Sunday, April 13, 2008

Politician Tells Truth. Nation Loses Mind.

Over the past couple days, I have watched no TV, listened to no radio, and done very little surfing. And still, I am unable to escape the latest in the Clinton-GOP campaign to destroy America.

Seriously, Obama remarked that some people are bitter about not having their concerns addressed by their own government, and this means he's "elitist?" And this means he's a bad candidate?

I don't want to comment any further on the amount of repugnance I feel for Hillary Clinton at this point. If you want a sense of my mood, head on over to Balloon Juice. John Cole feels about the same as I do, except he's being way more polite than I would. You can start with any of these.

[Added] More bitterness about "bitterness," by driftglass. A top-notch screed.

[Added] Robert Reich takes a calmer approach.


Adam said...

The quote in question is:

"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, a lot of them -- 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've gone 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, and 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."

You can't see how this would strike many people (including myself) as being an offensive and elitist comment?

First of all, from a political strategy standpoint, this is about the worst possible thing I could think of for Obama to say. Forget the primaries (for all your antipathy to Hillary, which I can definitely understand) Obama is going to be the Democratic candidate. So planning ahead to the general, it doesn't particularly seem like a wise idea to insult the demographics who are Hillary's bread and butter and who Obama will need to win over to take states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

As to why it's insulting: the insinuation is that through the years of Republican dominance in government and the Clinton years, that people were credulous idiots who were so dumb as to not understand the real problems affecting them and that they should be on board with his agenda for change. The idea, in itself, that the Clinton and Bush years have done little to help people in the rust belt is not a bad one for Obama to put forward; in fact it's probably a pretty good strategy for winning over poor whites-- the crucial swing voters in these states.

However, the way he put it, that these people "cling" to religion, to their sentiments about immigration, to gun culture implies (to me anyways) that these are non-issues, and that people who care about these things are dupes, rubes who just don't get it, and that they should stop being such unreconstructed redneck idiots and get with the program. Hope, you fools!

The bit about religion and "antipathy toward people who aren't like them" seem to me to imply that these people are either religious zealots or racists, and that both of these things are standing in the way of progress. For people who are deeply religious, or who don't think that massive immigration reform is a great idea and take this idea seriously, this seems to be a pretty profound insult to their intelligence.

The thing about religion, especially, seems particularly toxic; I'd expect Christopher Hitchens to say that, not the presumptive front-runner for the Presidency of the United States.

So I guess you can get mad at Hillary for bringing this up-- it certainly is destructive to the party and seems like her trying to drag Obama down if she can't be the nominee-- but in the larger, more important context of the general election, this seems like a profoundly stupid thing for Obama to say, and if Hillary hadn't brought it up, I'm sure the VRWC would have.

bjkeefe said...

First, since you don't live in a small town, and have shown no evidence of clinging to the tropes that Obama gave as examples, no, I don't see why you should be offended. If you are, I am inclined to think that you're just being overly receptive to examples that will support your existing antipathy towards Obama.

To your larger point, I'll stipulate that it wasn't a particularly politic way to illustrate the idea that he was trying to get across.

On the other hand, we're talking about an offhand comment made in conversation. We are also talking about a statement that, however inartfully expressed, contains a lot of truth. It is true that a lot of people feel frustrations at their declining lot in life and the lack of attention that the government has paid to them. It is true that, in response, many of them have been inclined to reach for concrete scapegoats, and/or to gravitate towards issues they might feel like they can do something about, and/or to retreat into the dogmatic comfort of faith. This is the whole "what's the matter with Kansas?" idea, that people have so given up on the hope that the government will do anything to improve their economic situation that they vote against a lot of their own interests, and instead, vote based on a small set of extremely narrow issues. And worse, once having made the decision to focus on such trivialities, they shut their brains off and spend the rest of their lives mindlessly repeating whatever caricatures and slogans Fox News and Rush Limbaugh offer up. The fact is, the Democrats are not out to confiscate your guns, close down your churches, and make everyone get married to someone of the same sex. But try telling that to the sort of people Obama was referring to.

