Monday, April 14, 2008

Embitterment and "Elitism"

Barack Obama is in hot water over his suggestion that working-class voters are bitter over their economic disenfranchisement and that they're seeking solace in such distractions as guns, God, and religion. Here's the quotation that's causing the brouhaha, in case you're even further behind the news than I am:
"You go into some of 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," Obama said. "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 to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
(Source: Time)
Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic rightly points out that the trigger words here are "bitter" and "cling." Also "guns" and "religion," which suggests we're in big trouble if you can't even mention either term except to praise them. I'll get to them too in a moment.

Aren't people embittered? On this score, Obama said nothing new. It's basically the same argument that Thomas Frank put forth a few years ago in What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank himself, interviewed by Sam Stein for the HuffPost, confirmed that he found a country rife with bitterness when he researched his book. Even apart from economic issues, there's plenty of cause for embitterment, starting with our lost war and eviscerated Constitution, and ending with eight lost years when it comes to energy independence and climate control.

"Cling" was a crappy choice of word, and I won't try to defend it. It makes people sound weak - and who wants to see themselves as a weakling? Had Obama left out that word, he might've avoided this shitstorm. Instead, both of his opponents immediately attacked him as "elistist."

Democratic guru Bob Shrum points out at the HuffPost that it's the other two candidates, Clinton and McCain, who are far more deeply rooted in the economic and political elites:
Ironically, Obama's the one raised by a single mother. He's the one who only recently finished paying off his student loans. He doesn't know what it's like to have $100 million. The opponents who are attacking him are the ones who inhabit that financial neighborhood. ...

The Clintons haven't lived in the real world for at least twenty-five years; they've been in a bubble surrounded by aides moving from one mansion to another. This doesn't mean they don't care or can't empathize. But it does make it awkward to damn the guy who was a community organizer helping laid-off steelworkers as someone who is out of touch.
The Clinton-McCain axis can portray Obama as elitist partly because it's clear to them, and to much of America, that as a half-black man Obama can't be part of the working class, no matter how humble his origins. This assumption is rooted in real material conditions, on one level: Those laid-off steelworkers are overwhelmingly white men. But it's primarily ideological. Ever since the Reagan era, many white Americans "know" that poor blacks belong to the underclass. It's evident that Obama's too well-educated for that, so he must belong to the elite. There's no middle ground in this ideological binary, which of course willfully ignores the actual existence of America's black middle class.

The elitism smear sticks a bit too easily to Obama because his education left an imprint on him that's familiar to anyone else who's enjoyed a highly privileged education. I didn't go to Columbia and Harvard Law, but I did study at two fancy-pants private universities (with oodles of financial aid, which Obama must have received too). I recognize his ability to project an almost aristocratic intellectualism and an aura of deserving to lead - both of which are by-products of that sort of rarefied education. I suspect this is just as recognizable to people who've been shut out of privilege. To the extent this inspires resentment, Obama's opponents can exploit it.

Probably more importantly, as long as Clinton and McCain are willing to kowtow to unreason and anti-intellectualism, they can paint Obama as elitist merely because he refuses to genuflect guns and fundamentalism. But why do "guns" and "religion" set people off? Why does their mere mention make a candidate vulnerable to charges of elitism? Like opposition to immigration, which Obama also cited in his remarks, NRA-style pro-gun advocacy and fundamentalist religion are rooted in profoundly irrational human impulses. These are pre-Enlightenment refuges.

By contrast, Obama expresses a faith in human reason, decency, and civil discourse that's rare in our political culture. This, more than anything, may be what's read as elitism. We live in a time when reason, intellectualism, and science have all been smeared with the mud of elitism. The Republicans have succeeded brilliantly in discrediting all of these things as weapons that a powerful class of liberal intellectuals wields against the common man. In fact, this is all a smokescreen for the Republicans' own manipulations, but that doesn't hamper them from casting people like me (me!?!) as the enemy of ordinary people. Does it make any sense? Let's just say I haven't shipped anyone's job overseas lately. Does that matter? Heck no.

Seen from this angle, a certain kind of elitism - leadership, myth-busting, wisdom, and discernment - might be just what's needed to dismantle the illusions the right wing has constructed. I'm not much of a Marxist, but the old Marxian notion of "false consciousness" doesn't seem like an entirely wrong label for those illusions. I'd prefer to see myself as a radical constitutional democrat (small D, this time). But when people have been so thoroughly misled about their own interests that they consistently vote against it, maybe a dose of benevolent elitism might be a necessary corrective.

Non-dogmatic kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?


Sugarmag said...

Wow, Sungold. I hear you, but a dose of benevolent elitism as a necessary corrective scares me. On the other hand, democracy scares me, too, look at the last 2 elections. Although with the way things work with delegates and the electoral college, we don't exactly have a true democracy either, do we? I still think Gore actually won and Bush is not legitimately president. I think there is truth to the idea of a false consciousness, especially when so many people get their news from Fox News. From clips I've seen on the internet, apparently CNN isn't much better, although I don't know because life is too short for watching anything on TV other than Lost and Battlestar Gallactica. And the Daily Show, but I usually don't even watch that. Even so, I am bothered by the idea of people being too stupid to figure it out.

"We live in a time when reason, intellectualism, and science have all been smeared with the mud of elitism. The Republicans have succeeded brilliantly in discrediting all of these things as weapons that a powerful class of liberal intellectuals wields against the common man." I think you really hit it there. Try arguing about evolution with some people, yeesh, there's just no point. My local newspaper carried an article recently about a new creation "science" museum (I think it was actually an AP article) and the article treated it like real science and didn't understand the difference between that and evolutionary theory. I try hard not to say, "You are stupid" but yeesh! Science can not be based on faith! Scientists don't believe in evolution, and that is why the theory keeps changing. Also, it seems that many people don't even understand the scientific method or have any critical reading or thinking skills. Many people will believe anything they read without questioning the source. Bangs head on wall.

