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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Economics and Business, Government, Guns and Gun Control, Religion, , , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    I agree that McCain and Obama are both making the argument that one’s economic surrounding impacts one’s politics and attitude towards politicians. My reading of the bolded lines from McCain (which are frankly a little impenetrable) is that he’s arguing that because we’re rich and soft, people have lost sight of the sacrifices others made to get to that point, let alone the need to defend their freedoms. He’s probably right, as far as it goes. It’s even more true in Western Europe than here.

  2. cian says:

    Exactly Alex- utter nonsense, but the kind of nonsense the right hopes will work, and by work they mean distract from what is really happening.

    Obama articulates something a majority of the country already feels, that things are not right. They’re not right in Iraq and they’re not right in the economy and they’re not right at the top in the Bush white house where this week we learned that our most senior administrators spent hours discussing ways to break the law, hours laying out, in minute detail, how best to torture people.

    And it works. I’ve just flicked back through 30 posts here on OTB and not one mention of the ABC news revelations, but already four on Obama’s perfectly reasonable suggestion that many of us are bitter at Washington’s BS and turn from politics to other things in an effort to change our lives.

  3. Grewgills says:

    he’s arguing that because we’re rich and soft, people have lost sight of the sacrifices others made to get to that point…It’s even more true in Western Europe than here.

    That is not my experience at all. The Europeans I know, primarily Dutch but many others, are much more aware of the sacrifices made (particularly in WWII) to secure their lifestyles than the Americans I know.

  4. C.Wagener says:

    I believe most people are interpreting Obama’s comments as meaning that the people he is referring to have such pathetic lives that they “cling” (cult like) to guns and religion. It is the only thing that gives their life meaning.

    It’s quite ironic that when defending Obama against elitism the suggestion is made that to conclude otherwise indicates lack of basic reading comprehension. No elitism there!

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    James –

    My reading of the bolded lines from McCain (which are frankly a little impenetrable) is that he’s arguing that because we’re rich and soft, people have lost sight of the sacrifices others made to get to that point, let alone the need to defend their freedoms.

    That’s half of it. The other half is that economic dislocations have made the working class more cynical (ie, less patriotic–in McCain’s view).

    He’s probably right, as far as it goes. It’s even more true in Western Europe than here.

    That may or may not be true (I doubt it, myself), but true or not, where was the outrage about McCain impugning the patriotism of the middle and working classes? Where were the cries of condescension? They weren’t there because they didn’t fit the media narrative.

    C. Wagener –

    It’s quite ironic that when defending Obama against elitism the suggestion is made that to conclude otherwise indicates lack of basic reading comprehension. No elitism there!

    It’s elitist to expect that most people should be able to comprehend simple sentences in the context in which they are made? If I overestimated the general intellectual abilities of the population, then I made a mistake, but not, I think, an elitist one.

  6. C.Wagener says:

    Alex,

    Your interpretation might be right, but you are clearly in the minority. Even the folks at Slate appear to be reading comprehension challenged and seem to be taking it the same way as the racist gun nuts outside of San Francisco.

    I grew up in a small town in Ohio and have lived in NYC and for many years in the SF bay area. People from the NE or west coast rarely visit “fly over country” and consequently have very odd impressions of the rest of the country.
    That doesn’t stop them from being utterly convinced they “know these people” and know what’s best for them. I think a major tenet of elitism is lack of intellectual humility. How in the world is Obama going to have a clue about what’s going though the head of people he has never met?

    And, Alex, if you disagree with me obviously your parents did not hire the right governess to raise you!

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    Your interpretation might be right, but you are clearly in the minority. Even the folks at Slate appear to be reading comprehension challenged and seem to be taking it the same way as the racist gun nuts outside of San Francisco.

    Well, the primary problem is that the passage looks to be quoted out of context, and if you don’t have the context of “these are the issues that people are VOTING ON”, then I can see where it can be misinterpreted.

    I grew up in a small town in Ohio and have lived in NYC and for many years in the SF bay area. People from the NE or west coast rarely visit “fly over country” and consequently have very odd impressions of the rest of the country.

    I don’t dispute that. I grew up in Kansas, where I still live, but spent five years “abroad” in Massachusetts, where everyone assumed that I grew up on a farm and listened to country.

    And, Alex, if you disagree with me obviously your parents did not hire the right governess to raise you!

