Armed Liberal, an Obama supporting blogger, has one of the more interesting takes on the whole Obama “bitter-gate” flap from a liberal perspective:
Here’s another thought: Obama believes that the people he’s discussing – poorer, gun-owning, church-going economic left-behinds in rural America are bitter and negative toward government because it hasn’t delivered.
There’s an alternate hypothesis, which is that they don’t think it’s supposed to. That there are a solid body of Americans who believe – with whatever justification or historical validity – that government’s role is to leave them alone. I’ll bet that people who believe those things tend to migrate away from major cities or never move to them, tend to go to church a lot, believe in guns, and in American culture. They are – wait for it – culturally conservative.
I think liberals can reach them, should reach them, and must reach them. I think they can because I think there are ways to reframe the ‘values’ issues that have divided us, and because I think that there is a key issue to bridge – the perceived value of what those poorer, gun-owning, church-going folks in small towns actually get from the government. . . .
I’ve asked for a long time what, exactly the Democratic Party has done in the last 20 years for a typical 35-year-old single mother who works as an administrative assistant in a big city. The answer: not a hell of a lot. Not anything I can think of.
To that I’ll add the question of what the Democratic Party has done in the last 20 years for the 35-year-old son of a factory worker who manages to get temp manufacturing jobs, alongside his wife, and tries to support his three kids doing it. He’s getting by because his dad had a great retirement plan and equity in his house. To him, the government wants to close his hunting areas to protect spotted owls, let his 14 year old daughter get an abortion without his consent, and charge him more and more for the priviledge.
So in a way, I’m agreeing with Obama – without the cultural baggage, which may be devastating to his candidacy.
Armed Liberal is doing something that the Democrats have failed to do—and that is take people who don’t agree with them seriously. That is something that Barack Obama isn’t able to do—because he has absolutely no cultural connection to Middle America. Obama’s statement about “bitter” voters was one of those rare moments in American politics where a candidate does something absolutely fatal: says what he or she actually believes. Obama’s appeal is all about the rhetoric of “hope” and “change” and other empty terms, but Obama’s substance is that of a man of the left. His statement was one in which the “hope” façade briefly slipped and the real Obama slipped through.
Barack Obama really does believe that the reason why cultural conservatives vote the way they do is because they’re “bitter” and they need to be shown the way. That attitude is arrogant and condescending to those who don’t share that viewpoint—but to those who agree, it’s “truth.” It’s the same argument that George Lakoff has been making for years—if one just “reframes” the issues, then Democrats will win the heartland.
It is, unsurprisingly, wrong. The left never really gets America. They don’t understand that cultural conservatism isn’t a recent backlash, but it’s the default state of American political life. Barack Obama, while a very educated and erudite candidate, should probably read some Tocqueville before spouting off again. The values of those Pennsylvania voters isn’t an aberration from the “real” American electorate, it is the real American electorate. Those Pennsylvania voters are the descendants of the largely Scots-Irish frontiersmen and women who settled this nation in the first place. They, for lack of a better term, are America 1.0—the people who made this country what it is.
Obama is from another culture entirely. The reason why he fails to understand the voters of the American Midwest is he has absolutely nothing in common with them. He doesn’t share their culture, their philosophy, their worldview, and he certainly does not share their view of government.
Armed Liberal gets it right: Pennsylvania voters do see government as a problem rather than as a source of all solutions. The problem is that the Democrats aren’t going to change that by promising more government solutions. It isn’t about getting “value” from government—although that is important—it is that every time that the power of the state is increased, the power of the people is necessarily decreased. They don’t understand that opposition to Big Government isn’t pig-headed obstructionism, but it’s entirely pragmatic. They don’t get that there’s a reason while Middle America would rather get help from their neighbors and their churches than from a government agency. They don’t understand concepts like subsidiarity (which even though most Middle American voters don’t know the term, they understand the concept) and how important it is to have solutions that are close to the people rather than diffused to Washington. This country was founded on the principles of limited government by and for the people, supported and enriched by an innumerable array of voluntary organizations. That is the America of Alexis de Tocqueville and Andrew Jackson, and that is the America that still represents a key plurality in American politics today.
Barack Obama is a very intelligent person, a fantastic orator, and certainly someone who cares for people. He is also from a culture that is relatively alien to traditional American values. Despite all the passion from his supporters, the cold, hard reality remains that Barack Obama will never be President of the United States. He can’t reach out to Middle America because he is not of Middle America, and he doesn’t understand the culture of Middle America. His rhetoric of “hope” and “change” may enthrall those who see American culture as drastically needed a realignment towards “progressive” values, but to those who have a justified suspicion of putting all one’s trust in government, his message does not resonate.
UPDATE: Marc Ambinder also gets it wrong. It’s quite fascinating to me to see progresive commentators make arguments such as this:
At his San Francisco fundraiser, Obama was sketching out a variation of the Thomas Frank argument about working class voters who seem to choose candidates whose policies cut against their economic interest. In Obama’s version, working class voters in the Midwest have been inured to promises of economic redress because both Democrats and Republicans promise to help and never do; since government is a source of distress in their lives, they organize their politics around more stable institutions, like churches or cultural practices, like hunting. The outlet for their economic duress is in lashing out, in giving voice to their grievances; In Obama’s formulation, Republicans are especially eager and willing to exploit cultural trigger points.
What Ambinder and most of the modern-day progressives keep failing to understand is that churches and cultural practices existed before the current economic downturn, before the Rust Belt existed, even before the Industrial Revolution reached the New World. The key mistake that Ambinder, Obama, and the rest make is assuming that cultural conservatism only exists because government hasn’t done enough for people—as though there’s something intrinsically wrong about not wanting more and more government services. They completely forget that this country was founded upon a justified skepticism and distrust of government—and far from being an aberration, the attitudes of Middle American voters are more true to the American tradition than their pro-government progressivism is.