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?