I grant that it is not necessarily an indication of intelligence for people to weight issues differently from the way that I do, but there gets to be a point where some people vote for candidates who are diametrically opposed to doing anything that might actually help them, just because such candidates toss them a few narrow and largely irrelevant bones. The idea that people prioritize a candidate paying excessive lip service to their religious beliefs or views on gun control, while ignoring the candidate's plans to do everything possible to favor the rich, to promote an irresponsible foreign policy, and to destroy the social safety nets that such voters actually rely upon may not say that such people are stupid, but it certainly suggests that they're missing the forest for the trees.

Lastly, I agree that the VRWC will be eager to leap upon such slips of the tongue. But that doesn't excuse Hillary Clinton at all for giving them help. Every time she parrots a right-wing talking point, the GOP is given another video clip to use in a future attack ad. I can see it now: "Even liberal senator Hillary Clinton says of Obama: blah blah blah."

Adam said...

It may surprise you to hear this, but although my sister and I both went to Ivy League schools, only 4 of the 11 cousins in our generation in my family (all on my mom's side, and of which I'm the youngest) have college diplomas, 4 would be "some college" at small state schools and JC's, and 3 have no college education.

Of my aunts and uncles only 1 of my mom's 4 brothers and sisters went to college.

They are scattered across the Midwest, with most in Minnesota and a few scattered across Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.

So yea, personally, I am not one of these "bitter" voters, but a lot of my family is.

And as for the "what's the matter with Kansas" argument, as an unreconstructed libertarian, I think that this is a huge red herring. It assumes that no one could rationally vote against government programs that would be in their economic interest, or that economic self-interest is the only valid reason to vote for one candidate or party. First of all, your priorities might be such that you care much more about these issues people "cling" to than to voting for a government program that might help you. (As an ancillary point, the anti-immigrant sentiment that Obama saw as part of this "bitter" voter's mentality could be argued to be in one's own economic self-interest).

But to get to my main point, take my cousin Matt. He lives in Minnesota and is a staunch Republican. He is one of the "some college" cousins, he's 31, spent a couple years at the University of Minnesota, but never got a degree and works construction and lives month to month. You might think his political reasoning naive or foolish or unpleasant, but he votes against Democrats because he's a small government libertarian type. Even though he doesn't make a lot of money, he complains that taxes are too high, that he resents the people in his neighborhood who do benefit from government programs (he lives in kind of a shitty neighborhood in Minneapolis) and that he probably wouldn't want, say, the government to pay for health insurance even if he personally might be a net recipient of transfer payments.

I don't know what your feeling is about someone who on principle would rather have less than vote for an increased role of government, but I see nothing irrational about such a stance. To him, keeping his guns and voting against the welfare state are his priorities.

Again, I'm not saying that I am one of the voters he's talking about, far from it. But I think that the items he listed as things people are "clinging" to, and the assumption that people voting against increased entitlements that they might be eligible for is direct evidence that they are ignorant and have been misled is somewhat insulting to American voters.

It does play into my antipathy to him, but can't voters' libertarian leanings be rationally reached, and explain the success of the conservative movement over the last 25 years, as opposed to the idea that everyone who votes Republican and isn't rich has something the matter with them, and is some sort of dupe? I know it's anecdotal evidence, but in my cousin Matt's case, he's not the smartest or most well educated guy in the world, but I don't think he's confused about what the results of a Democrat controlled Federal Government would be, and I think that he votes what his priorities and values represent.

bjkeefe said...

As I said, and maybe should have emphasized, I don't necessarily think that someone is stupid for having a different set of priorities when it comes to voting. If someone like your cousin Matt would rather stick to a set of principles than vote his economic self-interest, hey, it's a democracy. The problem is, I don't think Matt has really thought things all they way through. If he's working construction, he probably never considers all of the safety aspects of his job that have been put in place by the government, for example. I also doubt he's thought about how little his taxes have changed since Bush came into office -- if he's living month to month, he's not in a financial bracket where he's gotten much benefit from the bulk of Bush's tax cuts.

