Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Wisdom of "Bitterness" (JM)

I've been puzzling about what to think about the Obama comments in San Francisco. For those of you that are not aware, Obama essentially made a connection between the "bitterness" of rural Pennsylvanians and their love of guns and religion. Here is the relevant portion of the speech:

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. 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 toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

At first blush I was surprised and maybe a bit impressed with the boldness of a remark like this. But then I was blown away by the political inanity of this remark. Sure, no one is going to disagree with truth that a good portion of this population is quite bitter, they have every reason to be. However, to connect deeply held values to their social position is quite likely to be perceived as condescending. This harms Obama's "one of the people" image; one to which he has a right. I have never really bought in to this whole elitist Obama meme, one of his really impressive characteristics is that he really seems to understand most people, and can make pop culture references to boot. No, for me it has always been the experience question and the "unity" theme that drive me away from Obama. I think this statement is quite divisive to the particular Republican community that he had he best opportunity of co-opting: Huckabee Republicans. The populist, religious conservatives that simply don't believe in McCain would be a good group for Obama to court. Unfortunately, by appearing to denigrate the sincerity of religious ideals, he has probably burned a bridge to this community. Whether or not it is a correct sentiment.

But is it a correct sentiment? I certainly believe that social context largely determines our ideological perspective. In other words, it seems pretty clear that what we believe is very much a function of the places and lives we live. But I suspect that maybe the roots of religious belief and gun culture are tied up in longer standing history and tradition. I agree that anti-immigration beliefs have something to do with this "bitterness", there is pretty clearly a perceived economic effect of illegal immigration to particular communities, and thus a sensible link between the two. However, in the case of religion and guns, these have always been long standing beliefs in the South. Even some of these midwesterny, Pennsylvania-like areas are more a part of the southern community (geographically-speaking). These types of ideals very much grow out of the political history and Southern nationalism of these communities.

Perhaps I will post more on the idea of Southern nationalism in the future, there are a lot of very interesting connections between the historical trials of the South and its ideological formation. But for the purposes of this conversation, that it's enough to observe that very similar political perspectives rose from a particular region and region whose only other major correlation is happening to share Confederate roots. Though that implies that devastation resulted in these particular beliefs it makes no mention of why these particular beliefs arose from such devastation. This is why Obama was missing the point in attaching these beliefs to the "bitterness" of the rural Pennsylvanians. Sure, beliefs did spring out of their history and position in society, but it is the question of why these particular beliefs that matters. If you believe in agency then you can conclude that it was the choice and interests of this community the particular types of beliefs they would have. Either way, Obama's idea doesn't dig deep enough analytically, but does an effective (but not positive) job of digging quite deep psychologically in to the voters of Pennsylvania.

1 comment:

Ted said...

Did you catch Obama's response? I think it's a brilliant way of a) acknowledging that he could have used a different wording to better express his point and b) reiterate that same point in a very clear and forthright way.
You say, incidentally, that "nobody is going to disagree with the truth that a good portion of this quite bitter," but that's exactly what McCain and Clinton have said. But you're right, nobody who wasn't an actor in the bizarre kabuki theater of American politics would disagree with the assertion that people are upset over some things and turn to other things as a result. There was a CNN roundtable thingie with, among others, Jack Cafferty and Jeffrey Toobin last night where they were literally laughing at the transparent ridiculousness of McCain and Clinton's "refutations"; of course people are angry and of course they turn to xenophobia, paranoia and apathy when they feel that government can do nothing for them!
I also feel like you're over-analyzing things somewhat. I don't think Obama was commenting on any particular American cultural facet, merely on the tendency to withdraw from a (real or perceived) ineffective government to an entrenched, bitter position.

And you KNOW this line won't die. It's not big enough to merit a separate speech like the Wright thing, and I think Obama has handled it quite well, but you KNOW it's gonna pop up every 10 minutes from now 'til election day, "Obama belittles religious people and gun enthusiasts." Again, he made a very valid point, just in a poorly-worded way.