Saturday, April 12, 2008

There Is Nothing Wrong With Kansas or Pennsylvania

As part of the political bloggers of America, it is my solemn duty to weigh in on the flap about Barack Obama's comments about Flyover Country America.

If you have not read them, here you go.

"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," Obama said. "And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. 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."

Most of the furor has focused on two words: bitter and cling. Those words make the voters sound like the American electorate's version of Hiroo Onoda. Those two words are why Obama is out there today apologizing for his word choice. But what struck me was not bitter or cling, but the references to guns, religion and "antipathy to people who aren't like them."

Guns are a cultural issue. To a working man in Pennsylvania or Indiana or Wisconsin, gun control is an issue about how you view him and his life, independent of whether or not his job was shipped to Central America. For those men (and women), advocates of gun control are showing they don't understand how he lives. They were taught gun safety at a young age and have a deep reverence and understanding for the carnage a gun can cause. They have a gun for hunting, which is likely a part of family tradition. I know in my family, most hunts involve three generations of Smith men. They own that gun for the off chance that someone decides to mess with them. But they would no more use a gun to commit unprovoked violence against another human than they would use their car to mow down children playing at recess. And the same goes for the guns owned by the neighbors, friends and co-workers. And this was true when the blue collar jobs were still in towns like Scranton and Lancaster and Harrisburg. The streets of Chicago may have a problem with gun violence, but the towns of Pennsylvania do not and gun ownership represents a distinct part of their lifestyle. That is why those voters focus on that issue -- it is a microcosm for understanding them.

To say that voters turn to religion or to xenophobia because their jobs are gone is just as befuddling. It is part of an argument that liberals constantly make: the working class should vote Democrat because Democrats are best for their pocketbook. As George Will put it, "
The crux of the political left's complaint about Americans is that they are insufficiently materialistic." Ironically, this argument fits best within the contours of Hillary's campaign. Her agenda is a checklist of ways to make life better for ordinary Americans: making college tuition more affordable, reworking health care, addressing the housing market. It is all about small transactions beyond a larger strategy of saying, "I'm the best candidate because you will benefit most from what I will offer." And when these voters still elect Republicans, we get asked what is the matter with Kansas.

But politics is more than choosing whose transactions will benefit you the most. Voters want to leave the country in a better place for the generations to come and that doesn't just mean they want affordable college tuition and middle class tax cuts. It's about competing visions of morality. And those issues are microcosms for what kind of country they want to bequeath. To dismiss that as nothing more than the fevered rants of a populace distracted by the loss of jobs shows a real misunderstanding of the role of culture in society. It shows an underlying belief that the cultural struggles are really nothing more than class struggles. Not only is that elitist, but it is empirically wrong.

Had Obama left his remarks to only immigrants and trade measures, he would have come much closer to truth. There is a rational relationship between saying, "The jobs are leaving. Don't bring in any more cheap labor or cheap products." But to say, "The jobs are leaving. Don't you dare touch my gun," or "The jobs are gone. But better keep the homos from getting hitched," strains the logic. Even if Obama had been more judicious in his word choice, it would not have altered the fundamental message; a message that should give us pause.