BITTER….“Bittergate,” huh? That’s a nano-fuss I’m glad to have missed out on by being offline over the weekend. For the record, though, here’s what Barack Obama told an audience in San Francisco last week:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them….And 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.
Like most nano-controversies, the fuss over this sentence is kind of dumb. But hey — we’re in the middle of a campaign, and dumb is the name of the game.
Once you clear out all the meta-clutter, though, what really strikes me as odd about Obama’s statement is that, on its merits, it’s largely untrue, isn’t it? Economic distress probably is responsible for growing anti-trade sentiment (though the Midwest has never exactly been a bastion of free trade support), and maybe for a bit of the increase in anti-immigrant sentiment too (though I think this has been more cultural than economic, and is primarily rooted in the simple fact that we have a lot more illegal immigrants today than we did 15 years ago). But does anyone really think that stagnant wages and globalization are responsible for rural gun culture? Or the rise of the Christian right? Or an increase in bigotry? This stuff just doesn’t seem to be related to recent economic distress in any serious way at all. Gun culture, for example, has been around forever. It’s just that it was largely unnoticed until liberals started trying to take guns away in the 60s and 70s. The rise of the Christian right has lots of causes, but it’s part of a long American religious tradition that has very little to do with the ups and downs of the economy. And bigotry hasn’t increased in the past 25 years, so that part doesn’t even make sense on its own terms.
Whether Obama was being condescending or elitist or pandering or whatever, I don’t know. But he sure wasn’t being very careful. Trying to reduce America’s cultural schisms to mere symptoms of economic frustration just won’t work.