the elite myth that working class America is deficient in some way. The elite of the right proclaims the deficiency is natural inferiority. The elite of the left proclaims the deficiency to be intellectual inferiority. Both scorn these people as Bunkers and Bubbas. What the left misses and what the right fears is that the Clinton appeal is based on respect for being from this class and of honoring those things in that way of life that deserve respect: dedication to family, unswerving loyalty to the nation, a work ethic, faith and a desire to do right by the people they love.