Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bitter? Who's Bitter?

Obama's been criticized for saying that small town Americans are bitter and angry. McCain and Clinton have jumped on these statements, claiming that they show how out of touch Obama is.

I guess maybe I fall into the category of an "elitist", as I'm here at Boalt getting a top tier legal education. But, as someone who comes from a small town, someone who's parents struggled to make the mortgage payment and the car payment and the daycare payment, I think he's right. We are bitter.

We're bitter and angry that our insurance companies have decided to stop paying for life saving drugs rather than negotiate with big pharma or take a profit cut. (See Patrick's post below.)

We're bitter because the price of food is going up while Congress continues to
subsidize corn for biofuel production.

We're bitter because we're losing our homes due to foreclosures while the Fed bails out the companies that got us into this mortgage mess in the first place.

Question to the N&B community at large:

Did he get it right?

Or is this just another failed attempt by intellectuals to explain small town America?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only part of the problem is that Obama said people were bitter. The other part of the problem is that he implied that people only like guns and religion because they are bitter. People who like guns and religion don't like to be told that they don't have good reasons for liking them.

4/15/2008 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed with 12:31. To me, the bigger issue was the possible belittling of beliefs regarding guns and religion.

4/15/2008 2:24 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

These guys pretty much said it all.

4/15/2008 2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The issue is not that he said people were bitter. The issue is that he said people "cling" to religion and guns and don't like minorities and illegal immigration because they are bitter.

You don't have to be bitter to believe in God or the right to bear arms. I happen to believe in both and it has nothing to do with "bitterness".

Also, you can be against illegal immigration for a number of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with bitterness or racism, which he implied.

4/15/2008 3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an Obama supporter, but the notion that embracing religion or gun rights is both (1) bitter, and (2) a recent result of economic downturns is a breathtakingly shallow way of conceiving of small town people who are religious and/or favor gun rights. It's the exact opposite way of understanding people than is the Obama way that I admire.

4/15/2008 3:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We're bitter because we're losing our homes due to foreclosures while the Fed bails out the companies that got us into this mortgage mess in the first place."

Um, the people who are losing their homes never should have been able to buy a home in the first place. I am so tired of people making the people losing their homes seem like victims. Most of the people losing their homes were greedy and ultimately will be just fine. They can go back to being a renter, which is what they should have stayed in the first place. (I am also against bailing out the mortgage companies too.)

Also, I fail to see how losing a home they didn't deserve to have in the first place is connected to believing in God or the 2nd Amendment. Just admit it. Barack stuck his foot in his mouth and those things are not linked at all.

I would be offended too if someone said that my deep held beliefs only existed because I wasn't getting a handout from the government.

4/15/2008 3:31 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Obama made a series of poor word choices, but the concept I think he was trying to express was correct.

Poor rural whites (and that's who the PA crowd to whom Obama referred are), to the extent they vote at all, "vote their values" because that's all they have.

How many people are really affected by value issues like abortion or gun ownership? I mean, how many people truly have the course of their lives changed by policy decisions in these areas? The genuine relevance of those issues is rare (though *perhaps* more frequently with abortion policy, it's true).

The things that really do affect people's lives, like minimum wage, healthcare, unemployment and the cost of a mortgage aren't on the radar because poor whites never really believed they have an effect on those issues, anyway. Few even understand even the outlines of how the federal reserve operates, or the difference between the state and federal legislatures. We aren't talking about people with college educations, or frequently even high school educations, for that matter. That's where they differ from 3:24, even though they may share some conclusions on values. And that's where they differ from Obama, McCain, Bush, Clinton, Nader, and just about anyone else who has made a bid for the big round office. From the boots-in-the-mill, undereducated point of view of, say, a north Idaho logger's son, how could anyone possibly distinguish one candidate from the other?

Who will they cast thir vote for?

Are they going to vote for the woman, for the black guy, or for the ex-military man who believes in guns, god and babies, just like their grandaddies did?

