Is it still an insult if it’s true?

I’ve been observing the furor over Obama’s comments about the “bitterness” of small-town/rural blue collar folks. And I’m honestly confused. I don’t recall hearing similar accusations of elitism or “demeaning” the hardworking folk of these communities when Clinton’s husband said something just like this in his campaign, a few years back. Mr. Clinton’s words on the subject –

When [the Repubs'] economic policies fail, when the country’s coming apart rather than coming together, what do they do? They find the most economically insecure white men and scare the living daylights out of them. They know if they can keep us looking at each other across a racial divide, if I can look at Bobby Rush and think, Bobby wants my job, my promotion, then neither of us can look at George Bush and say, ‘What happened to everybody’s job?

Hmm! Looks like somebody’s playing the race card, to me! And I don’t know about Bill’s tone, here. Is it better to be “bitter” or “insecure”?

But who’s calling what name is beside the point. Both Bill Clinton then and Barack Obama now are right. The conservative Southern strategy has been public knowledge for years, used openly and with great effectiveness to propel neoconservative and liberal-but-might-as-well-be-conservative candidates to victory for nearly 40 years. The tactic has been in place for far longer than that, of course, but let’s just focus on the present for the moment.

I read a great book awhile back by Joe Bageant, a self-described white man from poor middle America, called Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. After the 2004 election, I know I heard a lot of questioning from liberals about how a second Dubya victory could have happened. The biggest question seemed to be, “WTF is wrong with America’s heartland?” As Bageant notes, poor rural and small-town whites have consistently voted against their own interests for several decades now. They’ve voted against measures that might’ve increased access to college for the poor; they’ve voted in favor of measures that gave credit card companies greater power to set exhorbitant rates and exploit the poor; they’ve voted against a welfare system that — despite Pat Buchanan’s implication — mostly benefitted them; they’ve voted against labor union-sponsored efforts that might’ve saved their jobs and/or salaries. Bageant’s book delves deep to explain why poor and working-class white Americans are so quick to vote themselves out of jobs, homes, and decent wages. Racism is a big part of this self-destructive trend, of course, but the revelation in Bageant’s book is how meticulously-constructed that racism is.

He points out, for example, that the American educational system was initially designed to produce good workers — specifically, people who were just educated enough to handle complex industrial labor, but purposefully not educated enough to question authority. Educational methods which would promote critical thinking have historically been de-emphasized versus rote learning, and few American school systems have endorsed subject matter that gave equal time to global versus local knowledge, complete versus Eurocentric history, etc. We’ve heard this before, of course; IMO, it’s the main reason America’s schools are crap, and yet too many are blaming that poor performance on immigrants and PoC. What Bageant points out is that this “teach them to be good, unquestioning, America-first workers” trend disproportionately affected rural and small-town communities, simply through scarcity of resources. After all, a 2000-person town can hardly support both a Montessori school and a regular kindergarten. It’s not going to have the wealth of options that larger cities provide via charter schools, etc. And since fewer parents in such communities went to college versus parents in cities (where often there were low-cost educational options available, like New York’s CUNY system, which was free until 1975), the likelihood that those parents would then encourage their kids to seek higher education was low, versus the population in cities.

The result of all this, according to Bageant? People from rural, poor communities have been virtually programmed for generations to listen not to their own reasoning, but to whoever speaks loudest and most authoritatively on any subject. They respond to simple, emotionally charged messages — even when the the issues that the messages involve are complex and nuanced. They resent, and therefore distrust, those Americans who had greater access to education, or who were taught to question as they were not; Bageant believes this is less about anti-intellectualism/anti-elitism than it is simple schadenfreude towards the more fortunate. And they’ve developed the perfectly reasonable survival mechanism of listening to whoever seems willing to help them, regardless of whether those people actually are helpful. Bageant notes cases of conservative politicians who visited rural areas and shared a beer with poor constituents — then turned right around and instituted policies that made health care, housing, food, and education unaffordable for those same people. Frequently these politicians got elected multiple times in spite of this. Loyalty, after all, is one of the values their constitutents were taught in school.