The larger problem is I don't think a lot of people in situations similar to your cousin's even think about it as carefully as he has. Believe me, I've worked construction on and off over nearly thirty years, and I know how most people in the trades think. Or don't. They tend to know a few slogans, like "the Democrats are the party of tax and spend," and that's it. Or they're homophobic, and they let themselves get all worked up by "Nancy Pelosi wants to impose her San Francisco values on you." Or they're xenophobic, and though they live in New England, they fret about the border with Mexico. Or their foreign policy instincts begin and end with the attitude that we should bomb the shit out of any country that disses us, including a sincere belief that the best way to deal with, say, Iran is to nuke it back to the Stone Age. Or they're born-again Christians, and are convinced that the Democrats are in league with Satan. Or they have a wildly out of proportion sense of how much of their tax dollars go to "welfare queens."

Getting away from anecdotes, I also ask you to consider the mountains of survey data that show that for the past couple of decades, a strong majority always comes down on the side of issues that match the Democrats' platform. In other words, people seem to know what they want, but they incorrectly identify which party is more likely to pursue these goals. Again, not everybody. Just most people.

You close by attributing such attitudes to "libertarian leanings," and say that I'm wrong to think the conservatives' success lately is due to people like this being duped. I will concede that there might be a few working class people who have actually thought things through and just have different priorities than what seems sensible to me, but I do think most people in this class are, in fact, fools. I am convinced that they have been manipulated by a party that has no shame in catering to their prejudices and fears. I hasten to add that the right's success has been enhanced by the Democrats' inability to articulate and stick to a coherent philosophy, and by their unwillingness or inability to play the same kind of hardball politics.

Adam said...

Isn't the presumption that the voters are too stupid (foolish, however you want to say it) to know who they actually want to run the country almost the very definition of elitism?

Matt probably does overestimate how much money goes to welfare, and to be blunt he is something of a racist when it comes to, particularly, the Somalians who have moved into his neighborhood. Which brings up to me what is an interesting question; you say that the Republican party plays into the fears and prejudices of the voters as if without the Republican party those fears and prejudices wouldn't exist. But what if people really do dislike immigrants, people on the dole and really do resent Muslims all over the planet and do want to turn Iran into a sheet of glass?

You and I might think that those are bad things to prioritize highly, but if people really think like that and see the Democrats as the defenders of immigrants, welfare recipients and Muslims, then isn't their voting for Republicans at least rationally in line with that set of priorities, if not with their economic interests? I know with my cousin Matt he talks a lot more about what he dislikes about local politicians and the national Democratic party than he does what he likes about the Republicans he votes for. I have another cousin whose name I won't mention who is more of an unreconstruted racist (he was telling me jokes about "niggers" and Indians (that is, Native Americans) when I was like 13 years old). His political philosophy is simple: check the boxes in the column marked "R." He is actually one of my better educated cousins, finally getting his nursing degree in his late 20's and now working as a nurse in Duluth. I haven't seen him in a couple years (since he got his degree, in fact) so it's possible that his views have changed, but I doubt it. I doubt he'll be voting for Obama in November.

So what is the problem with him? Is he irrationally and unknowingly voting against the policies he actually wants? It's conceivable, but I'd say that he probably prioritizes things like voting against affirmative action and liberalization of government benefits and immigration (which may be motivated by racism) above possibly increasing economic benefits for himself. I don't expect you to diagnose the specific reasons behind what he, personally does, but I pose the question to illustrate a more general one, which is: what if the voters really aren't with the program? That is, what if they're ready to vote against policies that they might be in favor of in order to vote against more ancillary policies that they see as main priorities of the Democratic agenda?

