Words Matter, But Which Words?

Even though the whole “bitter-gate” brouhaha is starting to become old news, there are two perspectives on the scandal worth examining. The first comes from Jonah Goldberg, who sees this as less about “elitism” and more about Obama’s distorted worldview:

I agree with Rich entirely. I don’t mind him saying that small town blue collar workers are bitter over lost jobs. I think that’s objectively true in some cases and perfectly defensible as a general statement. The offending word here is “cling.” It’s a word drenched in haughtiness and condescension. We cling to rocks when we are caught in a current. Obama’s imagery suggests that because the economic tide is receding these people are clinging to God and guns, presumably to compensate for the undertow. But he also suggests that if the economic tide were rising these same people would let go of God and guns and ride the currents to happier and more progressive lands where everyone thinks like Obama. In his telling Pennsylvania was once Belgium on the Susquehanna — cheese parties, Sam Harris book clubs etc — and it can be again if only these people get good enough jobs to lay down their guns and bibles. As just about everyone has observed by now, this is a fundamentally Marxist way of looking at the world and Obama deserves to be called on it.

Goldberg defends “elitism” (more on that later), but does a good job of arguing that the real substance here is not that Obama is an elite, but that he’s an elite with a condescending attitude towards Middle America.

On a similar vein, former McCain 2000 communications director Dan Schnur has an interesting squib in The New York Times on the same issue:

The more important issue than Senator Obama’s choice of words, though, is the world view underneath them. By using a voter’s adverse economic circumstances to rationalize his cultural beliefs, Barack Obama has reintroduced what has been a defining question in American politics for more than a generation: Why do so many working-class voters cast their ballots on social and values-based issues like gun ownership, abortion and same-sex marriage rather than on economic policy prescriptions?

These voters — known as “the silent majority” in the 1970s, as “Reagan Democrats” in the ’80s, and as “values voters” during the last two election cycles — have long been one of the most sought-after prizes in national elections. But with the exception of the occasional Southerner on the ticket, Democratic presidential candidates and their advisers have been continually vexed by the unwillingness of blue-collar Americans to more reliably vote their economic interests.

In his book “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” Thomas Frank articulates essentially the same case that Senator Obama has made in recent days. Mr. Frank complains that Republicans have deceived blue-collar Kansans — and their colleagues in other states — into voting against their own economic interests by distracting them into a conversation about traditional values and cultural concerns. Both Senator Obama and Mr. Frank seem to be saying that economic policy should be more important to voters than social and cultural questions. . . .

The mistake that Senator Obama and Mr. Frank both make is that they assume that only the values of culturally conservative voters require justification. An environmentally conscious, pro-stem cell bond trader who votes Democratic is lauded for selflessness and open-mindedness. A gun-owning, church-going factory worker who supports Republican candidates, on the other hand, must be the victim of partisan deception. This double standard is at the heart of the Democratic challenge in national elections: rather than diminish these cultural beliefs as a byproduct of economic discomfort, a more experienced and open-minded candidate would recognize and respect the foundations on which these values are based.

That analysis is exactly right. The issue is that Barack Obama is an elite. We want leaders to be elites. The issue is that Barack Obama is an elitist. We don’t want our leaders to think that because they are elites that they have the right to rule over the rest of us. Again, this goes back to the American values observed by de Tocqueville 200 years ago: Americans are deeply (small-d) democratic. There’s a reason why we tend to elect Presidents we’d like to have a beer with: because we have an ingrained suspicion of aristocracy and people who put on aristocratic airs. The last President to display such values was probably John F. Kennedy and he barely won, and then only one because of his immense personal charisma. Obama is at least superficially like Kennedy, but Kennedy never insulted the voters he needed to win over as Obama did.

Schnur gets it right: what Democrats must understand is that social voters aren’t voting irrationally, they simply have different priorities. The successful Democrats in the last few years have almost always won when they’ve at least acknowledged and accepted the concerns of values voters. Even setting aside the major argument that Democratic economic policies are really good for the American workers, the Democrats can’t win if they’re not willing to engage with values voters on their own level. Condescending to them hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work now. People don’t believe in God, go hunting, or worry about this country’s culture because they’re worried about their economic prospects and feel disengaged from politics, they care about those things because to them those things are truly important.

Goldberg’s crack about Obama having a Marxist worldview isn’t that far off the mark. The Democrats are looking at this election through the lens of economic determinism, and Obama’s comments are to the effect that he really believes that “religion is the opiate of the people.” It may certainly be true that voters are feeling bitter—but if the Democrats think that patronizing them will make them any less bitter, they should fully expect not to have any chance of winning some of the key states they’ll need to take the White House in 2008.

2 thoughts on “Words Matter, But Which Words?

  1. I have read – and heard- many references about people voting against their economic interests. This assumes that they think that what the government offers them is actually in their interests, when in fact they may understand the situation quite differently. They may oppose tax hikes as ultimately being against their long-term interests even when the money is used to give them short-term breaks. They may understand that depending on the government for their well-being is against their economic interests both long and short. They may oppose an unlimited government as being against their economic interests, their security, and their liberty, as well of those of their children and their society.

    “Give me all your money and I will take care of you.” is never in anyone’s self interest.

  2. Did you seriously delete my reply mocking your and Jonah Goldberg’s infantile invokation of “Marxism”? Thin-skinned, are we?

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