Small-Town Bitterness

Posted by Katherine | April 15, 2008 – 12:23 pm
Mansion where Obama made remarks
Billionaires’ Row in CA: where it all went down

Barack Obama’s remarks in CA about small-town bitterness are in their umpteenth news cycle. It’s hard to know how they’ll affect next Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary. One recent poll shows Obama plummeting in PA; another shows him holding steady nationally.

The blogosphere, of course, has not been opinion shy, and several story lines have surfaced. One, unsurprisingly, expresses outrage at Obama’s condescension.

Republican Michigander feels Obama’s comment was Democratic “arrogant elitism at its worst.” He bridles at the Thomas Frank idea that the working class votes Republican against its best interests, but he doesn’t believe Obama’s comment automatically benefits McCain:

[D]emocrats do not know our best interests. Hell, I don’t claim to know the best interest of my small-town neighbors. That makes me smarter than a lot of democrats who think they do know them. I do know my best interests and vote accordingly. This attitude hurts democrats immensely. This isn’t going to sell. Arrogance from big city politicians does not sell in small town America. […]

The voters in small towns are some of the most independent voters I’ve ever come across. Notice what I said. Independent. Most are moderate on economic issues and conservative to some extent on social issues, but do not support a theocracy. They are NOT necessarily Republicans. I’m going to repeat that. They are NOT necessarily Republicans. A lot of them are ticket splitters and three way swing voters. Democrat, Republican, and skipping the race. Right now, I think skipping the race is leading. […] Republicans often think they are entitled to the small town vote. They aren’t. […] Republicans have a LOT of work to do there, between war weariness, high gas prices, big spending from Bush and Ted Stevens, corrupt jerks like Mark Foley and Don Sherwood which hurt immensely among ethical voters. McCain has a lot of work to do there. He was dealt a hanging curve by Obama with his “What’s the matter with Kansas?” and Thomas Frank attitude, but he needs to hit it out of the park. He can not take an attitude of “Who are they going to vote for? Obama?” The answer is probably not, but they might not show up at all instead.

Obama disrespected small town America. McCain needs to show the area respect. Not with pandering which is another form of disrespect, but with a plan. The ball is now in his court. We’ll see what happens

The counternarrative to the charge of elitism is that Obama was simply doing — albeit terribly — what politicians too often fail to do: telling it like it is. The anonymous My View from the Center is a straight-up example of that view:

If anything Brack Obama’s “bitter” remark […] shows that he may be the only candidate who can, at least occasionally, be trusted to say what he sees as the truth — as unpopular as it may be. True, the majority of the time he will engage in the same ‘politi-speak’ you hear from Clinton (either one) or McCain but Obama has his moments where he will speak from the heart. It’s up to us to listen during those moments and reject that automatic Democratic, Republican, Conservative or Liberal bias that will creep into our judgment as we listen — bias such as that makes you blind to reality and deaf to truth.

Carla Thompson, who describes herself as a granola-eating black Republican, says it more pointedly:

I say, ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil”. Pandering to white working class voters and their apparent bitterness, as his opponent Senator Hillary Clinton is obviously doing, is not helping them get beyond their current economic state of affairs.

In an earlier post on Obama’s race speech, she was more expansive:

We have heard “tough love” sermons preached to blacks ad nauseum. Just as I believe my black brethren often need a reality check, I strongly believe that their white counterparts need the same hard, yet loving, slap upside the head. […]

Take a page from your immigrant brethren many of whom I teach on a daily basis. (And no, I am not talking about illegal immigrants or “aliens” as you love to call them.) Educate yourself formally. Go back to school. […]

And move. Yes, move. Get the hell up outta there. Go someplace else. I know you love your city, state, county, but you have to go where they jobs are, where the opportunities are. […]

The bottom line is that you have to stop using your precious energy — your greatest resource — to blame others, feel sorry for yourself or to try turn back the hands of time. The world is never going to be what it used to be but you can find your place it if you honestly take stock of your assets as well as your liabilities and take action.

Alan Stewart Carl from San Antonio, TX, brings in the meme of Obama’s inexperience. He worries that Obama’s condescending truth-telling is a troubling example of that:

His own experiences show he understands the value of religion and his opposition to NAFTA shows he doesn’t really think anti-free trade sentiments are merely something to cling to (unless he’s a hypocrite, which is possible), but this comment is nevertheless revealing.

As I’ve said many times before, this is the problem with Obama’s inexperience. He simply doesn’t have a deep enough public record for us to know who he truly is and where he truly stands. He’s highly scripted, so when he goes off-script we have to give those remarks real weight. Is he a liberal elitist at heart? I don’t know but I suspect he’s much closer to being one than his unity rhetoric leads some to believe.

Finally, Jeremy Littau, a PhD student at the Missouri School of Journalism, feels the real story here is about the media:

The MSM pretty well missed on this entire story. Rhetorical wars are good for ratings, perhaps, but it’s hard to see how it’s good for democracy. […]

So how could the media have done better?

* First, ignore the war of words and dissect what was being said. Report the quote, but get to the essential point Obama was trying to make.
* Go through the record and see if Obama’s statement is a) in line with his past statements, b) in line with anything Clinton has said in the past, and c) reflects the reality on the ground in the Pennsylvania towns he was describing.

The first two were easy. The MSM would have found that Obama and Clinton agree on the issue that religion has been used as a wedge. Also, had it used Obama’s own statements about his faith as a lens to understand the offending quote, they could have added context to Clinton’s charges (”He doesn’t understand people of faith”) and shown how laughable the charges of elitism were. The last of the three tasks, though, is tough. It requires that reporters get off the campaign bus and talk to real small-town folk, people the elite press often have trouble understanding. It takes conversations longer than five minutes. In short, it takes a little bit of effort. […]

We media types have been justifying our existence for the past few years by noting how “democracy depends on journalism” and other catchy phrases; it’s time now to earn our keep.

Good thing the blogosphere’s there to set everyone straight.


  1. 2 Responses to “Small-Town Bitterness”

  2. People need to stop acting like what he said is news (i.e. the other candidates and corporate news need to stop blowing it out of proportion). It’s common knowledge that religion and guns mean more to small town America than to other parts of the country. If Obama (or any candidate) said things about “city people” that were true but not entirely flattering, I’d get over it.

    As far as the charges go that he is “elitist,” people should be weighing the options here. Traditionally, someone is “elite” when he or she is at the top of the social ladder, which in most cases includes higher education and experience as a leader.

    I would rather have someone who is educated and willing to speak the truth than someone who doesn’t use his education and lies constantly just to make people superficially happy.

    Remember, this is the most important job in the world. We should choose someone who is smarter than the rest of us.

    By Genevieve on Apr 15, 2008

  3. It wasn’t the “bitterness” part that hurt him as much as the “Cling to religion and guns” addition to that, combined with his record as a state and US senator. It’s the 2nd part of that phrase that shows his arrogance, and frankly - ignorance - of cultures outside of his inner circle. (I work in Ann Arbor - so I see that other side of things)

    I don’t “cling” to my religion or guns. Those with money in my family were still as religious as the working class. Little difference one way or the other. Gun owners actually tend to be more affluent, which I did not know until I was more active in the 2a movement. I do cling to my freedoms, including my 2nd Amendment rights. That doesn’t change with or without money.

    By Republican Michigander on Apr 15, 2008

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