Small Town Flap a Hollow Scandal?

Ezra has fallen victim to the Wonk's Fallacy that people chose political leaders by careful appraisal of their white papers and policy platforms.

Ezra Klein thinks the fact that Barack Obama’s observation that people in small towns facing economic despair seek comfort in values issues is sucking up so much oxygen highlights everything that’s wrong with political journalism.

It’s not damaging because we think it foretells him doing something harmful to the country. It’s not damaging because it suggests his policy agenda is poorly conceived, or his priorities are awry. If you think of policy and politics as two circles in a Venn diagram, this is damage that only exists in the politics circle, and doesn’t even come close to the area of intersection. We reporters have to cover it, of course, because it’s Really Important, and matters more than the housing plans of all the candidates put together. But it matters in a completely self-referential way, it matters only because it matters, not because it means anything about Obama, or illuminates anything about his potential presidency. It’s a hollow scandal.

Ezra has fallen victim to the Wonk’s Fallacy that people chose political leaders by careful appraisal of their white papers and policy platforms. They don’t. A presidential campaign isn’t a policy workshop. It’s a trial by fire during which potential voters get to know the candidates and then measure them against their ideals. People vote on a visceral level based on how much they like, trust, and admire the candidate. Those who have been properly trained will then come up with a policy-based rationale.

One of the classic political polling questions asks whether the candidate “cares about people like me.” Since, like Ezra, I’m a wonk, the question annoys the hell out of me. But it’s one of the most accurate predictors of voting behavior. And a lot fewer people in Small Town America now think Obama cares about people like them.

Obama’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” answer has some intellectual merit and would make for a great chat at the faculty lounge at Harvard or the University of Chicago. But it’s an incredibly dumb thing to say on a campaign trail if you’re trying to, oh, get people who live in Kansas (or rural Pennsylvania) to vote for you.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bill H says:

    People vote on a visceral level based on how much they like, trust, and admire the candidate.

    Which is one hell of a lousy way to vote. It’s how we got to the rotten government we have. It’s how we got Bush. But the media has, over many elections, trained them to vote on that basis. That training has consisted of failing to provide coverage of actual issues and flooding the coverage with haircuts and what kind of beer they drink.

    When the voters have nothing to go on other than “how much they like, trust, and admire,” then that is how they will have to vote.

  2. Hal says:

    I thought Clark Stooksbury’s take over at The American Conservative blog was spot on

    When I start to become exercised over Barack Obama’s stupid remarks about small town America, I remember that the country is governed by madmen who dragged the country into a disasaterous quagmire in Iraq and drowned the country in trillons of dollars of debt because Al Gore sighed during a debate and John Kerry looks French.

  3. DL says:

    “People vote on a visceral level based on how much they like, trust, and admire the candidate.”

    I wonder how many people actually trust the candidate they vote for. I trust none of them personally – it’s all about who can deceive the most voters the best. Cynical? you betcha. Too many “trustworthy politicians become otherwise after the oath part. Tell me which of the three top candidates are trustworthy? Would you bet your life on it?

  4. Bonnie says:

    We are frustrated here in this small town we live, I’m NOT offended. Obama is right on. The whole country is frustrated. And Hillary Clinton Would say anything to get voted. Obama at least is honest about people in their frustrations. Right or wrong we all want change. Obama seems to me at least thinks about the state we small towns are Mrs. Multi-millionaire Hillary uses tears, attacks and lies to get her way.. Pennsylvania should not judge others so harshly. Obama is still and will be a great President. How funny is that We the people forget how Bill Clinton Lied to the nation under Oath, about having an affair. What about that total let down by Hillary and Bill honesty.. They still continue to use horrible horrible bullied tactics.

    Obama is a really good man. Keep him Pennsylvania.
    We are all frustrated.. I live in a small town.

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Those of you who think Obama is right, that the Federal government is the answer to all of our problems. That people turn to faith, or hold their second amendment rights close because of frustration should all vote for Obama your master. The rest, which will be the vast majority will vote for a man with both the experience and knowledge to lead this nation forward. That be John McCain. Hal, you cannot be that stupid as to blame all the ills of the country on the Iraq war. Notice the unemployment rate Hal. Hal, what was it Bush did to get the majority of Democrats in congress to vote for the authorization to use force to oust Saddam. Mind control? Rove, you genius bastard you.