And because these destructive policies were usually buried within simple, charged messages like “[pick one] laws should benefit hardworking Americans” (unlike those lazy immigrants and PoC), or “vote for family values” (but pay no attention to the fact that family income has been in decline for 30 years), or “put the Bible back in schools” (and take out decent education in math and the sciences that might keep us competitive in the global marketplace), or “allow school choice” (so that your kids don’t have to go to school with Their kids, and neither set of kids gets the education they deserve)… middle America has shot itself in the ass. Not once, but over and over and over again.

This is what Obama was speaking to, and he was right to do so. This was what Bill Clinton spoke to years ago, and he was right to do so too. This is, IMO, something that any Democratic candidate should be saying, loudly and vehemently. Yeah, it might piss off working class Americans when they realize how they’ve been manipulated and duped. It should piss them off. But should these working class people be angry with Obama for saying it, or themselves for making it true? And should one Democratic candidate be playing “shoot the messenger” with the other — when the message is something both of them should be trying to get across?

39 Responses

  1. For what it’s worth, I’m a (union) card-carrying member of the IBEW, and I have yet to hear any member of my union hall pissed off about that statement. In fact, I’ve heard echoes of that statement for the past twenty years of my membership—from brothers and sisters in the Local! (and from other Locals too, on the jobsite, at fundraisers, at the Trades Council, etc.)

    Just about every (trades) Local has about 20-30% of its membership that votes Republican—usually because of fear that Democrats will enact stringent gun control laws, or because of abortion. Every election year I’ve heard lectures given by whichever Business Manager happens to be holding office at the time about how members need to “vote for your paychecks! Abortion and gun control are smokescreens used by the Republicans to get you to vote against your rights as a worker……how the hell you gonna buy ammo when you’re out of a job?”

    Every election year. I’m 40 years old. I’ve heard this for most of my life.

    So, seeing and hearing this quote taken way-out-of-proportion, makes me think this is being used as a “gotcha” by the comfortably middle class who don’t worry about things like layoffs.

  2. Wow. This really gives me somethng to think about. Thanks!

  3. Wow. This really gives me somethng to think about. Thanks!

  4. _Deer Hunting with Jesus_ sounds like something I should pick up, having been baffled by this paradox my whole life. Excellent post.

  5. Excellent post, and thank you for a promising book recommendation.

    IMO, I do think there is a difference between “bitter” and “insecure,” but I don’t think it changes your argument at all. “Bitter” connotes an emotional state involving a high level of rancor or cynicism, whereas calling someone “economically insecure” sounds more like a description of the circumstances in which one finds oneself, without suggesting anything about how one reacts emotionally to those circumstances. “Bitter” describes a personal reaction to circumstances, whereas “insecure” describes the instability of the circumstances themselves. My impression is that the people to whom Clinton and Obama referred are both bitter and economically insecure, but that they don’t like being called out on the bitterness, particularly not by a black man who’s so obviously better off in terms of finances/education/job prospects/etc.

  6. Julia,

    I dunno. “Economically insecure” in a classist society has moral implications. It implies someone who’s mismanaged her money — someone who’s failed to make herself secure, through lack of foresight or some kind of moral lapse. Remember back when the credit card companies bankruptcy-reform advocates were trying to sell their bill to Congress? They painted it as a moral issue: bankruptcy had to be reformed because of “rampant abuse”. I can remember hearing TV pundits at the time complaining that too many people filed bankruptcy to avoid responsibility after buying designer shoes and weekends in Fiji. But the reality is that most people who file bankruptcy do so because of medical bills, natural disasters, and all sorts of things that have nothing to do with moral character.

    So I’m not sure it’s possible to call somebody “economically insecure” in this country without heavy negative/derogatory implications.

  7. Really, I think the outrage is a roundabout way of calling Obama an uppity negro.

  8. I think that’s on target. I also wonder whether the effect of “pissed off” on the Democratic primary has been exaggerated, though. I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania myself, and we were really split between bitter people who embraced guns and people who were very clear that we were all getting screwed by the system, that video games were training kids for war, etc.

