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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.


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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  • Marlowecan

    Michael Stickings said: “It’s what genuine [D]emocratic leadership is all about.”

    I disagree. FDR would NEVER have said anything like Obama’s comment on small town Americans “clinging to guns and god”.
    Truman would never have said that.

    Obama is following in a Democratic tradition begun by Adlai Stevenson, who condescended to the American public…and was repaid in kind.

    As reflected in the famous quotation, in one of many versions:
    Admirer to Stevenson: Every thinking American is voting for you.
    Stevenson: But Madam, I need a majority.

    JFK…for all his money and intellect…never sneered at Americans like Stevenson. He was willing…after all…to crawl in the engine of a PT boat like a grease monkey.
    LBJ also had the common touch.
    Bill Clinton loved eating at McDonalds, for god’s sake.

    Obama is more in the Stevenson, McGovern and Dukakis mold.

    Obama wasn’t speaking the truth to the nation. He was speaking to the privileged of San Francisco…in a private setting…in a condescending way about a less privileged group.

    You don’t get people’s votes by talking down to them.

  • mikkel

    I’m sick of people trying to figure out all the “hidden” meanings or reading tea leaves (the Dickerson article was the worst in it’s mock seriousness) when he clarified what he meant and has a history on the issue. Is there any way that video is condescending?

    Obsidian Wings is the only one I’ve read that is asking the real question. Instead of debating what he did or did not mean, they actually attempt to understand his point (which isn’t hard) and then point out the inherent value judgment in his statement (that people should vote economic issues) and that is the proper thing to argue about and would move the country forward. Where do we want politics to reflect in this country and are we happy with what it currently does? Upper class liberals arguably vote against their economic interest, why? And if they do, then what is there rationale and how is that similar to why the “bitter rural” folks vote against theirs?

    Even if you think Obama is elitist or whatever, that would still be the overarching point, because if we come together and change the focus then they will have to respond to win elections.

  • superdestroyer


    but is blue collar whites were to vote economic issues (and not entitlement issues) would they be in a rush to vote for Senator Obama. Senator Obama supports policies that make it harder for their children to attend college. Senator Obama supports policies that lower the value of their homes, make it harder to create private sector jobs, and definitely makes it harder to reuse former industrialized sites.

  • Marlowecan

    “…that people should vote economic issues.”

    Why should people vote economic issues? I think people rarely do.

    Queen Elizabeth I once remarked of princes: “We are the world writ large.”

    In democratic times, people vote for leaders who reflect something in themselves. People voted for Dubya over Gore/Kerry because they felt more comfortable with George Bush.

    Truman hammered the New York sophisticate Dewey in one of the greatest campaigns in American history. Americans may have looked up to Dewey…but they saw themselves in “Give ’em hell, Harry” small town hat salesman.

    Americans similarly saw themselves in Kennedy more than in Nixon…and then in Nixon more than Humphrey/McGovern.

    Interests often have very little to do with it, I think.

  • runasim


    Let’s just get the ‘condescendng’ part out of the way. It’s only condescending in the spin zone, and to those patsies who fall for it.
    Rather than talk down to rural America and speak the language of SFr., I think Obama was trying to explain rural America to SF. Surprisongly, two callers to NPR (one from rural VA, one from the Ozarks suggested this analyis., independent of one another. Some of those living in small town America are a lot smarter than all the pundits and clever commnetators.

    If everything you say about what it takes to get votes is true, the implications are horrible. It means that sticking a pin in a lapel and saying ”aw, shucks’ repeatedly is what makes someone worthy of the presidency. It means that pretending to be one these people (the privileged Bush is as elite as elite can be) is more important than being one of them (see Obama’s bakcground in small towns of Kansas) For the highly educated millioniare Clinton to pretend to be one of them is outright deceit.

    What’s important, however, is not whether a candidate is one of them but whether or not he can connect with them. There Obama is doing quite well. People can understand that and many complex issues quite well, if given half a chance. The problem is that people don’t give them a chance and continually underestimate their intelligence., while they themselves show condescension by recommending pretense over honesty.

    A good leader educates, raises the level of understnding of his public rather than sinks to the level of the least intelligent among them. I think Obama is trying to do that, and he is being beaten up for it by the media and condescending commentators.

    It’s not a question, then, of what Obama is doing wrong. It’s a question of how to drown out the nattering crowd so that his voice can be heard.

    The questioning in the debate was a travesty . It was condescendingly trivial for small towns, big cities and everyone in between. Respect their intelligence, for pete’s sakes.

  • Marlowecan

    Runasim said: “Let’s just get the ‘condescendng’ part out of the way. It’s only condescending in the spin zone, and to those patsies who fall for it.”

    Runasim…I disagree, and not for reasons of spin. Obama said that people cling to guns and god because of a failure of government.

    We will not know the full impact of Obama’s words until the fall, I expect.
    If, as I suspect, it will have been defining . . . you will denounce the population who disagreed as “patsies”.
    That is precisely the elitist attitude that has cost the Democrats so many elections in recent years.

    You cannot market anything . . . a product, an idea, a candidate . . . by telling people: if you do not vote for me (or buy this) you are a moron.

    It is a losing strategy.

  • mikkel

    Well Marlowe and superdestroyer:

    At least those are actual tangible things to discuss. I disagree with superdestroyer that his policies have those consequences, but I would be open to actually seeing why he says that if he is open to argument as well. At least it is something policy related.

    And Marlowe you might be right about what drives people to vote but that makes it all the more important to critically analyze the candidates. The “real” background and viewpoints of most politicians are completely lost and every one just starts gossiping about spin and secret thoughts and plans. There is a larger disconnect between image and reality even more than prescribed policies and actual ones, so trying to actually find out the truth of the matter is paramount. For instance Marlowe, you still didn’t address his expansion of points or the video I linked. You just flat out say that he has an elitist attitude without any supporting evidence. So what, you think that he was caught in his “true” colors and everything else is just a well crafted image? Then argue why.

  • runasim


    I don’t think you even read my comment, past the first sentence., since your response addresses nothing in it.
    You just repeat what you claimed earlier.

    Hey, Marlowecan, YOO-HOO!!!, There are ideas out there, beyoind the echoes in your mind!, beyond your version of what Obama meant and beyond your definition of what elittism is.

    You assume that small town Americans are too stupid to understand anything beyond political hype, but I’m elitist?
    How arrogant of you to claim that these people are as narrrow minded as you, the spin masters and media folks who think this line of questioning represents examining the candidates.

    They are not supid. They can understand!!
    That’s what you don’t get.

  • runasim


    I just heard a taped discussion by 5 middle-aged and low income women in small town, USA.
    They said they were disgusted by the lapel pin,, Rev Wright questions because that took away time from focusing on the issues. One called it ‘bashObama’, even though she plans to vote for Clinton because of some policy postitions.
    Pretty stupid, right Marlowecan?
    Not one mentioned elitism. I suspect the word itself is elitist.

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