Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Much Better Than I Can Say It

Two articles today get to the heart of what I've been trying to say for the last month, but haven't been able to pull together. I'm offering extended quotes because what these two have to say is important.

First is Michael Lind's brilliant piece in Salon, The Rubes and the Elites. He engages in some reasonably straightforward political science cross-cut with sensible sociology and comes up with a calm explanation of the voting patterns we are seeing in the campaign. If you don't subscribe to Salon, you may need to sit through an ad to read the article. Believe me, it's worth it. Some key paragraphs:

The events of the past few days are additional evidence of a profound rift in the Democratic Party, one revealed in the differing constituencies of the two remaining candidates. One story, told by Obama backers and the mainstream media, holds that there is a white racist problem: The Democratic Party is deeply divided between anti-racists (that is, supporters of Barack Obama) and racists (Democratic primary voters who preferred Hillary Clinton or any candidate other than Barack Obama, particularly the working-class white men who are often described, in zoological terms, as "white males"). The other story, which has yet to be told, holds that the difference between the constituencies of Obama and Clinton has little to do with race and reflects instead long-familiar regional and cultural splits among whites in the Democratic electorate. The prospects of the Democratic Party in the fall depend in part on whether these rifts can be healed.

The path of least resistance for liberal journalists and bloggers is to respond to these disturbing numbers by demonizing less-educated white Democrats. That is easier for them than to grasp the idea that these voters might actually like Hillary Clinton. One theory holds that "low information" voters, ignorant of the candidates and the issues, favor Clinton because of name recognition. But contrary to the progressive mythology about "low-information voters," a March Gallup poll shows that "both Obama and Clinton have near-universal name identification across all educational levels."

Even more common has been the claim by many supporters of Obama that the Clinton campaign, by means of subtle appeals to white racial prejudice, has attracted a large number of bigots who oppose Obama because he is black. The "race baiting" is alleged to have consisted of Bill Clinton's comparison of Obama to Clinton's friend Jesse Jackson, and Hillary Clinton's praise for the civil rights efforts of Lyndon Johnson, which, it was said, denigrated the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. Since when have white race baiters praised Jesse Jackson and LBJ?

To judge from Obama's several statements on the subject, he sincerely believes that working-class whites, lacking the self-awareness to recognize the actual economic origins of their distress, seek relief from their pain by praying in church, slaughtering deer, and making illegal immigrants and imports from foreign countries scapegoats for ills that have nothing to do with immigration or trade. They may not be racists, they may even be sympathetic victims, but they are too irrational to understand their genuine problems and their true interests, which are chiefly economic, a fact that university-educated progressives in big cities and college towns can readily perceive.

Whether the "bitter" controversy helps Hillary Clinton win enough votes in the final primaries to beat the odds and win the Democratic nomination remains to be seen. At press time, she was surging in the polls. One thing is certain: In the fall election, John McCain, whoever his Democratic opponent might be, will portray himself as the candidate who defends the dignity and pride of working-class and lower-middle-class Americans of all races against the disdain of elite liberals. Unfortunately, many progressives will make that task much easier by repeating the litany of contempt: Rubes. Rednecks. Retro.

The other post of the day is from the incomparable Bob Somerby. A blogger before the term existed, Bob takes no prisoners on the electoral impact of elitism on Democratic Party prospects:

Truly, it has been embarrassing to watch some liberals attempt to come to terms with this matter. Just as an obvious matter of fact, condescension toward average people has plagued progressive movements at least since the late 1960s, when Dr. King stopped being the public face of progressive change and various Middle America-trashers took his place in the public imagination. (Abbie Hoffman, for instance.) In his brilliant public ministry, Dr. King confronted people who turned dogs and hoses loose on children; blew up churches where children were praying; threw him in jail on tortured pretexts; and eventually chased him down and killed him. But quite aggressively, Dr. King refused to deny the soul of the Bull Connors—of those who behaved in such fallen ways. Within a few years, it became possible to tag progressivism with the face of those who loudly showed the world how much they hated the mores and life-styles of their horrible mommies and daddies. From that day to this, progressive politics has been damaged by a sometimes-accurate perception—the perception that progressives and liberals are a bunch of snooty snobs

