Tags: American Politics, Barack Obama, Bitter, Bitterness, British Politics, Great Political Scandals That Shouldn't Have Been, Hillary Clinton, Imaginary Gaffes, Jim Webb, John McCain
For those of you who haven’t been subjected to this spat already (otherwise known as the ‘I have a life’ brigade), last week Barack Obama made some comments to fundraisers about the problems he’s had selling himself to the people of Pennsylvania, the next key state in the Democratic Party’s primaries. Here’s part of what he said:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And it’s not surprising, then, 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.”
And thus another scandal was manufactured. His words were repeated breathlessly into television cameras, cut & pasted over countless blogs, disected in op-eds and debated over & over again on cable news shows.
Clinton & McCain went in for the kill. He’s an elitist! they cried. He’s out of touch with the common man! Never mind that with their combined total of over 40 years in Washington – only venturing outside when there are votes to be won – they can hardly sell themselves as men and women of the people, these comments showed Obama as a snide, condescending stuffed-suit who belittles working class people, their culture and their beliefs.
There’s no question that it was a gaffe – even Obama apologised for the infelicitous choice of words. But, in the tradition of history’s most damaging political gaffes, there happens to be a considerable amount of truth to what he said.
On a national scale, the people Obama’s talking about folks who don’t often vote for Democrats. Having endured many years of wage stagnation, healthcare costs spiralling, fuel & energy costs rocketing, jobs disappearing and communities losing their young people to places with greater opportunities, it’s no surprise that people in these communities have lost faith in politicians of either party to address economic inequality. But when a Republican comes along and claims that the Democrats will take their guns away, denigrate their religion and allow immigrants to steal their jobs, they at least believe they can vote on something that matters, something they believe in. As Senator Jim Webb – no one’s definition of an elitist – has argued:
“The politics of the Karl Rove era were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life. Working Americans have been repeatedly seduced at the polls by emotional issues such as the predictable mantra of “God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag” while their way of life shifted ineluctably beneath their feet,”
And so, election after election, they give power to those who rob them blind.
Why should this have any great resonance with this blog’s British readers? Well, in a year when the British National Party is expected to take its first seat in the London assembly and probably make gains in the national local elections, it’s in our interests to pay attention when leaders of other countries try to engage with the economically deprived and ask them what matters more to them: the frequent skirmishes in the culture wars or the challenge of making our countries fairer, safer and easier places to live and work. Now, I’m not for one moment trying to claim the Republican Party is as noxious or sinister as the British far-right, but what they both have in common is a tendency to focus on issues (God & Guns for the GOP, Immigation & Race-baiting for the BNP) that are not only divisive and exclusionary but also seem like absurd distractions from the very real hardships people face.
Following Obama’s initial misstep, the signs are encouraging:
The politics of bitterness can be overcome in both Britain and America, but it can only be overcome through dialogue such as this; dialogue that’s honest, empathetic and undaunted by the scale of the challenges ahead.
Photo of Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) by Flicker user Daniella Zalcman (Creative Commons)
Tags: Barack Obama, Bitterness, Manufactured Scandals, Superficial Bullshit
You’ll find the context here. Hopefully I’ll write a follow-up on the subject later tonight, but for now it nevers ceases to amaze me how quickly these things get started. Thank God for time-rich college kids.