    The guys with the confederate flags probably aren’t voting for Clinton either. (Why there are confederate flags in Pennsylvania at all is a whole other subject.)

  9. (… “whole other subject”) … well, it’s the same subject, I just get lost thinking about which side PA was on.

    All I’m saying is those guys aren’t voting for any Democrat. They can burst out into outrage as many times as they like, they specialize in that, and it makes the news each time, but you can only lose their vote once. And I think that had happened by about 1980.

  10. argh that was not supposed to be a smiley it was a closing parenthesis

  11. Really good post. And I feel the same–even though I “understand” (the politics of) why this is being made a big deal, It’s wrong, totally wrong. Obama is right, plain and simple.

  12. Seriously. I don’t think any actual human was pissed off about this. Just HRC and McCain pretending to be pissed. Clinton was actually booed at a union event when she tried to bring it up.

    And the polls have changed not at all since this happened. Though that might be saying that Obama would have gained on Clinton even more in PA had this not happened, but I doubt it.

    There ARE working-class Democrats who think this way, too, though. The same ones who support Clinton despite NAFTA and the welfare bill, methinks.

    But I don’t think anyone who would have voted for Obama before is not going to now.

  13. Former Mississippi governor William Winter asked in reference to national elections, a few weeks ago, “When will Mississippians stop voting against their own economic interests?”

    Speaking as one of those heartland whites folks keep talking about, I concur. But I’d add that the Democrats down here also tend to suck, which doesn’t help. Our last gubernatorial candidate, John Arthur Eaves, was such a gay-bashing, immigrant-bashing, theocratic, policy-incoherent twit that I actually voted Republican myself, which I had never done before.

    And the districts are split up all to hell and breakfast. I live in a white part of town so my representative is Chip Pickering (R); but I can leave the house, walk a half mile, and be in Bennie Thompson’s district (D, obviously). I realize this is arguably as much about protecting Bennie as it is about protecting Chip, and I’m all for reapportionment, but whites who are simply left out of races that involve real, progressive candidates are not going to be trained to vote for them on a national level, and that’s one of the drawbacks of reapportionment. Whites in the heartland still tend to be insulated by national policy debates because the only candidates they ever deal with on the local level are right-wing nuts.

  14. “insulated by” –> “insulated from”

  15. nojojojo–
    Sorry, I think I wasn’t clear in my original comment. I do agree with everything you said about economic instability being loaded with heavy negative implications in the context of a classist society. The distinction I was trying to draw was that if you say someone is bitter, you are calling out their emotions/feelings. If you say someone is economically insecure, you may be pointing out what you believe is a moral failing on their part (as well as a simple fact of their lives), but you’re not ascribing to them any particular emotions about it. I thought people might have gotten more into an uproar over “bitter” because it’s been my experience that if you happen to ambush people with an accurate assessment of their negative emotions, you sometimes get a big defensive backlash.

    It’s just my two cents really. I completely agree with the larger points being addressed in this thread, so I apologize for taking off on this tangent.

  16. Trackback (never learned to do it right):

    Odds and Sods: the bitter edition

  17. Great post with added dimensions not seen elsewhere. I downloaded Tim Wise’s transcript and ain’t he preaching the truth! It’s not just small town or rural people who have voted against their interests and feel bitter/frustrated/scared. I live in a major city and have been un and under – employed for the past 2 years. I went back to school but my rent has increased along with food, luxuries like cable, etc. And I’m pissed about it. I did not vote for Bush or other anti-social policies but have had to suffer the effects of those that did.

  18. One doesn’t have to live in a small, rural town to be bitter. I’ve met my share of working class whites who are bitter (for lack of a better term) at the way things are. I live in the burbs.

    Billary and McClain weren’t roused to protest the “bitter” comment. Obama said it was the failure of the BUSH and CLINTON administrations to help working class people. He’s pushed the indictment back a few years. He’s caught the (BUSH, CLINTON and perhaps McCAIN) all in the same net.

    It was very clever, but the media likes to focus on one word. The bitter part is a distraction.

    Plus a black man pointing out that poor or struggling white people exist in America is a big no no.