In fact, progressives sometimes are snooty snobs. We love to display our cultural and moral superiority to those whose values or instincts may differ. We love to call them xenophobes, vigilantes and racists. We love to ridicule their religion (just read the comments whenever Amy Sullivan posts). Indeed, Bob Herbert starts off this morning’s column by giving vent to this very instinct. This is exceptionally sloppy exposition—and it’s probably very bad politics:

HERBERT (4/15/08): Maybe Barack Obama felt he couldn't afford to give the correct answer.

He was asked at a fund-raiser in San Francisco about his campaign's experiences in the run-up to next week's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. One of the main problems, of course, is that he hasn't generated as much support as he'd like among white working-class voters.

There is no mystery here. Except for people who have been hiding in caves or living in denial, it's pretty widely understood that a substantial number of those voters—in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere—will not vote for a black candidate for president.

“There is no mystery here,” Herbert says, betraying the confidence of the elitist. (In his first sentence, he modestly acknowledges that he knows “the correct answer.”) And then he makes a sweeping (if imprecise) assessment of the souls many people; “a substantial number” of Pennsylvanians won’t vote for Obama because of his race, he says. Later, he leans down from the mountaintop, saying this: “No one has an obligation to vote for Mr. Obama, and it's certainly not racist to vote against him.” Gee, thanks! But wouldn’t you know it? Right at the start of his piece, he seems to say something quite different.

Are there people in Pennsylvania who will vote against Obama due to race? Presumably there are—although, in fact, there’s plenty of “mystery” about how “substantial” the “number” might actually be. But at least since the late 1960s, many progressives have behaved just as Herbert does here. It’s our first instinct! We start by attributing the worst possible motives and attributes to wide numbers of everyday people—people whom we’ve never met. What exactly does Herbert mean when he says “a substantial number” of Pennsylvanians won’t vote for Obama due to his race? There’s no way to know for sure—but his formulation seems to take everyone in. This formulation—the first thing he offers—quickly makes everyone suspect. “There is no mystery here,” he says—although, of course, there is.

Unfortunately, many “progressives” simply can’t understand the nature of this decades-old problem. They can’t understand why it’s bad politics (and basically foolish) to ridicule people for being religious. They don’t see why it’s bad politics this week to build jokes around the word “gun-toting.” A few months ago, they didn’t understand why it was morally obnoxious (and vastly stupid) to accuse everyone in sight of being a slobbering racist. Sergio Bendixen, for example—so accused for answering a question he’d been asked about a delicate subject. They could tell that Bendixen was a big vile race man—and that others had conspired with him!

To all appearances, some men get into comedy so they can ridicule women from a stage. Similarly, some people seem to become progressives so they can forever parade about, telling the world about their moral superiority to all the unwashed rubes. For them, progressive politics is about name-calling. A movie is playing in their heads. In this movie, they and their friends are the very good people. Mommy and Daddy are not.

We’d be inclined to say that this political/moral problem began to afflict progressive movements in the late 1960s. And uh-oh! In the last few days, conservative columnists have sometimes shown that they know this terrain rather well. This morning, George Will goes back to FDR to illustrate this liberal problem. We won’t necessarily go along with his assessment of Adlai Stevenson. (He works from a few offhand comments here.) But as a general matter, we think he’s uncomfortably close to the mark as he describes “liberalism's transformation since Franklin Roosevelt:”

WILL (4/15/08): What had been under FDR a celebration of America and the values of its working people has become a doctrine of condescension toward those people and the supposedly coarse and vulgar country that pleases them.

When a supporter told Adlai Stevenson, the losing Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, that thinking people supported him, Stevenson said, "Yes, but I need to win a majority." When another supporter told Stevenson, "You educated the people through your campaign," Stevenson replied, "But a lot of people flunked the course." Michael Barone, in "Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan," wrote: "It is unthinkable that Roosevelt would ever have said those things or that such thoughts ever would have crossed his mind." Barone added: "Stevenson was the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle-class American culture—the prototype of the liberal Democrat who would judge ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and find them wanting."

