On Bitterness, Cynicism and Frustration
So I’m just now getting around to following “bittergate”–the blogospheric furor that has erupted from Barack Obama’s sociological observation that people vote on cultural issues because they don’t trust the government on economic issues. (My colleague James has covered this matter here and here.) For further reference, here is the particular portion of the speech at issue, which was given in response to a question about how Obama can win over Pennsylvania.
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.
The furor, of course, is centered around the phrase “cling to guns or religion”, which has been interpreted as “elitist and condescending.” I have to say that I don’t get it. It’s pretty clear that if you have the capacity for simple reading comprehension and are aware of the entire context of this comment, he is clearly saying that because small town, working class voters don’t trust the government to deliver on economic issues, they vote primariliy on cultural issues. Now, this might be a matter of sociological dispute, but I fail to see how it’s condescending to try to find a way to explain why voters vote the way they do–surely politicians should consider such things, right?
Indeed, not two weeks ago, Republican nominee John McCain offered an almost identical point in an address before the U.S. Naval Academy:
But even as we stand today, at the threshold of an age in which the genius of America will, I am confident, again be proven — the genius that historian Frederick Turner called “that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism … that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom” — many Americans are indifferent to or cynical about the virtues that our country claims. In part, it is attributable to the dislocations economic change causes; to the experience of Americans who have, through no fault of their own, been left behind as others profit as they never have before. In part, it is in reaction to government’s mistakes and incompetence, and to the selfishness of some public figures who seek to shine the luster of their public reputations at the expense of the public good. But for others, cynicism about our country, government, social and religious institutions seems not a reaction to occasions when they have been let down by these institutions, but because the ease which wealth and opportunity have given their lives led them to the mistaken conclusion that America, and the liberties its system of government is intended to protect, just aren’t important to the quality of their lives. [emphasis added]
In other words, here we have John McCain claiming that cyncism and a lack of patriotism are caused not only by economic dislocations on the part of the working class, but because of the ease of life of those who are better off. Given that John McCain is basically accusing two large groups of Americans of being unpatriotic and unwilling to make sacrifices for their country as a consequence of economic issues, explain to me again how John McCain isn’t being “elitist and condescending” in the same manner that Obama is?
Let me be clear on one thing, although I am a nominal Obama supporter (I believe that he is the lesser of three evils), I don’t particularly agree with him on this point, nor am I much of a fan of his economic policies. I also do not agree with John McCain that large swaths of the U.S. population who happen to neatly demographically coincide with Democratic voters are all cynical and anti-patriotism. That said, I think that it’s troubling the media and blogosphere conflate “thinking about the state of the country and sociological trends” is tantamount to condescension. I welcome the fact that both McCain and Obama are giving these matters some thought and are actually considering how government policy does affect the culture writ large.
Frankly, all that I think this “bittergate” nonsense is shown is the elitism and condescension of the pundit class. Face it–what this incident has revealed is that we live in a media environment that considers the American populace so stupid and ignorant that a candidate with thoughtfulness, nuance, and intellectual rigor is considered unelectable, while a candidate with incoherent, inconsistent policies who gives speeches full of flag-waving and poll-tested cliches is the “regular guy you want to have a beer with” who will inevitably be elected.