Obama didn't engage in any "failed attempt to by intellectuals to expalin small town America." He made some frank and poorly worded observations regarding the fact that these people are being bent over a barrel. And the subsequent outrage over his comments only proves that they don't even know it.

4/15/2008 4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the problem is that obama basically summed up the republican divide-and-conquer strategy in a very direct way.

republican strategy that has worked for years? get all the lower-middle-class and poor people to vote republican by blaming their problems on people that they actually have more in common with than rich republicans at the top. accomlish by focusing on things like religion and illegal immigration. (see patrick's onion article, which is, as always, brilliant with its humor)

4/15/2008 4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And the subsequent outrage over his comments only proves that they don't even know it."

They don't even know it? That is so patronizing!

Hey, guess what? In small towns in Pennsylvania, people have treasured deer hunting and gun rights for over 200 years. Rifles have been passed down from generation to generation. Cross-generational hunting has been one of the core bonding activities. For anyone to suggest that their beliefs in gun rights is bitter, or that they don't even know why they value gun rights, or that's it arose once an economic downturn happened is incredibly insulting.

Did you know that the first day of deer hunting season is an excused absence from school in many Pennsylvania school districts? Look it up. And rather than call them bitter, ignorant, or recent converts to gun rights you might want to exercise a touch of emphathy, sympathy and understanding.

4/15/2008 4:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But even if Obama is right in an absolute sense, he is a politician and he did something dumb. No one likes to be patronized, even if it is absolutely true that they are in need of patronizing treatment.

For example, Democrats in Congress didn't fight privatization of social security by arguing that the masses are too dumb to save their money for retirement unless compelled to do so, but we all know that if everyone would actually save the ~12% of their wages that they currently pay, privatization would be fine (if properly supplemented with a much cheaper disability insurance program).

What Obama did was dumb, even if he was right in an absolute sense.

4/15/2008 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it was not just dumb it was dumb on the one virtue that had been unique to obama. now obama's shown himself to be like those republicans who you suspect despise certain americans but are too smart to say it out loud -- except that obama was both bigoted and dumb about it too.

4/15/2008 4:34 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

4:25 missed my point. Completely. What rural whites don't know is that their entire social class is systematically screwed by the Republican party. They are well aware of why they value deer hunting.

Second, I didn't call rural whites bitter or ignorant, and I didn't call them recent converts to gun rights. I called them undereducated, manipulated, and socially oppressed. I fail to see how my frustration with that situation exemplifies a position other than one rooted in emphathy, sympathy and understanding.

4/15/2008 4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It isn't quite fair to say that the white middle class is getting screwed by Republicans and would vote Democratic but for the social issues because, regardless of the social issues, there are reasons why middle class white people would think voting Republican was in their best interest:

1) They think affirmative action might cost them a job, promotion, or their kid's acceptance into a good college

2) They own a small business and raising the minimum wage will hurt their bottom line. Most small business owners aren't rich.

3) They don't work at Wal-Mart, but they like to shop at Wal-Mart because the low prices allow their dollar to go further.

4) They don't like unions because they aren't in a union and they recognize that unions + tariffs raise the prices of the things they buy

5) They don't like welfare because they work and they don't want their tax dollars to pay for other people not to

I'm not saying any of those are either true or sufficient to justify a vote for a Republican, but these beliefs exist and provide reasons other than God, guns, and gays to vote for a Republican. You can say on balance that Democrats are better for the middle class than Republicans, but it isn't fair to say that there is no economic evidence to the contrary.

4/15/2008 4:52 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

4:52 -- you're right. But FWIW I'm not talking about the middle class. I'm talking about these people. Not small business owners, and not families whose kids go to college.

4/15/2008 4:56 PM  
Anonymous Jenna, a former Pennsylvanian who had off school the first day of deer season said...