Many “shirts-and-skins” players will reject any words spoken by Will and Barone. But in this matter, Will and Barone are uncomfortably close to right—and Robinson and Cohen seem largely clueless. But then, conservatives have long understood these matters better than “progressives” have, thereby gaining electoral advantage. Often, they have overstated or misstated particular claims, with mainstream journos playing along. (How dare Kerry go wind-surfing?) But they seem to understand the terrain better than liberal counterparts.

Elitism isn’t about what you do. It isn’t about how much money you have. (FDR was wealthy.) It’s about the things you think and say about those small-town or working-class rubes. Some progressives have shown, again and again, that they simply can’t understand this distinction. Will Obama’s remark cost him votes? We don’t know; we hope they won’t, although we’re beginning to get concerned about his rookie mistakes. But if they do, it will be because there have been so many such remarks, by so many other people, remarks which often weren’t off-hand comments. This has been a major problem for many years; some liberals still seem to lack the first clue about what the problem consists in.

What so many Obamacans fail to get from the SF statement is that the truth or accuracy of whether people are bitter isn't electorally significant. The impact is whether those so described believe the Democratic candidate is the one who is going to do something concrete to aleviate their situation, and whether they will do so with respect for the humanity and dignity of the person in need of help.

So far, the answer appears to be "No" where The Precious is concerned.

Anglachel

13 comments:

janiscortese said...

People are (and have been for years) splitting working-class whites' issues into two categories:

1) economic
2) cultural

The current opera libretto we're all working from makes the following claim:

1) Liberals support the first while deriding the second.
2) Conservatives deride the first while supporting the second.

And the left wing says, "So what if we deride them as ignorant, thick-thumbed palookas? You'd think they would be smart enough to forgive our insulting caricatures of them and vote for their economic interests instead!"

Here's the thing: "those people" are too smart to think that you can deride their culture and then turn around and fight for their rights. They read your libretto, and what they see is:

1) Conservatives fuck us over economically and value us culturally.
2) Liberals deride us culturally and hence,for all their protestations to the contrary, they ain't gonna be in our corner economically either, not when the chips are down.

So why do "those people" vote conservative? What the hell else are they gonna do? It's a two party system, dumbshits.

So they lost them -- white, male working-class men.

The thing is, they're leaking everyone else now. Women are (FINALLY!!!) waking up to the fact that the liberals aren't going to go to the mat for us, either. Especially not when the supposed elite vanguard of liberal America is coronating a guy who has his very own bikini-clad bimbette shaking her shit on YouTube to the brays of appreciation of his fucking brownshirts. Not when his campaign is making digs at her, not when they are drunk onthe glee that comes from fucking over a powerful woman and knocking her ass back down to earth. Those are not the sort of people who will wake up the next day after the convention and suddenly go, "Hey, let's pass us some single-mother friendly legislation!"

They aren't going to be there for us in a clinch. That's why they don't have us over a barrel on choice anymore; for the same reason they don't have the white male working-class over a barrel on the minimum wage. They just defected earlier than we did.

Old people are next. Then, once they find out that St. Barack ain't going to give two shits for them after he's president any more than he did before, black people. Gays are next.

And again, we'll vote for Repubs because WTF else are we going to vote for, eh?

CognitiveDissonance said...

janis, interesting categories and how the dems and reps deal with them. This is the heart of the problem with the 2-party system. We very seriously need a third party, but of course the donkeys and elephants aren't going to let that happen. I would be willing to bet, though, that if the Precious steals this nomination that the Green Party will be getting more votes than they've ever seen in a presidential election.

janiscortese said...

BTW, I read that second link about John Mccain, the press's darling favored son, and now I want a goddamned doughnut. Wah.

Off to bed. Maybe I'll get lucky and dream about a chocolate cruller from DD. :-(

Námo Mandos said...

