Monday, 14 April 2008

Campaign trail no place for political analysis?

Barack Obama's comments about 'bitter' working-class voters continue to be squeezed for every last drop of political juice by the Clinton and McCain campaigns. Here's what Obama actually said:

Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter). [...]

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. 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. 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. So it's not surprising then that 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.

As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, Obama's analysis here is similar to that advanced by Thomas Frank in What's the matter with Kansas? (published in the UK as What's the matter with America?). Like Frank's book, Obama's speech suggests thoughtful empathy, rather than elitist contempt, for the problems faced by working-class Americans. But, as Barack is now discovering, the nuanced critique of the political analyst doesn't translate well to the 24-hour news cycle. Someone in his campaign should have remembered that, in a saturation-coverage election, you can't say something about one group of voters to another group elsewhere in the country, without the first group finding out what you've been saying about them. To have said these things in San Francisco of all places, and in the week before a Pennsylvania primary whose outcome will depend on those working-class votes, was an unusual misjudgement for this usually surefooted campaign.

Those who wish Obama well have to hope that, as with his major speech on race last month, the voters will prefer honesty over the milking-it-for-all-its-worth duplicity of the Clinton campaign. In response to Obama's comments, Hillary has reinvented herself yet again, this time - improbably - as a devout, gun-toting, hard-drinking working-class gal. There are signs, though, that even some of Hillary's core demographic - white women - are growing tired of the way she has run her campaign.

1 comment:

Roland Dodds said...

I have mixed feelings about Obama’s comment. On the one hand, I hold many “elitist” positions that are not generally accepted in Middle America. I have no problem telling a blue collar worker from Ohio they are wrong, as I have no issue saying the same to a wealthy San Francisco local. Being working class doesn’t give someone’s ideas a pass.

I do think Obama’s comment reinforced people’s pervious assumptions about him: that he belongs to s strain of thought that does hold guns, white churches, and Middle America’s way of life in contempt. Perhaps he didn’t mean to come across this way in that San Fran speech, but I had a hard time believing it was sincere policy misrepresented either. If anything, he was playing to the crowd in the Bay Area, and he told them what they wanted to hear (that if they could just implement their left politics, all those working class folks would give up the church, guns, and love every illegal immigrant coming over). This reminds me of Dean’s scream during the 04 primary. It wasn’t that his scream sunk his campaign, it was that “the scream” gave many a clear representation of what they already feared about him (that he was angry and prone to outbursts without thinking).

I thought Obama’s Wright association was worse than this, but I’m also not a blue collar worker in Pennsylvania. So what the hell do I know.