  19. Teachers tend to take the blame for poor educational results, as well. There’s an acheivement gap? Don’t blame differences in funding for preschool. Kids stay in ESL programs for six or more years? Don’t blame differences in wealth and stability. Kids are leaving high school unable to read? Don’t blame a culture that says you can get all your news and entertainment without bothering to read a word. Kids can’t make a reasoned judgement and back it up with a persuasive paragraph or two? Definitely don’t blame an entertainment industry that thrives on passive consumers. Blame the teachers for not focusing on the basics/teaching critical thinking/giving equal attention to all kids. It’s one-size-fits-all!

    (Yes, I teach. In a mixed-race, mixed-class, mixed-ability, public high school in a East Coast suburb. I have students who are homeless and students whose families have had Money for generations. I can count the number of students I have this year who are interested in thinking on the fingers of one hand.)

  20. Having grown up in rural Ohio, I think the original post is pretty close to the mark. And I don’t think there’s much of a way to change the situation except to get someone like Obama elected and actually do some things that demonstrate how things could be better.

    Still, our situation is pretty messed up and it’s not going to be easy. And the schools… oh geez, such a waste of human potential. And while I don’t blame the teachers for the mess there, I do think that in the course of protecting their own interests they sometimes end up defending and prolonging a system that is inherently flawed.

  21. When Obama made the bitter comment he also discussed the problems inner cities and black kids turning to crime. The Huffington Post has an article today on it. The media missed the whole point because Obama is bring the class issue into the race, which is something that America has historically hasn’t dealt with. I watched the debate tonight and Obama said lots of things about the growing gap between the rich and the poor which are true. He has the courage to be frank and tell the truth of how the rich are getting richer and the middle class and poor are getting homeless in America. He did a great job and Hillary was so fake by trying to use Karl Rove’s game. She was so out of touch with the fact that most Americans are losing their shirts. Watch the debate if you can and don’t fall for the old game that the media or establishment play in dividing us.
    P.S. Kevin Phillips has written some good books on these issues and he is an insider because he worked for Nixon. Another good book is “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”.

  22. How come BBC showed this in England and the American media ignored it. I guess Paris Hilton is more important.

  23. Nojojojo – I’m reading Deer Hunting right now – what an eye opener eh? I’ve started telling my friends that if race is the elephant in the room we never talk about, class is the 800 lb gorilla standing behind it.

    As “Bittergate” rages on, without proportion or any sense of reality, I’m starting to agree with Jamelle – this is really just about the uppity negro daring to talk about white folk.

    I’m not sure what to make of a democractic candidate and the MSM coopting talking points off of Faux news. Seems like maybe we Democrats need a systems check.

  24. Unfortunately, the fact is that the rules are different for Obama. And for Clinton. They’re the first black and first woman with a real chance at the presidency and all the little bits of racism and sexism that people pretend aren’t there are coming out. They both have to be purer than Caesar’s wife, more patriotic than Washington, and generally perfect for the media not to jump all over them. And then they’ll get smeared as “elitist” or “out of touch”. Add to that the fact that the press is basically a big business with the usual big business interests–that is, it is Republican in its leaning–and it’s not at all surprising that they jumped all over Obama for a remark that was both true and perfectly reasonable. Not sure what to say besides I’m a bit bitter that this sort of sh!t happens. Maybe in another 20 or 30 or 50 years it won’t anymore. But only because people like Obama dealt with it and challenged it now.

  25. I think that part of the difference is Obama’s words about people who “cling to guns or religion”. The criticism of the “bitter” remark often has an undertone of “Obama is attacking religious belief”, and Clinton didn’t open the door to that particular attempt at distortion. (There might be a touch of difference in the way Clinton and Obama framed the remarks as well – Clinton says “I”, as if he were one of the people in question, and Obama says “they” – but I don’t think the furor is rooted in subtleties.)

    I don’t think “bitter” is the point of contention here – I think that critics are focusing on that particular word, because if they called it “Religiongate”, people would say “One minute they’re criticizing Obama for something his preacher said, and now they’re claiming he doesn’t respect religion. Come on.”

