April 17, 2008

Once Bitter, Twice Shy

I suspect the blogosphere is not lacking in pro- and anti-Obama tirades following his unbelievably boneheaded remarks last week, but what harm can one more do?

So, in case you haven't heard the full story: last week, at a fundraiser in Liberal Elitist HQ — San Francisco — Obama rather indecorously made this comment about small-town, blue-collar Americans:
"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."
In the inevitable firestorm since, the senator has frantically back-pedalled, hemming and hawing, and explaining that what he really meant was that these people don't feel like their votes will make a difference on economic issues — so they vote on "wedge issues" instead. (And the politicians — those vile creatures, whoever they are! — exploit this reaction.)

There's a pretty interesting op-ed in the New York Times questioning that line of reasoning. Basically, the author presents statistics showing that "small-town voters" are less likely to be swayed by the issues Obama mentioned than the intellectualistas in the big cities. I think it's a valuable article for casting doubt on the fairness of pigeon-holing voters, though to me the logic seems a little iffy. Consider this:
Do small-town, working-class voters cast ballots on the basis of social issues? Yes, but less than other voters do. Among these voters, those who are anti-abortion were only 6 percentage points more likely than those who favor abortion rights to vote for President Bush in 2004. The corresponding difference for the rest of the electorate was 27 points, and for cosmopolitan voters it was a remarkable 58 points.
Okay, that sounds pretty impressive, right? But without telling us what the baseline level of support for Bush was in these groups, the conclusion is kind of suspect. If cosmopolitan voters were considerably less likely to vote Bush in the first place, it's hardly surprising that there's more room for that probability to change.

But to me this sort of argument amounts to mere statistical prevarication, anyway — it doesn't really get at the heart of the problem, which is the attitude behind Obama's comments. He can qualify what he said as much as he likes, but the implication — even of his qualifications — is that issues like guns, religion, and immigration are simply not important, and that it's irrational to care about them so much.

And that, to me, is the most deeply concerning soundbite of the campaign. Never mind the fact that, when on message, Obama preaches nothing but unity, UNITY, UNITY! For any candidate — for any person — to dismiss, offhand, the beliefs of others, runs contrary to the liberal ideals that should be at the centre of political debate. How can you defend the right to gay marriage, say, and then turn around and label whole categories of belief — religion! — as irrelevant?

I'm all for gun control and reproductive rights, but I certainly do not think that anybody who thinks otherwise is irrational. It's their belief and they can hold it if they like. And regardless of whether or not Obama thinks these issues are the most pressing ones facing the country, simply waving them off as the product of bitterness, or frustration, or hopelessness, or anything, denies intellectual agency to anyone who holds them! It's precisely the sort of ivory tower douchebaggery that Democrats are always being accused of, and — oh, look! — there's the leading Democratic candidate demonstrating it perfectly. Oops.

It's callous, and it's elitist, and it's undiplomatic — and those are not qualities I want in a leader. I am really done waiting for Obama to convince me that he could be a good candidate. I want nothing to do with this kind of thinking, and I wish he would just go away.

2 comments:

chrisdye said...

Andrew,

Here is my take on Obama's comments, which were very poorly communicated, but if meant the way I understood, make perfect sense.

There are a lot of baby boomers who got somewhat of an education and went into the workforce in the 60s expecting the economy to grow at 10% a year, just as it did in their youth. But the fifties and sixties were exceptional times, and things stagnated in the 70s.

Now, those people are in their late 50s and 60s. They are a huge voting block that feels that society has not met their expectations for the last 30 years. No matter the government, economic growth hasn't come anywhere near 10%.

So, from the perspective of these voters, what does it matter to the economy who you vote for? For 30 years, governments have alternated with marginal effect on the economy. So instead, these voters vote on issues that, from their perspective, politicians still have some power over: abortion, gay rights, gun control, immigration, etc. While these issues stir heated debate (sometimes rational, sometimes not), they have limited effect on the vast majority of people's daily lives (although sometimes a big effect on those directly affected.)

My generation, who have lived our entire lives with relatively low economic growth, have lower expectations on the power of politicians to affect the economy than our parents. That's why we vote less.

Andrew said...

Why can't I vote for *you* for president?

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