Sungold said...

That creationism museum is not far from here - near Cincinnati, just over the border to Kentucky - and I'd love to visit it sometime. My husband has vetoed the idea of going as a family because it'd be too hard to explain to our 8-year-old why Mama and Daddy are both laughing and cringing at the same time. He's right, of course!

I know what you mean about the problem of elitism. Where's the dividing line between what I'm trying to describe and, say, enlightened absolutism, which would give us a monarchy again? Still, I'm not sure that what I'm trying to get is any different from plain old meritocracy, except that I would have us take meritocracy seriously for once. Elect the guy or gal who really has something to offer, as opposed to the one with the tightest connections to the Supreme Court.

Actually, a constitutional monarchy wouldn't necessarily be worse than the creeping dictatorship we've had for the past 7 1/2 years.

Yep, I agree with you that Gore won in 2000. Problem is, Bush won in 2004, and that makes me much angrier, because now we can't just blame five aging SCOTUS justices. We have to hold 51% of the American electorate culpable, along with the legions who don't even bother to vote.

Sugarmag said...

re Bush winning in 2004: yes but if Gore had been President in 2000 then everything would have been different in 2004. Gore may have been running as the incumbent against who knows who, or he may have decided not to run and then who knows who would have been running, probably not Bush but even if he did run, it would not have been as an incumbent. Everything would have been different. Even so he just barely won against a pretty mediocre Democrat.

Sungold said...

Yes, you're absolutely right that everything would've been different. One thing I love about blogging is that I can apply my historical training in ways that are totally speculative and would never pass muster in the academic world. :-) So I'll just predict now that future historians will point to the 2000 election as one of these great hinges of history, a moment when everything changed, and when everything afterward could've been radically different, had Florida not been so bungled.

But none of that makes me feel any better about the American people (re-?)electing that lying no-nothing and his evil cronies in 2004. Everyone should've known better by then.

SunflowerP said...

My suspicion is that Obama used "cling" without even thinking about the negative implication, because he knows very well what it's like to feel a need for something to cling to.

"Ever since the Reagan era, many white Americans 'know' that poor blacks belong to the underclass."

"But when people have been so thoroughly misled about their own interests that they consistently vote against it....

I gather that's part of how the plantation owners of the Old South kept a firm grip on power, too - since where I gathered it from, primarily, was articles in the UU's World magazine on classism as the issue underlying racism, we're not talking scholarly sources here, but it made a lot of sense to me, especially when I considered other groups that have had "underclass" status at some point (as a Canadian, the first thing on my mind is the francophones in Quebec).


Laura said...

Nice post.

I'm intrigued by the way Clinton has managed to capture the working class mantle, and avoid the elitist label, in spite of her net worth and ivy league roots. I guess the same is true of Edwards. But Edwards got called out for hypocrisy ($500 haircut, anyone?), whereas Clinton hasn't.

With Obama, parsing his words is interesting, and I agree that "cling" was a bad choice of words with pejorative connotations. However, I think what it comes down to is that people have a preconceived notion that Obama is elitist (I do!), and his words just validated that.

I think your observation about the profile of those laid off steelworkers is accurate. Behold identity politics. Until now, women and blacks didn't see aspects of themselves (race, gender) reflected in the presidential candidates, but we accepted it cause that's just the way it was. Now it's role reversal. Those steelworkers are confronted with a candidate that's not at all a reflection of themselves. Too bad, so sad, no white man for you.

Sungold said...

Sunflower, I agree that Obama used the word "cling" unreflectively. I don't think he was wrong. He was thinking out loud, and so he didn't necessarily pick the word that'd be politically expedient. But that doesn't invalidate his point.

As for classism and racism: I'm wary of any argument that tries to rank the two, as for instance classic Marxism would do. Sometimes one is paramount, sometimes the other. Sometimes they intermingle in such a way that it's impossible to tease apart their effects.

Laura, you've got a great point with regard to white men who feel embattled. I'm not unsympathetic to them. They really *are* embattled. It's just so unhelpful, though, when everyone retreats to the cave of his or her own identity.

As for Obama *really* being an elitist? I think he may have an elitist streak. I 'fessed up to my own in the post. :-) I don't think it's necessarily horrible, though, as long as it's founded on a meaningful notion of meritocracy, and doesn't trump the basic values of democracy. Some people simply *are* better qualified for certain jobs. I know I would make a lousy president, for instance; I get my feelings hurt too easily by criticism, and I couldn't play the fundraising game. Acknowledging that someone *is* well suited may be a mild form of elitism, but if so, it's one I think we need.

At any rate, we see where 7 1/2 years of mediocrity has gotten us!

SunflowerP said...

If anything, I thought it added to his point.

Rereading my comment, I see you're right, and I wasn't as clear as I thought I was being about racism and classism (gotta be more careful posting when it's past time for sleep). What I got out of the articles was that the many oppressive isms play off each other and intertwine, and that often things aren't as straightforwardly one or another as they seem - and it was that sort of interaction that I was seeing in this.

And I'm still not being very clear. If I didn't need both hands to type, I'd probably be doing that try-to-grab-words-from-the-air thing.


Sungold said...

Yeah, even when we try to sort out racism/classism, etc. - even after plenty of coffee! - it's still often hard to make sense of them. Absolutely, there's a lot of intertwining here, and my post only barely scratches the surface of that.