April 13, 2008

The Song Remains The Same

If you're only a casual follower of politics, you might have initially thought that remarks by Barack Obama to supporters at a campaign event in San Francisco were unremarkable. But if, like me, you get the bulk of your political news from internet news sites and blogs offering a smorgasboard of perspectives on political events, you cannot help but have noticed that they have become a big issue. This will not quickly blow over, either -- it may recede after a few days, but it will re-appear later in the campaign, for reasons that I will go into more fully below.

So, here's the sitrep. When asked about how he would relate to voters in Pennsylvania, where he continues to trail Hillary Clinton for support in the primary, Obama said:
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.
This link at the Huffington Post contains a full, in-context transcript and audio of these remarks. The good Senator from New York and rival for the Democratic Party's nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, pounced:
Sen. Obama's remarks are elitist, and they are out of touch. The people of faith I know don't 'cling to' religion because they're bitter ... I also disagree with Sen. Obama's assertion that people in this country 'cling to guns' and have certain attitudes about immigration or trade simply out of frustration. People of all walks of life hunt — and they enjoy doing so because it's an important part of their life, not because they are bitter.
Conservatives have sung harmony with this response (and several debatably beat Clinton to the punch). A typical example, from Sister Toldjah:
Talking about people being discouraged and “bitter” about their economic situation is one thing, but asserting that the frustration “causes” them to “turn to guns and religion” is insulting, and also makes it sound like being a gun enthusiast and/or being a believer in God is a bad thing. And to say it in front of a crowd full of the elitist of the elite - well, that just raises the Ickometer even higher.
Obama's rebuttal is a counter-attack:

So that's where things stand right now -- conservatives, Republicans, and the Clintonistas all have a confluence of interest in attacking Obama, and they all have hit the same theme of "out-of-touch, hyper-liberal elite." Obama is defending himself and counter-attacking both McCain and Clinton as out of touch themselves and in their own ways, which some suggest means that he's just another ordinary politician after all. A few points I think are worthy of consideration when evaluating this "revelation" into Obama's "elitism."
  1. Our national leaders, especially our Presidents, are elites. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the thoughtful and incisive Rick Moran points out. You may not like that fact but the fact is that if you aren't an elite, chances are you won't ever have a realistic shot at the White House. Sorry. Obama is a new member of this class; he has achieved the improbable but not impossible task of rising up the socioeconomic ladder, certainly in part due to his great intelligence and ability. (We may yet find evidence of corruption as well, but so far there are only hints of this.) And having been invited to sit at this rich table, he has little choice but to embrace the world view of his new peers with Ciceronean vigor. Them's the facts.
  2. Obama was asked a question by a fellow member of this elite class (or perhaps an aspirant to it) about widening his political appeal to a different stratum of American society, and Obama's remarks reveal that elites eschew gun ownership and deep religiosity, and do not understand the appeal of such things to others. Obama attempted to link those social behaviors to economic frustrations, which was no doubt a political note that he wanted to sound. That note clearly rang flat with the subject audience.
  3. This does reveal that Obama is a politician and not the "great transcender" who promises to change the way public affairs are conducted in America forever. If Obama is elected President, we will not suddenly become the high-minded Athenian Republic of high-minded, selfless public servants governing for the good and unity of everyone. Duh.*
  4. At the end of the day, Obama is wrong to link the economic frustrations of blue-collar Pennsylvanians to their embrace of gun ownership and religion. Back in the days when every town in central and western Pennsylvania had a working mill and the economic future there looked bright, people still owned guns and went to church. Plenty of elites own guns and go to church. Plenty of non-elites choose not to own guns and do not go to church. There may be some statistical correlations between economic status and these behaviors, but both Obama and his questioner in San Francisco have made too much of those correlations; Obama is wrong about one causing the other.
  5. Perhaps this reveals that Obama considers a non-gun-owning, non-religious mode of behavior to be better than its opposite. Wow -- guess what, Obama thinks he's right about something. Don't you have opinions that you think you're right on -- and other people are wrong on? Don't we all? Isn't there a degree of condescension inherent in condemning Obama as an effete snob instead of a manly, gun-owning protector? It is not difficult to condemn any value judgment by anyone as a form of "condescension" to those who disagree. Am I being intellectually arrogant to say that Obama was wrong to link economic status with gun ownership? If so, we've reached a point that even suggesting someone else might be wrong about something is not acceptable to behavior, and therefore social and political dialogue, which of necessity incorporates disagreement, will be impossible. That kind of intellectual paralysis is to be avoided in a free society.
  6. The real issue is not whether it's "better" to own a gun or not, or whether it's "better" to go to church or not. Rather, it's a question of how the President will respond to what has now been a solid generation of industrial facility closings, job layoffs, and general weakening of the economy in the Rust Belt. Where Rick Moran quoted Billy Joel, I like something that Bruce Springsteen wrote back when I was a teenager: "Now Main Street's all whitewashed windows and vacant stores. / Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more. / They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks. / Foreman says, 'These jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back.'" Springsteen's foreman is right, those jobs ain't coming back -- American industry will not, in the foreseeable future, be competitive with foreign textile mills and steel foundries, at least at anything like the scale or degree to which it dominated those areas in the 1950's and 1960's. So what will we have our workers and factories do instead and how can the government best help make that happen?
This is not a bullshit issue, or at least it need not be. It is an insight into the way Obama sees the world -- he sees a linkage between economic status and certain kinds of behaviors, a linkage that many other people do not see. It is a glimpse into how his mind works. It is not a statement by someone in proximity to Obama that people might bootstrap into an insight into his "judgment." These are his words and it's fair to criticize (or praise) Obama for things he says himself.