So I know some of the sort of people who've left a particular white cultural milieu behind for the city, and who despise the realm in which their parents still live.

Is this a real clash of values? I mean, just judging from the atheism warz on the Internet (cf blogs like Pharyngula and the Flying Spaghetti Monster phenomenon), it seems like a real issue and not a reconcilable difference.

Chinaberry Turtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chinaberry Turtle said...

There is a 2006 South Park episode titled "Smug Alert" that describes the phenomena we're talking about. I would provide a link to the video, but I just re-watched it and realized that some parts of the video could be offensive to gay people (a person says "that song is so gay" to mean "that song is not good"). So, I'm not providing a link, but if you can stomach this offensiveness, the video is otherwise good satire of exactly what we're talking about.

jacilyn said...

"Respect for the humanity and dignity" is exactly it.

Thanks for sayin' it.

Shainzona said...

I write this consumed by guilt and shame.

I have a twin brother who only votes Repug. And my older sister and I have always gotten into "discussions" with him as to why that is wrong. (It truly is wrong - he is someone who NEEDS Democratic policies but refuses to consider that option under any circumstance!).

I started realizing last year that what he was probably responding to is our "we know what is right - you don't" attitude.

And this flap about Obama has made me realize that we have been condescending toward him. He probably thinks that we believe him to be stupid.

Well, I realize now - I've been the stupid one. I'm so sorry Mark!

We will do better to understand your POV's and explain ours in the future.

Potato Head said...

Remember Political Correctness? Remember how that was a bad thing, how it kept people from saying what needed to be said about (mostly) minorities? Now, all of a sudden, political correctness is back, only this time in the form of affirmative action for one, and only one group: Reagan Democrats. We can't make any statement that might ruffle their feathers, because to do so would offend their dignity.

Fuck that. Here we are, flogging ourselves over what and how many sins progressives are guilty of (one of them is excessive self-flagellation), but the Holy Smalltown Voter is of Virgin born. Why don't we all grow up and demand that the HSV be subject to the same rules as everyone else? It's not like a lot of what's floating around this discussion is anything new. On the negative side, the HSV has been under the microscope since Sherwood Anderson and Winesburg, OH, and Upton Sinclair's Main Street. There is much to recommend smalltown life (I live in one, though not in the US), but as long as they are populated with human beings it will contain its own, economically and socially determined traits. And some of those traits will not be virtuous, provincialism among them.

This is not to say, of course, that politicians can afford to make remarks that offend a group if they expect to get their votes. But that is a case apart from the question of what we can and can't say about each other in public.

omar said...

hi. i stumbled upon your blog post and i really enjoy the openness of the discussion here. anyway, i'd like to throw out a very different take on the "bitter" comment.

i think the salon article about that post has it wrong concerning how most people are likely to vote, as does hillary, and so too obama. i think they all are focusing a bit too much on the rational, and may have the wrong unit of analysis. first, salon.. they characterize the "bitter" comments like so:

"In the words of Todd Gitlin, Obama "did indeed fall into the Tom Frank vulgar Marxist trap of seeming to say that love of guns or religion (or antipathy, even) is merely derivative, not fundamental." The attempt by eminent figures on the left to belittle traditional values by reducing them to personal pathology dates back at least to 1950, when the German Marxist émigré Theodore Adorno, in "The Authoritarian Personality," attempted to explain fascism (and by implication American McCarthyism) in terms of repressed individuals who take out their psychic frustrations on minorities. Similarly, the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset explained the Goldwater-Reagan conservative movement as the product of "status anxiety" on the part of socially insecure Americans. This line of thinking, inspired by absurd comparisons between Weimar Germany and post-1945 America and between libertarian conservatism and Hitlerian totalitarianism, has been discredited by scholars like Lisa McGirr, who shows in her 2001 book, "Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right," that Goldwater-Reagan activists tended to be successful, educated people for whom conservative ideology was not a mask for something else but a coherent belief system. Nevertheless, the cliché that working-class and even middle-class social traditionalists, when they are not simply ignorant, "low information" hicks, are maladjusted misfits whose political views are nothing more than feeble gestures of misdirected rage, persists as an article of faith among many progressives, who then wonder why the Democrats cannot win over more of the voters they despise."

