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Posted by on Apr 17, 2008 in Politics | 9 comments

Scared to death: Obama, Clinton, and the Bitterness of the Working Class

This is from a few days ago, but, given that the Obama “bittergate” controversy continues to rage on within the confines of the chattering classes (even as the news media have begun to move on — or maybe not, given last night’s debate), I wanted to link to a helpful post by Nico Pitney at HuffPo. What Nico points out is that Bill Clinton said similar things while running for the White House in ’92. For example:

The reason [George H.W. Bush’s tactic] works so well now is that you have all these economically insecure white people who are scared to death.

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You know, [Bush] wants to divide us over race. I’m from the South. I understand this. This quota deal they’re gonna pull in the next election is the same old scam they’ve been pulling on us for decade after decade after decade. When their economic policies fail, when the country’s coming apart rather than coming together, what do they do? They find the most economically insecure white men and scare the living daylights out of them.

Now, this isn’t exactly what Obama said. The essence of “bittergate” is that Obama was more explicit: People are economically insecure and scared to death and so turn to god and guns, racism and xenophobia. The point, however, is the same, and it’s one that has been made not just by Clinton and Obama but by leading scholars and commentators on U.S. politics, including Thomas “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Frank. Indeed, it’s a point that is well-understood by Karl Rove and his ilk: play to the culture of fear.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that Obama said something crazy: How dare he insult the good people of the Heartland? (I addressed that here. In brief: He was speaking the truth, if over-generalizing and not making his point artfully enough.) Even smart reporter-commentators like Slate‘s John Dickerson found “so many problems with Barack Obama’s comments about small-town America, it’s hard to know where to begin.”

Dickerson tries — and struggles — “to figure out if there were benign sentiments [Obama] may have been trying to express that just got mangled in translation.” He notes that Obama has made “the anti-snob case” in the past, that the condescension he expressed in San Francisco was unlike the non-condescension he has experssed throughout the campaign: “It’s plausible then that Obama got caught shorthanding his more complex view about electoral behavior rather than let slip a hidden truth about his view of the way small-town people live their lives.” This is, indeed, quite plausible, and I think it explains Obama’s controversial remarks.

But there’s no need to struggle. “Ultimately, in trying to explain what Obama was thinking, I run out of string.” But his explanation is a good and accurate one:

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, though, what Obama seems to have been trying to do is catalog the many ways politicians can play on voters made vulnerable by their economic conditions. They can play on the voters’ heartfelt passions (guns and god) or they can appeal to their darker side (xenophobia and racism)… He wasn’t expressing a sweeping view of the human behavior of small-town people. He was making a tactical point about how politicians appeal to voters at election time, but that tactical point about electoral behavior still relies on an unflattering view of small-town voters.

Now, is it wrong to express “an unflattering view of small-town voters”? Actually, I’m not sure Obama’s remarks were so “unflattering,” but there is much that is unflattering about small-town voters, just as there is much that is unflattering about big-city voters — or about any voters, for that matter. I realize that there is a tendency to deify and worship “the people” in any democracy, and especially in the U.S., but “the people” are hardly infallible. And the point here is that “the people” can be, and are, manipulated by demagogues who appeal to the good, bad, and the ugly in the human soul, to the deepest longings and highest hopes of the demos, from the solitary individual right up to the collective mass. Every serious student of politics since Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle has known this.

Bill Clinton knows this, and so does Obama.

There are demagogues in America, just as there are demagogues in every democracy. Right now, at this time, the demagogues in America come dressed in Republican clothing. That’s the way it is in 2008, that’s the way it was in 1992, and, indeed, the Republican Party has been the party of demagoguery for a long time — at least as far back as 1964.

Obama spoke the truth last week, just as Clinton spoke the truth when he was running for the White House. The truth may not be easy to handle, but being honest about about the state of American politics, and about what the demagogues are doing to “the people,” is nothing if not admirable and courageous.

It’s what genuine democratic leadership is all about.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)

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