Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Obama and the media's faux populist heart

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.

-Barack Obama

In case you missed it, (but how could you?) the media is a flutter with the above perceived swipe at the working class folks of PA. Certainly a bit of a blunt assessment for Obama who is usually more nuanced, but why the dust up? for whom (insert McCain/Clinton/wingnuttery)? I mean it has become so absurd that Bill Kristol, with an assist from Joe Lieberman is using the “M” word in questioning Obama’s remarks.

Please, is this all they have left to resort to? Red baiting? Is Obama so far off the mark? Doesn’t economic hardship lead to reactionary beliefs? A loss of hope and reliance in leadership? Isn’t this the neo-con argument regarding the spread of Islamism?

These comments are not a big deal and they are not off base in my opinion. I see the transformation of “back home” over the last 20 years. I’m not saying there is a one to one relationship between economic hardship and the type of church you attend, but in many cases it is a factor. The role of church in rural communities is very complex and the Obama comments at worst are a bit tone deaf, but hardly indicate some lack of empathy on his part.

Let’s look at the broader issue here instead of the media’s caricature of the quote – Rachel Maddow excluded of course.

Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas” looked at the trend of Republican policies over the years, and the impact on the working class.

What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly-a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy "elite" while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.

Obsidian Wings takes this up quite well with the recent Obama PA comments.

From Obsidian Wings:

While his theory may not adequately explain why working class people support Republican cultural policies, it’s far more persuasive in explaining why they support Republican economic policies.

To back up, Frank’s argument is more complex than I suggested in that there are various potential ways to understand it. First, he could be arguing that working class culture is determined by economics. Under this view, religious zeal is actually caused by economic hardship. This is closer to the traditional Marxist view, but I don’t think either Obama or Frank is making this argument. In any event, I think it’s wrong.

The second potential argument is more interesting. It’s not that economics causes the culture wars, but that the culture wars are distractions from economic issues. This one hits far closer to the mark. There’s no doubt that Republicans fan the culture war flames to distract working class voters from other issues.

This “distraction” argument is the one Democrats use the most often, but it too has weaknesses. In particular, it’s not clear why cultural issues should play second fiddle to economic ones. Objectively speaking, economic issues don't necessarily have more value than cultural ones. Sure, most of these cultural grievances seem silly to me, but I drink steamed milk with espresso (sometimes even with delectable pumpkin spices) so what do I know. But seriously, if I thought abortion was truly murder, then marginal tax rates would be a lower priority.

That leads to the third potential argument, which is Frank’s strongest — and the one most damning to working class Republicans. To repeat, it’s not irrational for working class Americans to support conservative social policy. It’s not even irrational for them to support Republicans on the basis of these cultural preferences. After all, I support the Democrats even though I disagree with their slavishness to Hollywood on IP law.

But what is irrational is for working class Americans to support Republican economic policies themselves. It’s one thing to support the Republican Party, but it’s quite another to support its regressive, anti-work, pro-wealth economic policies on the merits. If working class Republicans were acting rationally, they should at least advocate for more populist economic policies within the confines of the party.

OW then asks a crucial question about activism (or lack of) within the Republican party:

But you don’t see that. Unlike the IP example above, it’s not like a big chunk of working class Republicans support the party on cultural issues, yet push behind the scenes for more equitable tax codes or more labor-friendly legislation/regulation. Most are as gung-ho on tax cuts for the rich as they are on gay marriage and abortion.

It’s here, then, that Frank’s “false consciousness” argument gains steam. It’s not so much that the culture wars are distracting people from economic issues. It’s that the culture wars cause people to prefer specific economic policies that they should be opposing.

Specifically, the anger and resentment triggered in the culture wars bleed into the realm of economics. If the liberals like it, it must be wrong. For instance, if contemptible secular liberals prefer gay marriage, then whatever economic argument they are making is probably wrong too. In this sense, the culture wars cause many working class Americans to give their “proxy” to Republicans, even on economic issues.

More on varieties of religious experience at Andrew Sullivan

Michael Kimmelman on the new anti-intellectual fad in politics.

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