    Like Sarah J says, the polls haven’t changed – perhaps because from day one Obama has made a point of including religious belief in his message, and people know where he stands.

    (None of this takes away from the fact that Obama is right – just looking at it purely in terms of political maneuvering, and the ways political remarks get wrenched out of context or used as code.)

  26. I’ve encountered some of Bageant’s writings and I think he’s brilliant. I’ll have to bump that book up on my to-read list. I’ve read Thomas Frank’s books about more or less the same thing.

    I think you’re spot on with the trusting loudness and emotional charge over reason. I know a few people who operate like that and it’s maddening to try to reason with ‘em.

  27. Great post. In regards to voting, I have similar thoughts about some of the black people in my hometown who are stridently against safe-sex education even while teenage pregnancy remains a huge problem in the community.

  28. I live in a small town, and sadly Obama wasn’t far off the mark. at least for the older folks anyway. i doubt the majority fo this town is even thinking about voting democrat anyway. *sigh* i need to move to chicago.

  29. Proto-fasicsts don’t ever *want* to admit that they’re proto-fascists. Call them that, and they get all tetchy.

  30. I noticed the people spouting the ‘bitter’ were wealthy.

    I loved Michelle Obama’s appearance on Colbert. Anyone catch that? Her and her ‘four spoons’ remark. I can relate to that, and I bet most that grew up poor can too. Calling them elitist is so laughable.

    From south side Chicago/Indonesia to a chance at the White House. What a wild ride this must be for them.

  31. This was an insightful article.

    Like Hannah, I live in a small town. My experience here, as a woman of color who walks to the beat of her own drum, has been difficult and eye-opening. Until I move (which I plan to do in the next couple of years) I’ve made lemons into lemonade. Living here is tolerable.

    Because of my rude awakening to the nuances of small town living, I believe Obama showed honesty and guts in saying what he did about small town, rural America.

    Let’s play devil’s advocate and say Obama’s comments are “demeaning and insulting” – they are still true. Look, I’m not voting for Obama or Hillary because I disagree with them regarding political and moral issues on so many levels. If it wasn’t for that, I would definitely vote for Obama.

    One thing I take issue with is your statement, “’put the Bible back in schools’ (and take out decent education in math and the sciences that might keep us competitive in the global marketplace)”.

    I believe if the Bible and Godly principles are put back in schools, teachers and administrators would spend less time trying to maintain order and spend more time in decent math and science education.

    One thing I take issue with you is the statement, “

  32. telltheworld1,

    One thing I take issue with is your statement, “’put the Bible back in schools’ (and take out decent education in math and the sciences that might keep us competitive in the global marketplace)”.

    I believe if the Bible and Godly principles are put back in schools, teachers and administrators would spend less time trying to maintain order and spend more time in decent math and science education.

    Unfortunately, we haven’t seen this to be true in practice. When the Kansas public school system mandated teaching evolution, effectively putting the Bible back in schools, the entire school system was humiliated on the global stage. The teachers, administrators, students, and parents in that school system spent a lot of time that year either defending or debating the school board’s policy. I have to wonder where that time came from, and what parts of the kids’ education got sacrificed to allow it. I also have to wonder how many kids were turned off school altogether, or off religion, by being tarred and feathered as stupid hicks.

    In principle I agree with you. My best friend went to a Catholic school, and when she tells me about her Religion class, I’m always amazed to realize that it wasn’t 150 hours of proselytizing — she learned history and facts about multiple religions, and was taught to examine them all critically, including Catholicism. If religion could be brought into public schools like that, I wouldn’t object. But I don’t think it can be. For one thing, there wouldn’t be time to cover more than the Abrahamic religions — so does everybody else get left out in the cold? Even then it would be a fairly superficial treatment, unless one spent years on it — and our kids already don’t get enough time devoted to math and science as it is.

    For another thing, I don’t think the main proponents of religion in our public schools, fundamentalist Christians, would allow it to be anything other than their religion. Again, critical thinking is not high on these folks’ list of things to teach; too many of them are just hoping to put together an unthinking, world-conquering army supported by a totalitarian theocracy, which I find just a little scary.

