Bowling for Pennsylvania | The Nation


Bowling for Pennsylvania

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About the Author

Gaiutra Bahadur
Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell Prize.

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When Barack Obama went bowling in Altoona, Pennsylvania, on March 29, his opponent was Senator Bob Casey Jr., the son and namesake of a popular former governor whose coal-mining pedigree had made him a hero of the white working class. Casey Junior had just endorsed Obama, and the presidential candidate, wearing blue-and-white Velcro shoes and a tie, bowled gutter ball after gutter ball and lost the game. But Obama wasn't at Pleasant Valley Lanes to knock down pins; he was there to win over white blue-collar voters and thus prove to Democrats that he is "electable" in November.

In the iconography of the campaign, bowling might have been a bid for some cred with the white working class, but it also signifies community ties of the kind eulogized by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam mourned the fact that while more Americans are bowling, fewer are doing so in leagues, a sign of a breakdown in civic bonding and engagement. Recently, Putnam put forward evidence that diversity hurts social capital: that residents of mixed-race communities trust one another less, volunteer less, vote less and hunker down more in front of their televisions. Whether or not Putnam's dystopian theory holds true will be crucial to Obama's chances in Pennsylvania and perhaps in a general election contest against John McCain. Do people in checkerboard communities turn inward and away from one another, and does that make them more susceptible to campaigning that plays on racial and ethnic divisions?

The primary results so far suggest that Obama's challenge lies in diverse states. He has scored victories in overwhelmingly white states, such as Idaho and North Dakota, and states with black populations large enough to tilt the race, such as Mississippi and Louisiana. But Hillary Clinton has prevailed in places like New Jersey and Massachusetts, where the black population is large enough for race to be regularly injected into the political discourse but not large enough to decide the vote on its own. Pennsylvania fits that profile. Eleven percent of its population is black, and 4 percent is Latino. Bookended by the heavily minority cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, its vast middle is what James Carville once called "Alabama in between." Obama was referring to this stretch of farmland and former coal and steel towns recently when he said, "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and...the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years, and nothing's replaced them. 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." Both Clinton and McCain promptly labeled him an "elitist" for these remarks, but whatever the fallout, his comments underscore a key task ahead. Can Obama overcome that "antipathy" and get mixed communities to bowl together?

Hazleton, a working-class town of about 25,000 in the foothills of the Poconos, is just the sort of place to tell. Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, and unions run as deep as the disused mine shafts in the now-fallow fields of anthracite coal surrounding it. The region gave birth to the Molly Maguires, the infamous secret organization of Irish-Americans that organized miners to strike after the Civil War (and murdered their opponents in the police). But this Democratic stronghold has a Republican mayor: Louis Barletta, who ran against himself for a second term in 2007. He was his own party's candidate, and he won the Democratic primary as a write-in.

Barletta's cross-party popularity stems from his national headline-grabbing response to recent demographic changes in Hazleton. In the late '90s, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans from New York City started moving in, often next door to the grandchildren of immigrant coal miners from Italy, Ireland and Germany. The Latino newcomers, who now account for 14 percent of the school population, remade the town into a cultural crossroads, a place that recognizes the first day of deer season as a formal work holiday but also boasts a botanica on the main drag. In the eyes of some residents, they also brought big-city problems such as drugs, crime and overburdened schools and hospitals. The backlash found expression in a town ordinance that banned hiring or renting to illegal immigrants, though hard figures on the numbers of the undocumented there have never been presented. Dozens of cities across the country copied the law, and media outlets across the world descended on Hazleton to cover the apparent trespass on federal turf. The ordinance, which also made English the town's official language, drove a wedge between the mostly white, long-term residents and the Latino transplants, both white and black.

Support for Hillary Clinton may straddle the immigration divide. Her father's family, the Rodhams, have had ties to nearby Scranton for generations, and the region views her as "a hometown girl." More important, Hazleton's population base overlaps with her political base: the elderly, Latinos and the working class. The median home price in the city is $67,000, the median household income is $28,000 and only 11 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree. One-fifth of the county works in retail or food services, at an average annual salary under $20,000. Two major industrial parks--home to warehouses and a Cargill meat processing plant--anchor the local economy with low-wage jobs staffed significantly through temp agencies.

In this hard-bitten terrain, there is profound nostalgia for Bill Clinton's presidency, when, as one resident put it, "the economy was as good as it's ever been." José Perez, a cashier at Quisqueya Restaurant on East Broad Street, emigrated from the Dominican Republic during the Clinton years. A new citizen, he will vote for a President of the United States for the first time this year. He'll probably choose Hillary Clinton. He saw an ad for her on Telemundo, and, he said in Spanish, "I liked her husband."

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