You go into 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.Where to start? First, what this says to me is that the current democratic campaign is first and foremost about the class divide in the party, a division that is being camouflaged by the Obama campaign's self-serving screams about racism. The Democratic Party is being forced to confront the way in which it has crafted a story about working class voters falling behind in real economic terms because of their moral turpitude, i.e., their "racism".
In Salon yesterday, elite UC Berkeley professor Brad Delong engaged in egregious Hillary bashing and casually dismissed people who would not vote for Obama as racists. He does this without acknowledging the full cultural and class assumptions built into the assertion about white reluctance to vote for a black candidate, the kind that come welling up in all their ugliness in political cartoons where "white racists" are portrayed. They aren't shown as nice Upper West Side yuppies. They are Bubbas and Bunkers. They are the people Obama identifies in his quote above and that his campaign sneered at after the loss in Ohio. What Obama shows with his gaffe (As Michael Kinsley famously said, a gaffe is when someone inadvertantly tells an important truth) is his true perception of working class Americans - something utterly alien to himself.
The truth being told here is the way in which the "wine track" cadre of the Democratic party has no clue about working class America except for their own strange blend of bitter, bible-thumping rubes who just can't grasp the big picture, the poor things, and keep voting against their own interests. 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 fuck 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.
It feels weird to have to state that there is dignity and worth in a life of labor. These allegedly bitter, backwards people have no interest in leaving their way of life so they can join Obamacans at the Starbucks in some hip urban enclave. They need not apologize for the choices they've made in their lives, no matter how much people like Obama and Delong try to shame them into voting against their interests. 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.