Saturday, April 12, 2008

Obama the Elitist

At the fund-raiser in San Francisco last Sunday, Mr. Obama outlined challenges facing his presidential candidacy in the coming primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana, particularly persuading white working-class voters who, he said, fell through the cracks during the Bush and Clinton administrations.

“So 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,” Mr. Obama said, according to a transcript on the Huffington Post Web site, which on Friday published the comments.

The remarks touched off a torrent of criticism from Mrs. Clinton, Mr. McCain and Republican activists and party officials, all accusing Mr. Obama of elitism and belittling the working class.

This has legs--because it's true. And because it's one of the true things that no one dares to say.

So much for the bowling. Yes, we do know in our hearts that Obama doesn't bowl any more than Bush mucks out the cowsheds back at the Crawford ranch. Yes, we know it's an act directed at us. But it seemed well-intentioned: rather like President Karzei wearing a conglomerate Afghan costume concocted out of bits and pieces of the garb of various tribes. When politicians affect the folkways of hoi poloi or make local references to establish a connection to our states and towns they're just trying to make a connection with us, to show they're aware of us and our lives--that they're on our side.

But then a remark like this slips out and we're reminded of what they really think of us and, more fundamentally, that they see us as other--as "you people" who are venting your frustrations by "clinging" to guns or religion, you working class bigots who are stupidly prejudiced against immigrants and minorities because you don't understand the importance of proletarian solidarity. Now we see what a patronizing act the whole thing was all along: we're hurt, and ashamed of having been taken in. We've had a peek behind the scenes and it's ruined the show.

What a pity this had to happen now, because Obama will be nominated and this will dog him. And it's much worse than the Wright episode because it taps into the real problem Obama has with the white working class which is not, as the pundits have repeatedly spun it, race but class. Obama is just too posh: he is an elitist of the worst sort--like the pundits who spin his problem with the white working class as a race problem.

I suspect that the problem most working class people have isn't with race but with latte-drinking liberals who assume that they have a problem with race, write off their legitimate concerns as an irrational response to frustration and imagine that they can be handled--by cute tricks and faux folksiness.

They have real problems and legitimate concerns. They're the ones who compete with immigrants for jobs, and whose wages and benefits are being driven down by cheap immigrant labor. They're the ones who have to worry about a criminal underclass: they don't have the bucks to live in gated communities or safe class-segregated neighborhoods. They're the ones who have to send their kids to public schools where an influx of underclass kids and immigrants with poor English drags their kids down. But instead of taking these concerns seriously, these patronizing elitists assume that they're just ignorant bigots and can be managed.

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