Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Obama and "bitter" voters

William Henry Harrison: his soul - or at least his marketing strategy - goes marching on

We can't totally blame the continuing transformation of American democracy into some kind of late-Weimer semi-democracy on the fact that our mainstream media, especially television, has become something that East German propaganda officials would admire.

But when we talk about restoring Constitutional democracy as the normal practice in our national politics, it's hard to see how we can do it with news media so crippled in quality as our national "press corps" is today. My own favorite shorthand for this problem: Judith Miller. But "Chris Matthews" would serve just as well.

We've recently had the revelation that the Vice President, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, the National Security Adviser and the head of the CIA personally sat around designing in gruesome, specific detail how particular individuals would be tortured. And the President himself has essentially confirmed it by saying he knew of the meeting meetings and approved of the results. This was a straight-up war crime. It's a moral disgrace by any decent system of values. It was an alarming breach of a psychological taboo that anyone in their right mind should worry about.

But what is our "press corps" obsessing about? Barack Obama said some voters in depressed areas are "bitter"! Neil posted here about this yesterday. This is the quote from the tape that TPM's Veracifier video roundup of the Sunday talk shows plays:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania ... the jobs have been gone now for 25 years ... It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy towards people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
For the rest of this post, I'd like to focus not on the marketing aspect, or how it might spin or be spun, but on the analysis behind it. Is what Obama said true?

I also want to mention that there's an interesting reporting backstory to this whole flap, as Jay Rosen explains in The Uncharted: From Off The Bus to Meet the Press Huffington Post 04/14/08. The original report of the "bitter" comment came from blogger Mayhill Fowler in Obama: No Surprise That Hard-Pressed Pennsylvanians Turn Bitter Huffington Post 04/11/08. She provides a much longer quotation from the now-famous "San Francisco" fundraiser.

On the "San Francisco" buzzword angle, see S.F. again cast as bastion of the elite in debate over Obama's comments by Carla Marinucci San Francisco Chronicle 04/15/08.

Here are some of my thoughts about this concocted flap.

It was probably the "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" election of 1840 in which William Henry Harrison of the newly-organized Whig Party won the Presidency that was the start in American of the partisans of the rich posing as just regular folks. After eight years of Andrew Jackson and four years of Martin Van Buren being overt partisans of the farmers and the emerging urban working class, the "money power" needed new approaches to regain the White House. Their electoral strategy, as described by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Age of Jackson (1945) has an oddly familiar ring:

Successful in their candidate, the new-school Whigs entered the campaign with energy and enthusiasm. Almost immediately the Democrats played into their hands. A Baltimore paper observed loftily that Harrison would be entirly happy on his backwoods farm if he had a pension, a log cabin and a barrel of hard cider. Over some excellent madeira at Thomas Elder's fine mansion on the Susquehanna, Elder, a bank president, and Richard S. Elliott, a Whig editor from Harrisburg, considered how they could turn this squib to political uses. Hard cider and a log cab? ... Yes the answer soon rang across the land, the Whig party is the party of hard cider and log cabins, and it will defend them to the end against all the sneers of the Democrats.

... Every speech, song and slogan held up the rustic and plebeian as closest to the Whig soul. The staid meetings of their past gave way to barbecues, clambakes, excursions and noisy processions. ...

Log cabins were everywhere - hung to watch chains and earrings, in parlor pictures and shop windows, mounted on wheels, decorated with coonskins and hauled in magnificent parades. ...

The Whigs overlooked no opportunity to appear as the champions of labor. Their spellbinders would denounce the independent treasury [a signature achievement of Van Buren] as "a measure of conspiracy against the working classes" ...
One of the leading champions of the money power, Federalist-turned-Whig Daniel Webster of Massachusetts felt deprived by being unable to claim log-cabin roots. But:

"The man that says that I am an aristocrat," Webster would shout, "-IS A LIAR!" A person who makes this charge "and then will not come within the reach of my arm, is not only a liar but a coward."
Proving once again, I suppose, that the more things change, the more they remain the same. So today, Republican plutocrats condemn the Democrats as "elitist" and out-of-touch with the common people, while the the partisans of the wealthy are held up as salt-of-the-earth, down-home guys would would love to have a beer with.

Skipping forward in time many in the Populist movement of the late 1800s recognized that the divisions between blacks and whites in the South was a source of division that diverted political heat away from "the interests", as they defined the bad guys, i.e., big capital. Tom Watson of Georgia was one of the most famous of their number, notable in his early career for fighting for unity between blacks and whites, later in his career for his rabid white supremacist demagoguery.

The labor movement itself has hardly been free of white racism. But labor has found itself again and again dealing at a practical level with how racial divisions can be used to make workers undercut their own economic and class interests. In the mining industry of the 1920s, for example, when an all-white workforce would go on strike, the mine owners would sometimes bring in black workers as scabs (strike-breakers). Regardless of how well the United Mine Workers handled such situations, it was obvious as daylight to labor that the mine bosses were using racial divisions to defend their own power and profits against the workers.

For the labor movement up until today, the idea that workers can be persuaded by fear, demagoguery or Whiggish trickery to vote for candidates who promoted economic policies damaging to their own interests is scarcely a matter for debate as a concept. Otherwise, why would unions needed political actions committees and the like?

Reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others before and after him have made similar observations about the role that race and religion and other factors can divide groups in practical ways that work to their own collective disadvantage.

This is scarcely a new concept.

Now, if you think that Republicans economics actually has benefited working people on the whole, first of all, for a mere $10,000 I will sell you the exclusive secret of exactly where Saddam Hussein hid all his WMDs. But if that's true, then workers and the unemployed are being distracted from their own economic interest if they vote for the Republicans over guns, gays, abortion or whatever "culture war" issue you want to pick.

But in the real world, most Americans are not going to get a net economic benefit from a party like the Republicans who concentrate on providing ever-larger tax subsidies to the very wealthiest while fighting to destroy the Social Security system. So why do some people vote for a Party that's so damaging to their economic interests? Issues like national security, religious conservatism, and racial fears all come to mind.

Do economic hard times lead some people to cling to various forms of identity politics? It's painfully obvious to me that they do. Do "culture war" issues - including race - motivate many white voters to vote again their own economic interests? It's hard to see how anyone who doesn't believe in Republican fairy-tale economics could doubt it. Certainly, Karl Rove thought something like that was the case when he and his Party orchestrated a series of anti-gay-marriage initiatives in key Presidential swing states in 2004.

For the most part, however artful or otherwise his statement may have been, Obama's comment seems to me to be true. My one reservation on that point would be the inclusion of "anti-trade sentiment" in his list of dysfunctional manifestations. Flawed trade practices have had negative economic effects and need to be adjusted accordingly.

Will those issues be deciding ones in the 2008 Presidential election? I'm far more dubious on that score. The Republicans were quick to claims that "value voters" had put them over the top in 2004 on the culture war issues. But the actual election results didn't provide much actual evidence of that. And from the way things look now, I remain convinced that if the Democrats can keep the Iraq War front-and-center as an issue, that will put them over the top. If they don't, they'll lose to McCain and we'll soon be at war with Iran.

The effect of painting Obama as an out-of-touch "elitist" is a more nebulous but very important issue. But that was not my focus in this post.

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"It is the logic of our times
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