4:25's righteous outrage is misplaced. Rather than berating Obama (and Patrick) for rightly pointing out that small town/rural/lower-income white people are bent over a barrel and can't look to their government to help them, but can look to their faith and their traditions (which include gun ownership, yes), 4:25 berates the messenger. I also don't think "cling" implies anything about being a recent convert to gun ownership rights; if anything it implies the opposite.

But much more importantly, I think the small town/rural/lower income white voters are smart enough to know that they've been had by the Republican fear mongering that has helped capture their votes for two-plus decades. They can recognize the difference between a political gaffe and a long-standing policy of ignoring them and their concerns. It reminds me of the adage, if you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention. Substitute bitter, or at least disheartened with government, and I don't see that as false.

Want some proof? Look at these article, for example, to see how actual Pennsylvania newspapers, with a large readership among small town and rural voters, tell the story.

And endorse Obama, too:

So they're not that undereducated or oppressed either, Patrick. I think these communities have been patronized on all sides for a long time.

4/15/2008 4:57 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Jenna's articles are great. They inspire some hope (hackneyed word these days?), and they make me feel better about the future of rural America. But I will politely stick to my choice of undereducated and oppressed. I don't mean those terms in derogatory ways. I mean them as candid statements of fact.

The undereducation is the product of a government that is failing them. A friend of mine is the safety officer at the lumber mill near the town in which I grew up. He once explained to me the challenges of implementing a safety procedure when a good percentage of your employees can't read the instructions. Think about that. Any way you cut it, illiteracy is an inditement against the government's ability/desire to provide for its people.

The oppression is the product of what an earlier commentator called the republican divide-and-conquer strategy. I believe that manipulation of values and ideology in order to extract power is, well, oppression.

Lastly, I've been a deer hunter for fifteen years. Being in the woods with a rifle in the fall was an integral part of my coming of age, and it something I still value tremendously. It is precisely BECAUSE of my values that I get fired up over this issue.

4/15/2008 5:16 PM  
Blogger Sid Schwab said...

Clearly he worded his comments poorly. Think about sitting around in a pre-trial conference, as opposed to making a closing argument to a jury: these words were off the cuff and ill formed. But if you consider the whole thing, or, perhaps, read this, you can see the real point he was making (one, he's made better in other situations, such as here), is that people VOTE these issues (as opposed to "cling"). He was NOT suggesting that religious values result from bitterness; he was saying when people have no faith (to use a word) that government will actually respond to their problems, they vote other things, like guns and gays. And, by implication, that politicians -- particularly Republicans -- understand and exploit this, to their own cynical ends.

I don't think Hillary is so dumb (and McCain may not be, either) as to think he really is elitist, or was saying religion comes from bitterness. But she, and the Republicans in the general election, certainly will continue to exploit it. As usual, the election may turn not on such trivia as energy, deficits, war, health care, but on the big stuff: whether someone is an elitist. For the real answer, check this out, but listen to the very end.

4/15/2008 5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm just grumpy today, but is anyone else bothered by the fact that our library is always full of undergrads? It makes me irrationally mad. The library is too small as is, and I get really annoyed when all the seats are full of chatting undergrads and their study groups.

4/15/2008 6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

who is the ID checker? Go tell them to start earning their pay.

4/15/2008 6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I never understand is why some liberals can't see that some things matter more than economics. Why should economics trump "value issues" when chosing a president?

The irony is that values often trump economics for liberals as well. How many Democrats do you know that would vote for a pro-life republican as long as he/she had good economic policies? As a Democrat myself, I can guarantee that I would not vote for pro-life Republican with good economic policies. Values trumps economics for me.

4/15/2008 7:21 PM  
Blogger Earl Warren said...

I agree with all of this channeling-Tom-Frank analysis about the use of cultural values to divide lower-income voters.

But I think Obama was making a slightly separate point -- which is that "guns, God, and immigrants" often come paired with a form of extremist political culture that has little to do with hunting or praying but convinces adherents that bureaucrats and atheists (e.g. Democrats) are responsible for everything wrong in their life.