In those mountains of survey evidence, they must ask about things like immigration, affirmative action, foreign policy, gay marriage, and a whole host of social and other issues that lots of people have strongly visceral reactions against the Democratic party over, right? Does it count as misidentifying the candidate who actually represents the policies you want if the Democrat, say, represents the policy you favor on 12 of 18 issues, but the six that he misses on are ones that are totally unacceptable to miss on, for you?

bjkeefe said...


Isn't the presumption that the voters are too stupid (foolish, however you want to say it) to know who they actually want to run the country almost the very definition of elitism?

Sure. I hasten to add that while it's possible for politicians to grow completely out of touch, I do not in general consider elitism a bad thing. I want my leaders to be better than me. I want them to be smarter, less prone to prejudices, more open-minded, more capable, more able to grasp the big picture, and on and on. As Richard Dawkins has said, "What's wrong with being elitist, if you are trying to encourage people to join the elite rather than being exclusive? I'm very, very keen that people should raise their game rather than the other way around."

Try to imagine how bad things would be if the proverbial man on the street's views held sway in all matters. It'd be a bloodbath.

Which brings up to me what is an interesting question; you say that the Republican party plays into the fears and prejudices of the voters as if without the Republican party those fears and prejudices wouldn't exist. But what if people really do dislike immigrants, people on the dole and really do resent Muslims all over the planet and do want to turn Iran into a sheet of glass?

I did not mean to say, if I did, that without the GOP's familiar tactics, fears and prejudices would not exist. I certainly don't believe this. What I do believe is that the GOP preys on existing human shortcomings, and that their incessant harping on these themes tends to magnify them in the minds of certain kinds of people, particularly those who are less educated, have less diversity of life experience, and many of whom are in relatively unhappy economic circumstances.

It is the "right" of such people to believe what they want, in the sense that I don't think that should be jailed or disenfranchised for thinking such thoughts, but I think they're wrong. I think they, and we, would be better off if politicians appealed to their better natures. Almost all people, given a little room to breathe and the chance to encounter things that they fear or dislike, tend to recognize the error of their earlier views, if they're not too calcified. I expect that your opportunity to have gone to college away from home with a bunch of different kinds of people, plus your good fortune to have lived in and traveled to different places besides your hometown, has broadened your mind about a lot of things, and that you would consider this an improvement.

I take your point that it's arguable that given a set of prejudices, voting in accordance with them is in some sense rational. That hardly makes it right, though, or beneficial for society. Remember that people use to have ridiculous beliefs about witches. It was arguably rational for them, therefore, to burn those suspected of being witches. I don't suppose you would argue that it's a bad thing that we as a society grew out of this behavior, would you? Ditto attitudes about people with a different skin color being so inferior that it was rational to decide that enslaving them or slaughtering them was justifiable, or the view that women were so intellectually beneath men that they shouldn't be allowed to work or vote. And any of a number of other examples, hyperbolic or not.

To your questions about your cousins having different priorities that affect the way they vote, I won't argue. We all differ in this regard. I do stick to my position that many people assign weights based at least in part on lack of information or real thought, or even flat-out ignorance, and that the way we elect political leaders in this country tends to aggravate the problem. I think, to cite but one example, of John McCain. For a while, a centerpiece of his stump speech had to do with a federally-funded program that studied grizzly bears. He apparently got great mileage out of ridiculing this and created the impression that if you hate government wasting "your money," McCain's your man.

Whether or not you think the program was worthwhile, the fact remains that its price tag was $3 million, spread over several years. I hold that those who were cheering McCain, who were aghast at such profligacy, had no idea how this number compared to what we're spending in Iraq, or on Star Wars, or on interest on the national debt, or for security when the president gets it into his head to go to East Nowhere for yet another photo op, or any of a myriad of other areas which cost orders of magnitude more.


Does it count as misidentifying the candidate who actually represents the policies you want if the Democrat, say, represents the policy you favor on 12 of 18 issues, but the six that he misses on are ones that are totally unacceptable to miss on, for you?

No. People are entitled to their own priorities. I just think many people don't arrive at these priorities rationally, and that politicians too often cater to their irrationalities.