Monday, April 14, 2008

Obama, Elitism And Bitter Politics

Unless you're politically tone deaf or you just don't read the news (which would certainly describe a significant portion of Americans, although not the well informed readers of this blog of course), you've heard all of the noise being made lately by Hillary Clinton, John McCain and every one of their surrogates in the national media about some comments made by Barack Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser last week. Specifically this:

"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. And it’s not surprising then 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."
Now you would think that any responsible news organization would take a little time to listen to the entire speech in order to put his remarks into context but I think most of us are well aware by now of how most news organizations have devolved to the point where the quest for ratings and lazily playing sound-bites are standard operating procedures. If you did listen to the entire thing you would see that he was speaking about folks who have fallen upon hard times over the last several years and even decades, people who feel betrayed by their government and who, when they hear someone talking about government in a non-cynical way, immediately feel resentment and mistrust. His point was that when we do get the chance to institute real change in this country, these people who are going to need our help the most are the same ones who will need the most convincing of our sincerity to deliver that change and who will need to hear specific, concrete ideas for the future that will positively affect their lives and the lives of their families for the better.

A major talking point being pounded upon by the anti-Obama forces is his declarative use of the word "bitter" to describe these specific people. As Joe or Jill Public, if you or I said something like this no one would bat an eyelash because (mercifully) we don't live under the constant microscope of someone who is running for the presidency. Unfortunately, if you're Barack Obama and you say something to the effect of "people who have lost their jobs to economic stress are bitter" there is an immediate and disproportionate backlash: you're against poor, working-class people, you're a smug elitist out of touch with blue-collar America, here's one person we found who lost his job and he's not bitter so now you're a dirty liar as well, etc. These cries are in turn amplified and taken advantage of by his opponents and every other opportunist who has something to gain from attacking him and harming his reputation. Case in point: Hillary Clinton was shamelessly handing out "I'm Not Bitter" buttons to voters at an Indiana campaign event in a desperate attempt to capitalize on this supposed controversy.

Another meme from this story is his use of the word "cling" in reference to people's feelings about guns, religion, distrust of the other, etc. This line was immediately spun and distorted thusly by the rival political camps: Barack Obama wants to abolish the 2nd amendment and take away your guns, Obama doesn't respect your religious beliefs, Obama wants to open our borders to illegal immigrants who will take away even more of your jobs. Of course, anyone who has read the man's books or listened to his speeches can tell you that he has never intimated anything like this and that what he was speaking of is exactly what those on the right (and now the left as well, unfortunately) have been doing for years and are callously doing yet again: using incendiary, hot-button social issues to drive a wedge between the American people and to use this distraction to convince the electorate to consistently vote against their own well being and economic self interests. The public "clings" to issues such as gun rights and religion because these things are familiar and comforting and, unlike the national or world economies, people feel like they can exert some measure of control in these matters.

And have you ever noticed that when Republicans introduce federal legislation to outlaw abortion/gay marriage or to ban flag burning or to build a wall to keep the brown people from crossing our border that it only occurs in years ending with an even number/election years? They even propose outrageously unpopular constitutional amendments that they know will have no chance of being ratified so that they can look like they're fighting the good and moral fight for their conservatively religious base, then when they win another election cycle it's back to business as usual with corporate America for another year not evenly divisible by 2. What, you want us to raise the minimum wage and institute affordable health care? We tried to smack down the Mexicans and the gays for you but those evil, liberal Democrats wouldn't let us; isn't that doing enough? Tell you what: reelect us again next year and we promise to try it all again. In the meantime, your baby's cough sounds really bad; maybe you should take him to a doctor or something.

But if you listen very carefully to the steady drum beat behind the cacophony of the daily news cycle you will notice the new bogey-word that Obama's enemies are now falling all over themselves to apply to him: elitist. It's purposeful misuse in our political discourse has had a carefully crafted effect upon the voting public; the mere utterance of the word immediately brings to mind images of fat, pampered royalty ruling an underclass of downtrodden peasants, of efete, Ivy league eggheads in ivory towers spouting ambitious ideas and grand theories too complex to be comprehended by the undereducated masses, of corrupt politicians and slimey corporate executives lining their own pockets with lucre culled from business empires built on the back of the little guy. In short, people who think they're better than us.

And that's the message every Obama hater is crowing right now at the top of their lungs all across the Midwest: this guy thinks he's better than you! This wealthy, Harvard educated politician who uses big words when he speaks wants to become your president so he can make the rules, raise your taxes and tell you how to live your life, because he thinks you're too poor, stupid and incompetent to do that on your own. They then subtly weave this snobbish image together with the classic "uppity negro" persona still recognizable to many older, working-class white voters and it becomes a fairly effective method to prey on the insecurities and weaknesses of the Pennsylvania rust belt; a classic Karl Rove political strategy and one that typifies precisely the type of dirty tricks and political maneuvering that Barack Obama has striven so hard to transcend with his campaign.

At the outset of this post, I had planned on writing a lengthy treatise on the virtues of elitism and the tragedy of it's conspicuous absence amongst those who would endeavor to lead us but when I went back and reviewed this vintage clip of Bill Maher which had originally inspired me to do so, I realized that there wasn't much more I could add that he hadn't already stated in his sometimes eloquent, and oftentimes caustic, style. So I'll just let my fellow Libertarian-Socialist (and intellectual elitist) take it from here:


Anonymous said...

Reed and I enjoyed a laugh last week over the idea that you must sit around and read/listen to these conservative talking heads to intentionally piss yourself off. Perhaps you use this instead of paying for creatine?

JBW said...

Nah, I'm just addicted to news and politics but I don't really trust many news organizations to be unbiased, so I end up reading/watching/listening to people on the right, left, and middle.

But now that I think about it, maybe I do enjoy being pissed off at times; it reminds me why we should keep paying attention to what's going on.