Now, we could use this as a way to get an understanding of what America under President Obama would be like. We could look at this as a way to see what kind of policies he would advocate and enact as President to reverse a decline in industrial employment in the Great Lakes region (and if we did, I think we'd see that his response is more than a little bit vacuous).

But we aren't doing that. Instead, everyone is calling everyone else a bunch of names. The incident itself doesn't have to be the same old bullshit, but the way this is being played out is the same old bullshit. Most unfortunately, Obama has responded to all the bullshit by slinging some himself. So instead of getting an insight that might illuminate our choices as voters, we're getting clarion calls for standard-rallying ("Gun owners - Obama thinks you're all idiots!"), name-calling ("You're an elitist!" "Oh yeah? Well, you're out of touch!"), and jockeying for political position.

I don't know that there are any good answers to the real policy problem here. Personally, I'm comfortable with the idea of our leaders looking for the least bad resolution to an issue when there are no good ones, which seems to be the way that most issues facing us will need to be resolved. And granted, that's kind of a dismal view of public affairs. But what leaves a bad taste in my mouth is how everyone is bypassing the opportunity to explore real ideas and differing opinions in favor of name-calling.

UPDATE: Obama now says that he "didn't say it as well as [he] should have" when speaking about the frustrations of middle-class Pennsylvanians. Sometimes a politician must concede the obvious.

* Some might accuse me of cynicism here, to which I can only reply, "guilty as charged." While I understand the appeal Obama makes to the better angels of our nature, I perceive limits, and fairly stringent ones at that, to his ability to lead us to the shining city on a hill. That's not to say that he couldn't (in theory) lead us closer to it. But it is to say that actually getting there is a practical impossibility.


bobvis said...

Great post.

Obama is a politician and not the "great transcender"

I did not necessarily believe he was this. However, I did believe that he was someone who did not rely on caricatures of opposing viewpoints. In fact, it seems that when he is not making a prepared speech his view of the opposition include non sequiturs like "people like guns because the economy isn't doing well." I don't believe that is a significant step up from Clinton's "conservatives want to kill schoolchildren."

zzi said...

If there is a video of the SF remarkes, which I hear there is, this won't go away.