    With all these hidden agendas at play, it has become impossible to bring God into public schools in a fair and sane way.

  33. I believe if the Bible and Godly principles are put back in schools, teachers and administrators would spend less time trying to maintain order and spend more time in decent math and science education.

    And those of us who are atheists can just go screw ourselves? Thanks.

    It’s funny, but if you take a look, atheist kids do not in fact cause any more trouble in school than the religious, and atheist parents are citizens who have a right to be able to send their kids to public schools without having them preached at. Public schools are public–they are accountable to everybody, and that includes atheists as well as those religious folk who recognize the importance of separating church and state.

  34. Hi Nora,

    Good and thoughtful post…as usual.

    I do not know exactly what population/cross-section we have who make entries on this forum, but I suspect many are under the age 40.

    I am not prone to giving advice to anyone unless asked and I am not prone to preaching…but…being in my early 30’s, married nearly 13 years, aising three children, and 8 years into the corporate world has taught me a few things. Please permit me to offer this:

    No matter what your profession or line of work you are in… ALWAYS, ALWAYS work to upgrade your skills or work to develop another set of skills altogether. You can do it incrementally – this could take the form of one college class per semester, a professional certification program of some type, or gradually learning another language. Consider yourself a life long student.

    I was in downstate Indiana last week and I noticed a fairly clean and newer looking GE plant. I inquired about it and the locals told me it closed down a month ago. As everyone well knows the days of screwing in a widget on a assembly line for 30 years are long gone.

    Blessing and Prosperity….

    Adam

  35. To me, the thing that you could most find objectionable in Bittergate is twisting the whole thing, to mean that being pro-gun and pro-God are dangerous or ignorant values to have in of themselves. Which isn’t what he meant, of course, and it’s just an error of semantics. He rephrased it to a Pennsylvania audience, if I recall correctly, and more people agreed with him afterwards.

    Maybe I’m looking at all the wrong places, since I tend to check out Obama In ’08 communities for my news sources, but the whole problem seems fairly manufactured to me anyway. Sure, the TV news is talking about it, but every editorial I’ve read about the subject – most of them from PA – seems to say “Yes, people are bitter, duh. The whole country is bitter and Pennsylvania has it worse than most.” And a bunch of newspapers are endorsing him over there.

    This election makes me so hopeful and so nervous at the same time. If Obama loses, I have no doubt he could win later with more experience. But we need a president like him right now.

  36. Anything can be taken as an insult, but being from Indiana, Obama hit the nail on the head. Who WOULDN’T be bitter? And isn’t that what God is for? The gun comment was just not cooked; I want a leader who admits when he could have cooked better.
    Most people knew what he meant.

  37. Parents arguing to put ‘The Bible back in schools to teach kids morals and how to bheave’ are just wanting to get out of having to raise their own kids and teach them how to e decent human beings themselves… these parents who want THE STATE to raise their kids for them should be ashamed of their laziness. Why have kids of you can’t be bothered to do even the most basic childrearing?

  38. This is an excellent post. Thanks for the book recommendation, too. :)

    @Kim: Maybe I’m looking at all the wrong places, since I tend to check out Obama In ‘08 communities for my news sources, but the whole problem seems fairly manufactured to me anyway. Sure, the TV news is talking about it, but every editorial I’ve read about the subject – most of them from PA – seems to say “Yes, people are bitter, duh. The whole country is bitter and Pennsylvania has it worse than most.” And a bunch of newspapers are endorsing him over there.

    I wonder about the reality of the “outrage”, too.

  39. Bill Clinton does not have to worry about job security and whether he can buy groceries for his child or not.
    Barack Obama does not have to worry about job security and whether he can buy groceries for his children or not.
    How nice that at least they aren’t pretending to be just like us.
    It’s nice to know they have both considered us po’folks.

    Lets not even pretend a politician is not a politician. Lets not act surprised when politics come into play in the political process.

    When the politicking nastiness is said and done and one or another is in office, lets work on getting them to perform their duty, which is, to serve us.

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