    Governess? Heck, we didn’t even have cable! 🙂

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Alex, Some people (surely no one you know or run with) care for the nation as a whole, and their personal finances do not dictate what they think of the government or how they vote. Some of us vote for who will be able to best defend this nation, which, by the way is the job of the President. Others, such as yourself probably vote their wallets. If a candidate promises to fix your ills, no matter what they are or what caused them, you will vote for them. Marx believed all things were related to economics. That any other political feelings were a balm for the underclass. Religion was called the opiate of the people. Obama is a socialist in the vein of Marx. All of his teachings are the same. The man is not running as a communist, yet he is a communist. All of his friends are communists. His father was a communist. Obama said what he said, and he said it to some very wealthy people who think of the rest of us the same way. This came out of the Huffington post. His words are plain. You can try to make up spin for what he meant, but he has since reinforced his statements by talking about people in poor circumstance clinging to these things. Religion and gun ownership long fore dates current economic woes that may or may not plague parts of this country. Small towns have alway been suspicious of strangers. Obama is an elitist. He went to elite schools, and has been taught that “the people do not know what is best for them”. He is unqualified to lead this nation.

  9. mq says:

    I’m going to take James’ point and run a little farther with it. Obama’s comment was on a specific group of people (unemployed PA residents), where it seems to me that McCain is making a comment on Americans in general. There’s also a big difference in calling some “cynical” as opposed to calling them “bitter”. I think we can all agree most of us here are cynical, but we’re not bitter. I think we can all also agree there are quite a few (my generation specifically) who do take America’s freedoms and liberties for granted and don’t realize what life would be like if we didn’t have them. I see nothing wrong in him saying that or the way he said it.

    On the other hand, Obama’s comment came off like he was reinforcing the “dumb hick” stereotype. Saying that people turn to religion and hunting because of an economic downturn is a slap in the face to those people for whom religion and hunting is a way of life, not a temporary crutch that they turn to when things are bad and then abandon when things are good. I also take issue with the comment about PA residents being anti-immigration. It sounds to me like he is making an excuse for racism, that it’s OK for PAers to be racist against Mexicans because they took yer jobs. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of a kerfuffle about that.

  10. Alex Knapp says:

    mq-

    If you look at the context of Obama’s remarks, it’s clear that he’s not saying that people cling to guns and religion per se because of economic issues, but rather that people in bad economic situations VOTE on gun issues, religious issues, etc. because they don’t think that voting either party will make a difference on economic issues. I don’t know if the data is there to say that is certain, but it’s a FAR CRY from the words that others are putting into his mouth.

    As for McCain, he’s not just claiming that Americans are cynical, but that they are also unpatriotic as a consequence of economics.

  11. Boyd says:

    “My mind’s made up, and no logic you can present can sway me from my position, no matter how absurd my opinion may be.”

  12. yetanotherjohn says:

    Perhaps the passage below would help you understand this. Can you imagine that some on the left might take offense? Now, try to channel all the diversity power of the left and put yourself in the shoes of someone whose world view was mocked by Obama’s speech.

    But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that democrats can win national elections when there’s no evidence of that in their political lives. You go into some of these big cities on the coasts, and like a lot of big cities on the coast, the national elections have been going against them. And they lost in 2000, and in 2004, and each successive election the party said that somehow the elections are gonna be different and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to abortion or global warming or antipathy to those who believe in God or anti-republican sentiment or anti-free market sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

    The second problem with Obama’s comments is the sheer liberalism of the ideas expressed. How could the federal government stand by and allow those companies to fail and people lose jobs. Why wasn’t there a law that would force the companies to stay in business or keep the companies from firing people (see European socialism). These people can’t be expected to think or act for themselves. Only the federal government can give them any direction or hope. But Obama can convince them that if Obama is elected that market forces will be stopped by the power of an Obama administration, they will give up such ideas as believing that the 2nd amendment is just as important as the first amendment. That God does exist and is important in their lives. With Obama in power, all racism will magically stop. We will no longer distinguish between those who come to the country legally and those who come illegally. Because after all, Mr. and Mrs. Obama feel their pain when they struggled to raise two children on two or three hundred thousand a year. (Given Obama wanting to pull out of NAFTA, I have no idea what he thinks he is saying about free trade).

    All hail saint Obama whose words of hope change everything.

    Let’s face it. Obama needs to work of prepared speeches or his off the cuff remarks are going to sink him.

  13. davod says:

    “it’s clear that he’s not saying that people cling to guns and religion per se because of economic issues..” Stop it. This is BS. Obama was talking to people he felt comfortable with and he let his guard down. Throw this in with his life lessons and other slips and it adds up to a disturbing picture.

