Bitter Fruit in Pennsylvania

Bitter Fruit in Pennsylvania

If Obama’s remarks on poor white voters were gauche, the responses they elicited have been galling.


Like many, if not most, readers of this magazine, I often vote against my economic interests. Whenever I vote for a candidate who wants to redistribute wealth–which is basically whenever I vote–I am electing to make myself poorer. Like many of you, then, I am a values voter. There are more important things to me than money. This is not entirely selfless. I vote not only for a world I want to see but a world I want to be part of and a world I think would welcome me as part of it. It has never really occurred to me that I might cast a vote in solidarity with those who earn like me.

So the fact that so many white working-class people in this country vote Republican does not strike me, a priori, as an aberration. That they put different priorities (like opposing gay marriage or abortion) ahead of their financial well-being does not mean they are any less savvy about their interests than I am. I think their priorities are wrong. But I don’t think them irrational.

Barack Obama was quick to admit–as he should have been–that his characterization of poor white Pennsylvanians as "bitter" people who "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" was a mistake. To suggest that poor white people who vote Republican in this country are the victims of a collective electoral false consciousness is as convenient as it is deluded. It forgoes any effort to understand why they do what they do or how we might persuade them to do otherwise, suggesting instead we are high-minded and they have been hoodwinked. If that’s our attitude, no wonder they vote for the other side. Ask any neocon, and he’ll tell you–trying to liberate people who have no interest in the freedom you have in store for them is an exhausting and unrewarding business.

But that doesn’t mean Obama was entirely wrong. Poor white people all over this country have plenty to be bitter about. Their jobs are being outsourced, their wages are stagnant and their home values are falling. At the same time, their health costs and college fees are rising and unemployment rates are rising. When it comes to social mobility, the essential ingredient of the American dream, this country’s class system is going backward. According to most respected calculations, America has a more class-ridden society today than most of Europe, including my native England. That is saying something. But Obama was stupid. In response to a question about why he wasn’t doing better with a certain group of voters, he blamed the voters. Worse still, strategically, he disparaged a group of poor people from whom he needs votes to a group of rich people from whom he needs money.

Whether coastal liberals like it or not, guns, God, whiteness and patriotism are important to lots of people in this country. If you want them to vote on the basis of different priorities, then you need to give them something to vote for. Unlike Republicans, who openly lobby for the class interests of their corporate supporters and deliver on them, Democrats do not promise substantial changes to the lives of ordinary working people and rarely deliver even on the symbolic ones. In short, Democrats demand a greater class attachment than they offer and therefore deserve.

But if Obama’s remarks were gauche, the responses they have elicited have been galling. Since Hillary Clinton and John McCain supported NAFTA, among a host of other measures that have undermined the livelihoods of working-class Americans, they were ill equipped to tackle what was fundamentally wrong with Obama’s comments. So rather than attack the entitlement implicit in the message, they went for the aesthetic qualities of the messenger. Senator Clinton (Wellesley, Yale, Wal-Mart) branded Obama (Punahou, Columbia, Harvard) an "elitist," and McCain (the son and grandson of four-star admirals, educated at a Virginia prep school and the US Naval Academy) called him "out of touch." And so the political elite, drawn from the social elite and funded by the economic elite, trade blows over who is the most effete. Unable to talk about the working class as a group with a collective set of interests that are different from and at times antagonistic to the interests of corporations and the state, they elevate it to a cultural artifact. The fact that the controversy over Obama’s comments did not appear to affect his standing in the polls suggests that it resonated only among the media elites.

As factories close and homes foreclose, society becomes divided not between corporation and union or Wall Street and Main Street but between regular and latte or Budweiser and chardonnay. As happened with John Edwards’s haircut, John Kerry’s windsurfing and Al Gore’s earth tones, those who claim to speak for, or even about, working-class people are ruled admissible not in terms of what they would or would not do but how they do or do not appear. Class is not elevated to politics but reduced to a performance, rendering George W. Bush–the teetotaling son of a President–the down-to-earth candidate you would most like to have a drink with.

"You always have this question that erupts around election time: who would you rather have a beer with?" explained Contessa Brewer on MSNBC. "And so it’s not just what the candidates are saying to appeal to folks–they want to be seen as the guy or the gal next door–but they also have to do it."

"And let’s not forget Barack Obama bowling," replied Reuters Washington correspondent Jon Decker. "You know, for someone who’s in a bowling league in northeast central Pennsylvania, in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, they can’t identify with someone getting a thirty-seven over seven frames."

Presumably they would have a lot more in common with the person who bowls 112 and then lays them off and steals their pension.

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