Over the weekend, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama talked to donors in San Francisco about what he thinks is ailing the working classes.
“It’s not surprising then that 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.”
Hillary Clinton charged that the remark was condescending and reeked of elitism. Obama later admitted it was clumsy and attempted to clarify his statement by saying when people lose their financial security as their town’s industries close down, they find other types of security in their faith and family traditions, such as religion and hunting.
Clinton took the opportunity to let everyone know that she has indeed fired a gun in her life and has a close personal relationship with God. Then she went out to do shooters. It’s too bad her marksmanship wasn’t put to the test when she was dodging sniper fire in Bosnia.
As much as I believe Obama didn’t intend to patronize, the damage was done. The working plebes may not have a lot of post-secondary education, they may not watch a lot of public broadcasting, they may find Larry the Cable Guy funny, and yes, they may like their guns and God but, contrary to what the upper classes may think of their brain power, they know very well when someone is talking down to them. In fact, Obama’s comments hit square on #62 on the list of Stuff White People Like: Knowing What’s Best for Poor People.
Clinton, despite being richer than God, plays this game a lot better than Obama, which I think explains her appeal among working class voters. It almost seems like shared joke between her and her base: she pretends to be like them and they’ll pretend she’s not one of the most powerful people in America. Yet Clinton came from an upper-middle class background, McCain is the son of a senator. Of the three main candidates, the only one who can claim anything like a humble background is Obama.
It’s a thin line to walk. Presidential candidates are the elite. They are in their positions either because they come from well-connected, powerful families or because they are intelligent, talented, and ambitious. It’s a matter of course that they lose touch with what 90% of the population deals with every day. They’re doing other things, like voting for economic stimulus packages or wars.
I think that was a reason, among many others, that here in Quebec, Andre Boisclair crashed and burned as the Parti Québecois leader. Here was an educated, erudite, urban man who lived in Montreal’s Plateau area and didn’t even drive a car. When he suggested, quite sensibly I think, that a truly secular Quebec wouldn’t have a crucifix in the National Assembly, it revealed the disconnect between him and his voter base. He made the mistake of thinking that what flies in urban Montreal, flies in all of Quebec. Among other factors, I think people just couldn’t relate to the guy. But again, Premier Jean Charest lives in Westmount and, like ADQ Leader Mario Dumont, has been a politician almost all his adult life.
In the U.S., Democrats work against this perception that they find the working classes icky. Partly because it’s true and partly because the Republicans are excellent at hiding that same exact impulse. How they took the current president, the privileged son of a former president, and turned him into a folksy rancher from Texas has to be the high-water mark for spin. In 2004, John Kerry, on the other hand, came off as aloof and, despite a distinguished war record, a wimp.
Politicians and the voters who vote for them go through this elaborate mutual pantomime. The politicians pretend to be religious when I’d wager that half of them are, at best, ambivalent about the existence of God and the voters pretend to believe them. The alternative, expressing doubt or outright disbelief, will put a stop to any lofty dreams you may have had about occupying the White House. Just go through the motions, they ask, and it’ll be enough (it’ll be a long time before someone who is openly atheist is ever elected president).
Obama has a key strength in his frankness in the way he speaks to people. When his pastor was revealed to have said outlandish, inflammatory statements, his response was not to denounce him but to say that despite his discomfort with what his former pastor says, he still considers him a friend. He spoke to voters on the subject of race in what I thought was a frank and adult manner. I’d like to see him do the same thing on the subject of class.