The politics of bitterness

April 14, 2008 at 7:39 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, British Politics, Democratic Party Presidential Primary, U.S. Politics | 12 Comments
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Barack Obama by Flickr user Daniela Zalcman (Creative Commons)

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)


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  1. […] praise of elites 14Apr08 As a coda to the last post on Obama’s ‘elitism‘, this old video from Bill Maher’s show explains why having ‘an elite’ […]

  2. Obama is disdainful of working class white people. I have had enough.

  3. Okay, but what do you base that on?

  4. [Comment deleted on the commenter’s own request]

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  6. [Comment deleted on the commenter’s own request]

  7. Tom,

    I’m not exactly sure what you’re asserting here: I don’t think Obama screens out decades of US history, and I know my post doesn’t do that. Also, ‘he has a way with words’ would be a better dig if we weren’t talking about an election that will inevitably be won by the candidate who makes the best use of words.

    Younge’s post is typically insightful and absolutely correct, right down to his characterisation of Obama as ‘tin-eared’ (though I prefer ‘cloth-eared’ myself) when it comes to addressing the working poor. In fact, Obama’s found it incredibly difficult to muscle into a demographic that’s been the overwhelming preserve of Clinton and latterly John Edwards. Since the ‘bitter’ flap, he ironically has a better chance of winning their votes than before, since more of them are going to be listening to what he has to say for himself.

    Of course, this is all meaningless if there aren’t decent policies to back up the rhetoric, and for that we’ll have to wait and see.

    As for those optimism pills – sometimes I think they’re all that keep me from the bottle. Take care mate

  8. Did you see Jonah Goldberg’s op-ed in the LA Times today. I mention it, not because I agree, but because he seems to think Obama has “missed” decades of US History (in a different way than discussed above, admittedly). It was just interesting.

  9. #7 couldabeen.

    If this (,1,6689546.column) is the column you’re talking about, yes I have read it. Personally, I think ‘self-loathing liberal yuppie’ is a bit strong, but considering this is a man whose book describes liberals as fascists, perhaps he got off lightly

  10. Yeah, I don’t like Jonah Goldberg. His book on fascism is ridiculous–everybody is a fascist, according to him, except for the people who actually are fascists. I also don’t see Obama as a yuppie. I was just pointing out the article because it mentions this thing about Obama being stuck in the 1980s and it was something that no one else has said but isn’t totally off base. Being educated in Ivy League schools in the 1980s got everyone a dose of Marxism and Malcolm X and it seems like Obama is a bit rooted there intellectually.

  11. Well I think it’s definitely true that the comments he made in ‘bittergate’ might seem similar to a certain strains of Marxism – his prioritising of ordinary people’s material situation over such ‘secondary matters’ as guns, God etc. However, I’m not sure that reveals an awful lot about Obamas ideology: if he subscribed to that tradition of the left, he would’ve also favoured mandated health care. The fact his health plan doesn’t include mandates (which I understand has cost him a fair number of votes and probably John Edwards’ endorsement) reveals a more complex character.

    Also, I think if we try to look back to his Ivy League education for some kind of evidence of an underlying ideology/philosophy, it’s just as likely that we won’t find one there at all. Obama was a constitutional law professor. The good teachers I had at university weren’t dogmatic enough to swallow whole ideologies; they were professional nitpickers who agreed with certain thinkers on certain things, disagreed on others and basically used theory as a sort of ‘toolkit’ for understanding the world around them, understanding that there are very few questions with an absolute right/absolute wrong answer.

    I’m wondering whether Obama might be of that ilk. Let’s look at the evidence: he uses Jeremiah Wright to help him understand the experiences of black America but dismisses him when he starts talking the crazy talk; he thinks that government should help people get ahead in life but doesn’t see it as the cure to all ills and emphasises personal responsibility; he views the problems of small town America as mostly about economics, but isn’t planning any Roosevelt-style New Deal to solve them; he admits to admiring Ronald Reagan as a politician despite frequently disagreeing with his politics. Maybe all this is will revealed to be wrong at a later date, but as I said, my sense is that he might be a more complex character than a weekly newspaper column will allow

  12. […] isolation and hopelessness of communities across America, which is what Obama was driving at in his famous remark during the Presidential […]

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