i think they get caught up in this personally fundamental vs derivative situation, which is misleading. people don't live in a vacuum. most of our opinions, beliefs, habits are derivative -- they are first imitated! we don't have the energy to think everything through clearly. so when does something become fundamental, let alone personally fundamental? that's a somewhat strange question, in my mind. furthermore, the way to turn this around may not be to call the people making the "bitter" comment elitists, but question to what degree those people actually rationally construct their voting decisions. it would've been so awesome if obama's speech in sf also contained a quote along the lines of "and what about you people sitting in this room? if you were voting your pocket books, voting selfishly, maybe all ways point republican. if you valued smart CEOs with clear experience and results, as many of you must, you might vote clinton. so why are you voting for me? think hard about this. how'd you hear about me? are all your friends doing it? was this decision a long, conscious struggle? maybe your voting beliefs are just as derivative as we suggest they are for rural, poor americans. but don't worry, i'm your man!" i think everyone should think hard about these questions.

the people who must be really enjoying this debate are the marketers, especially those who have gone to work for campaigns. i think they've long ago realized that many of our beliefs are socially constructed and socially reinforced and hinge not on clearly rational bases. with that observation, they are then able to develop campaigns that either attempt to reinforce or disrupt those beliefs. i want to see the MSM or the blogosphere write about that possibility. maybe they have..

eRobin said...

Somerby goes too far when he uses Herbert as an example of his thesis though. That Herbert column was an exercise in moderation. To deny that there are people who won't vote for Obama b/c he's black is to lose the argument b/f it begins. I'm voting for Hillary b/c I prefer her health care policy and I love her idea to have a bond-funded WPA-style program to rebuild our infrastructure and b/c I haven't heard any good economic ideas from Obama that I haven't heard from HRC. Plus, Obama takes every opportunity to tell Roosevelt Dems like me that he can win without us. To that I say, "Be my guest." BUT I don't kid myself that there are some people are voting or not voting at all b/c they don't want the black guy to win.

CMike said...

eRobin writes:

****************
Somerby goes too far when he uses Herbert as an example of his thesis though. That Herbert column was an exercise in moderation. To deny that there are people who won't vote for Obama b/c he's black is to lose the argument b/f it begins.
******************

Does Bob Somerby deny "that there are people who won't vote for Obama b/c he's black..."?

Somerby writes:

****************
Are there people in Pennsylvania who will vote against Obama due to race? Presumably there are—although, in fact, there’s plenty of “mystery” about how “substantial” the “number” might actually be. But at least since the late 1960s, many progressives have behaved just as Herbert does here. It’s our first instinct! We start by attributing the worst possible motives and attributes to wide numbers of everyday people—people whom we’ve never met. What exactly does Herbert mean when he says “a substantial number” of Pennsylvanians won’t vote for Obama due to his race? There’s no way to know for sure—but his formulation seems to take everyone in. This formulation—the first thing he offers—quickly makes everyone suspect. “There is no mystery here,” he says—although, of course, there is.
****************

You read Somerby's claim that "presumably there are...people in Pennsylvania who will vote against Obama due to race" as The Howler reporter denying that some people will vote against Obama because he is black? By the way, in the Democratic primary do you think more people are voting against Sen. Obama because he is black than are voting for him, first and foremost, because he is black?

eRobin said...

This formulation—the first thing he offers—quickly makes everyone suspect. “There is no mystery here,” he says—although, of course, there is.

That's the part I didn't like and where I thought that Somerby was denying Herbert a valid point. And it's a foolish fight to pick.

By the way, in the Democratic primary do you think more people are voting against Sen. Obama because he is black than are voting for him, first and foremost, because he is black?

I don't know. Nobody will ever know b/c you have to be able to read hearts and minds to know the answer. The whole argument can be boiled down to "race (among other identity issues) matters." I'm more interested in what we do after we acknowledge that. I think Herbert's column addressed that question.