So Obama wasn't saying that people cling to hunting because they lost their jobs; he was saying some of them cling to an NRA-fueled gun culture that tells them the government is coming to take their guns...and so they better stand up and fight back right now.

He wasn't saying that poor voters are religious because they lost their jobs; he was saying many get drawn into an extreme evangelical movement that has little to do with Jesus and a lot to do with tearing down secular government.

So it's not guns or religion or legitimate concerns about illegal immigration he was belittling; it was the subset of those identities that come with a reactionary and divisive political culture.

That should be an unremarkable observation. The extremist right has been offering the false salve of hatred as an organizing tool for the better part of 150 years. A big part of the business right's war against Progressivism in the South from about 1890-1940 was predicated on bolstering the White Citizens Council, the KKK, etc. as expressions of white solidarity...and therefore turning poor white workers' political energy away from industrialists and toward blacks.

That the right explicitly uses gun culture, evangelicism, anti-immigrant-talk-radio hysteria to create an anti-government political identity for poor whites is the problem that Obama was trying to identify. It was just the worst possible way to phrase it.

4/15/2008 7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

for the record, that's exactly what i meant by "divide and conquer."


4/15/2008 7:47 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

People are trying too damn hard to make Obama's quote say something other than what it does: poorer people are more likely to be religious than people with money. If you can't buy happiness, you're more likely to pray for it. This doesn't mean you can't be religious and rich, obviously. But you can't deny the poverty-religion link.

See this nifty little graph: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/10/wealth-and-reli.html
(yes, the U.S. is still an outlier in a way on that graph. before you freak out about that, check this out:

4/15/2008 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Patrick: How are rural whites systematically screwed by the Republican party?

4/16/2008 7:36 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

My perception is that the Republican party, as a whole and with notable exceptions, plays on the fears, sentiments, and emotional weaknesses of rural voters in order to win elections . . . only to pander to the same interests that are keeping the poor, poor.

It happens in obvious and intentional ways, like Larry Craig's (former) relationship with timber interests in my home state, and it happens in subtle and perhaps unintentional ways, like the manner in which the conflict in Iraq presents a business opportunity for one group of already wealthy contractors, where the cost includes an unspecified number of poor rural and inner city kids who will be blown up humvees and sent home with prosthetics. If they are lucky.

The issue I find most frustrating is the re-allocation of wealth and resources from rural America, to urban, business America. An article linked above explains that 35% of Idahoans don't think their income will cover their base expenses next year. In spite of obvious economic problems, these people will vote along value lines that are relatively unrelated to their immediate well-being. (I I think that's what Obama was trying to describe.) My perception is that this weakness is exploited by the Republican party (again, with notable exceptions) in order to gain political office, which is then used to serve the very interests that are channeling resources away from the needy in the first place. That's why I say systematically exploited.

Ugg. I guess the answer to the question Bekki asks in the title of her post, I guess . . . is . . . me?

4/16/2008 8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Patrick: I am still not clear from your examples that Republicans really do screw rural whites. Also, I am not so sure that Democrat's plans are much better for rural whites. Bigger government is not necessarily a panacea.

4/16/2008 9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not a coincidence that since JFK the only Dems to win the presidency had strong affiliatations for small town, rural whites. Rather than view them as "bitter" and "clinging" and bewildered and unaware of their own motivations, we Democrats who want to win the presidency (and control the courts) might proceed on the assumption that those people have real agency, just like other human do.

4/16/2008 9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it's unfair to say that certain parts of rural America are politically unsophisticated. Arguably, they've lost on every political issue that impacts their welfare in recent years and their position within society has continued to decline.

Heck, such a belief has precedent. The scarecrow, in The Wizard of Oz, is widely believed to symbolize the poor farmer who is too naive to look out for his own political interests.

4/16/2008 3:27 PM  

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