  14. Victor says:

    Listen to Obama, and ask: why would someone “cling” to religion or guns or hateful feelings toward others? Because they are bitter about decades of broken political promises. (the bad economic conditions are only relevant indirectly by supposedly creating the conditions that might lead small towners to listen to an economic progressive)

    That’s a clear reading of his statements, and an answer few of us can relate to.

    Listen to McCain, and ask: why is someone unpatriotic? Because they’ve had it so good they take things for granted, or they’ve had it so bad, they feel no gratitude.

    What’s wrong with that answer? I think almost all of us can relate to it.

    It’s really that simple.

  15. John D. Prince says:

    Hillary Clinton Said on 04-13-08 that Barak Obama’s “words are not reflective of the America she knows.” Mrs. Clinton by that statement must feel that Americans are complacent, do not turn to religion for comfort, and do no care about the 2nd Amendment gun rights. What America is she living in? This Nation is full of people who have been swept up by religious movements due to either 911 or hard times, the search for meaning in life, and many other factors. This is not an advertisement for religion; rather it is only a fact of US trends in spirituality. Obama is correct when he said that many use religion to find solace. How is that statement elitist? It is stating reality. Do Americans have the right to be upset or bitter about the current administration, economy, war, civil rights, the rule of law, or corruption in Washington D.C.? I would think we do have a sense of bitterness over the past 15 years of Republican control of governmental policy. Even if you are a conservative or a liberal we all should be concerned over the future direction of the nation. Conservatives are always bitter especially on A.M. radio echo chambers we can hear the bitterness over social programs, liberalism, secularism, public schools, political correctness, and on it goes. As well liberal echo chambers are bitter over attacks upon the constitution, the system of checks and balances, presidential power, the fusing of church and state, the prolonged conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deregulation of the big business, the rusting economy, plus much, much more. Hillary in one breath screams about how bad the Bush administration has been, while berating Obama for pointing out that citizens are fed up with government as it is now. This is double speaking from both Clinton and McCain. They claim we need change, yet they also claim that people are doing just fine and are working hard. Yes we are working hard at getting by. Yes, we do need change. When Obama points out that people have no place to turn other than faith due to the fact that government has failed them, he is painted as if he is talking down to Americans. I do not think so. He is talking to Americans who agree with him. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Americans are sick of honest words being taken out of context to win political favor. We are sick of an EPA that has failed to keep up with health damaging pollution, a FDA that cannot keep the food supply pure, a commerce dept. and corporations that let lead toys into the market place, a government that spends like a drunken sailor, and policy that has devalued the dollar beyond recognition. We need to think hard about what politician is truly in touch with reality.

  16. John D. Prince says:

    I am bitter, disgusted and offended by this administrations disregard for the separation of powers (co-equal branches of government or the system of checks and balances), their disrespect of the constitution, and the blatant disdain for the Rule of Law. I am bitter, you bet, I am bitter over the Chinese imports with toxins that will build up in my bloodstream, fat, and muscle tissue. I am bitter over the deregulation of the finance infrastructure. I am bitter over the lack of respect for scientific knowledge, and this administrations direct promotion of religion with tax dollars. I am bitter about the fact that we the people cannot get honest answers from attorney generals, generals, sec. of state, the pentagon, or any administration appointee. Is it possible that Americans can feel bitter about the last 15 years of republican control of Washington? We should, we must, and we do have the responsibility of vigilance over our government, which requires disgust over bad, illegal, un-ethical, or unjust political policy.
    Are citizens bitter over current political currents, government action or lack inaction, and economic conditions? Yes. How could they not be? Conservatives are bitter over the separation of church and state, the 2nd Amendment, liberals, and any environmental laws or regulations upon business. Liberals are bitter over the lack of EPA regulations, deregulation of the market. The erosion of civil rights, due process, posse commutates, intelligent design and the erosion of scientific thought in schools, and the war by design in Iraq. Both conservatives and liberals are bitter over the economy, and the Bush administration’s mismanagement of the nation. How is it a false, out of touch, elitist, statement to say that Americans or people in Pennsylvania are upset, bitter, disenfranchised, or disgusted by their current or past governmental leadership? I would argue that it is their right to be upset. It is their patriotic duty to remain vigilant by bitterness toward bad policy and the subversion of the constitution. After the past 7 years of this administration I would turn to religion for help. God may be the only thing left once you throw out the Bill of Rights, the value of the dollar, or the thought of 4 more years of Bush dogma and policy.