Right Fight, Wrong Word

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April 15, 2008, 6:08 pm
Right Fight, Wrong Word
By Dan Schnur

Dan Schnur was the national communications director for John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. (Full biography.)

Ever since Barack Obama’s comments about small-town Pennsylvania voters first surfaced in the public sphere late last week, the scions of the political community have talked of little else.

(Here is what he said April 6, referring to people living in areas hit by job losses: “t’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.” )

Both the Clinton and McCain campaigns focused on the word “bitter” — allowing Senator Obama’s supporters to engage in a largely semantic discussion about whether economically disadvantaged Americans were “bitter” or “angry” or “frustrated.” But this is a meaningless series of distinctions even in this super-charged political environment. It’s safe to say that people without jobs are not particularly happy about that situation, regardless of the word in question.

The more important issue than Senator Obama’s choice of words, though, is the world view underneath them. By using a voter’s adverse economic circumstances to rationalize his cultural beliefs, Barack Obama has reintroduced what has been a defining question in American politics for more than a generation: Why do so many working-class voters cast their ballots on social and values-based issues like gun ownership, abortion and same-sex marriage rather than on economic policy prescriptions?
These voters — known as “the silent majority” in the 1970s, as “Reagan Democrats” in the ’80s, and as “values voters” during the last two election cycles — have long been one of the most sought-after prizes in national elections. But with the exception of the occasional Southerner on the ticket, Democratic presidential candidates and their advisers have been continually vexed by the unwillingness of blue-collar Americans to more reliably vote their economic interests.

In his book “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” Thomas Frank articulates essentially the same case that Senator Obama has made in recent days. Mr. Frank complains that Republicans have deceived blue-collar Kansans — and their colleagues in other states — into voting against their own economic interests by distracting them into a conversation about traditional values and cultural concerns. Both Senator Obama and Mr. Frank seem to be saying that economic policy should be more important to voters than social and cultural questions.

For many people, that’s certainly true. But there are plenty of other voters who don’t necessarily base their votes solely on jobs and taxes, and many of them are quite financially successful. They have determined their political affiliations largely as a result of the same continuing battles over abortion, guns and same-sex marriage that have drawn so many working-class voters to Republican candidates over the years. The only difference is the side of the fight they’ve chosen. It’s hard to argue that a wealthy pro-choice Democrat is any less of a values voter than a pro-life construction worker who votes Republican.

Perhaps Mr. Frank’s book would benefit from a sequel. We could call it: “What’s the Matter With the Upper East Side?” or perhaps “What’s the Matter With Beverly Hills?” or “What’s the Matter With Martha’s Vineyard?” The answer is that there’s nothing wrong with these voters at all, nothing more than there is anything inappropriate about blue-collar Kansans or Pennsylvanians who have decided that economic issues are not the most important influencers on their vote.

The mistake that Senator Obama and Mr. Frank both make is that they assume that only the values of culturally conservative voters require justification. An environmentally conscious, pro-stem cell bond trader who votes Democratic is lauded for selflessness and open-mindedness. A gun-owning, church-going factory worker who supports Republican candidates, on the other hand, must be the victim of partisan deception. This double standard is at the heart of the Democratic challenge in national elections: rather than diminish these cultural beliefs as a byproduct of economic discomfort, a more experienced and open-minded candidate would recognize and respect the foundations on which these values are based.
So the more problematic language choice for Senator Obama was not the word “bitter,” it was his use of the word “cling,” which he seemed to use as a pejorative to describe why small-town voters prioritize their opinions on cultural matters like religion and gun ownership over economic issues. And when he lists religion and guns in the same sentence as his reference to racist and anti-immigrant sentiments, it becomes much more difficult for him to establish the emotional connection with working-class voters that he has forged with the more upscale and academically oriented portions of the Democratic primary electorate.

The current uproar is unlikely to prevent Senator Obama from winning his party’s nomination, although it certainly breathes new life into the Clinton campaign and probably extends the primary battle that much further into the summer. But like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. controversy that preceded it, Senator Obama’s tendency to erect cultural barriers between himself and this critical block of swing voters will become more of an obstacle in a general election campaign.

Obama may have made a politcal mistake with this remark, but I don't think it was due to the word 'bitter'. If you are out of work and see illegal immigrants as 'taking your work' and getting so-called benefits, you will be bitter. The mistake Obama really made was saying 'clinging to guns and religion.' Those words seem condescending and judgemental - elitist. But that is sometimes a problem with the Dems - they don't understand how working class people can be politically conservative. I don't either, but what Obama said is not likely to win them over.
If I might suggest the Multinational HQ forum for your McCain Hard on? There is a thirty odd page thread in there with reference to the US election.

Who knows you might even get launched at by the usual suspects. You think I'M bad............
Heedthebaw said:
If I might suggest the Multinational HQ forum for your McCain Hard on? There is a thirty odd page thread in there with reference to the US election.

Who knows you might even get launched at by the usual suspects. You think I'M bad............
No, McCain is not my type - wrong gender :wink: - nor a candidate I could vote for, if I could vote here. I am sure if the moderator feels the thread is misplaced, it will be moved, but I appreciate the advice.
This poster hasn't yet twigged to the fact that much of the British population isn't totally fascinated by the machinations of the US political stew. Nor do they appreciate long cut-and-paste efforts with little or no personal viewpoint attached.

Myself; so long as a white Anglo-Saxon conservative heterosexual man with a family and his own pension plan gets the job, I don't give a flying
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