  6. Hank Roth says:

    Of course you are frustrated Bonnie. All of us should be. The best times since before Reagan was during the Clinton years. You won’t see that kind of economy again thanks to George Bush. As for their millions of dollars, if you write books and become president I hope you can collect fees commensurate with your former position and royalties off your books, but incidentally since the $1.6 million dollar mansion the Obamas live in doesn’t seem to bother you and all the perks they got from their criminal buddies it raises some questions about your own skewed sense of moral outrage. As for Bill’s testosterone level, having sex is a natural biological process and lying about the dirty deed is hardly a capital offense, unless you are jealous?

    Hank Roth

  7. Hal says:

    Zelsdorf, it’d be mighty interesting to find out which campaign office your IP originates from. Or maybe you’re just a RedState volunteer with little else to do.

    In any event, you really are simply a McCain spam machine. Hope you’re getting paid by the number of words.

  8. Hank Roth says:

    To Zelsdorf, who has been disarmed by the truth.
    I’ve been a progressive activist for probably longer than you have been alive.

    AS for McCain he deserves our respect for his great sacrifice but he is not my choice. I seek the truth as do all the other Clinton supporters – which outnumber the Obama supporters if Michigan and Florida were counted. But even if Obama received most of the delegates and most of the popular vote he would still have major problems due to the appearance of impropriety with Rezko, Auchi, Ayers, Khalid, Wright, his Kenyan connections, and his behind doors secret campaign meetings with Chicago underworld figures not to mention his latest insults to blue collar electorate, his misogyny and his less than honest history. He doesn’t stand a chance in the general election.

    Hank Roth

  9. jainphx says:

    Algore has since proved that he was and is a quack, and John Kerry is and was a traitor. We dodged a bullet with these two, G-D help us to dodger Oshama and the Shillery this time.

  10. vnjagvet says:

    I just wish BHO studied the writings and speeches of Al Smith, FDR, Harry Truman and JFK at least as closely as he studied the sermons of The Rev. Wright and the organizing principles of Saul Alinsky.

    None of those Democratic leaders, even the patrician Roosevelt, and the wealthy JFK, would have been heard condescending to small town America.

    Roosevelt in his fireside speeches spoke to a country that had reason to despair, but he did not pander.

    JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” was not a pander either.

    BHO, with his pleasant persona, and engaging personality, has a real opportunity to rise above elitism.

    It is disappointing that he so far seems to be unable to do so.

  11. Brian says:

    But the media has, over many elections, trained them to vote on that basis.

    I don’t blame the media for this. Real journalism just isn’t the sort of commodity that we would like to believe that it is. It’s out there, sure, but you have to look for it. It just doesn’t bring in enough cash to be seen.

  12. DaveD says:

    Please don’t write in such a sanctimonious tone that you “seek the truth” and then criticize Bonnie for her statement on Bill Clinton’s sexual impropriety. What did she write that was not truthful about that?? Sex is natural, true. If getting a BJ in your office during work hours is an OK manifestation of that in your opinion then so be it. Maybe you perform your “other natural biological processes” wherever you want. But I think urinating on your work desk is also objectionable.

  13. When I graduated high school in 1965 America was the richest and most powerful nation on the face of the planet. It was a time when most citizens worshiped a Christian God, the U.S. practiced Fair Trade not Free Trade, the US Dollar was the strongest currency in the world and it was understood the basis of the 2nd Amendment was government should fear the people and not the other way around.

    It was a time when U.S. Corporations employed U.S. workers and were loyal to America its people and ideals. It was a time when GE Appliance Park, Kentucky, a manufacturing city, housed 25,000 blue collar American workers, who enjoyed a middle class life style.

    Obama, not everyone can be a college graduate. Surely you understand that a nation also needs a strong back and the ability to manufacture what is needed is a nation’s backbone.

    Sovereignty/nationhood/borders mean Government and publically chartered corporations should work for the best interest and betterment of citizens within. Instead Free Trade, One World Ideals and International Corporations have allowed entire American industries to be destroyed by subsidized foreign competitors. “American” companies have built their manufacturing facilities overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor and now are off shoring the lower paying customer service and service economy jobs.

    Bottom line Obama: What has been off shored is America’s wealth, ideals, lifestyle, hopes and dreams. In my lifetime “leaders” like you who mock the “old ways” have made America the world’s biggest debtor nation. A nation that begged allies for war plane parts during the first Gulf War because they are no longer manufactured in the US but sends troops overseas to protect corporations that fail to repatriate international profits in order to avoid paying American taxes and that exhibit no loyalty to American families or soldiers.

    Soon the world will cease to accept constantly devaluing US fiat dollars as the international currency for oil trade and America will be left utterly bankrupt. You and the other leaders who followed the “new wisdom” will be brought down to those you have already destroyed. Perhaps then you can rediscover a lost faith and an appreciation for the 2nd Amendment.