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April 14, 2008

Obama Tells the Truth About Blue-Collar Resentment


Last week, we got another twist in the long, unfunny joke that has become the 2008 presidential campaign. It wasn’t the unfunny punch line, but rather just a poke at the uncomfortable open sore that is the joke’s topic.


There’s no point in rehashing Barack Obama’s description of bitterness in working America, and if you don’t understand why it exists or how long it’s been around, you should watch Michael Moore’s Roger and Me.


Yeah, Michael Moore. If there’s anyone who understands working class resentment and anger toward the political class, it’s him. It’s also worth pointing out that Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, isn’t in any better shape today than it was back in 1989.


What followed, of course, were cries of Obama elitism from the John McCain camp. Hillary Clinton, apparently campaigning someplace other than Planet Earth, suggested that in small-town America she’d met nothing but grit and optimism.


While McCain and Clinton both gave Blue Collar America the noble savage treatment, a Pew Research Center study said that the middle class’s outlook was gloomy, and reported its study reflected the worst short-term assessment in the poll’s history. Similarly, the federal government reported that consumer confidence had hit a record low. Loss of confidence and belief that you’re headed in the wrong direction, of course, are the keystones of gritty optimism.


We know that campaigns will play games with each other, and use those few times when a candidate is honest with people as a weapon. This is one of the many things that have turned the presidential campaign into a long, painful slog, and the results speak for themselves.


Both Clinton and McCain have acknowledged tough times for industrialized America. McCain told Michigan voters in mid-January that auto manufacturing jobs weren’t coming back, and Clinton tapped into simmering anger over free trade to solidify her win in Ohio.


Free and globalized trade is the tip of this spear. There is reality and there is perception, and while the reality is that globalization started well before NAFTA, the perception is that the pact signaled the start of the wholesale selling out of blue-collar America by the political elite.


Resentment against global trade burbles to the surface occasionally. Last decade, it expressed itself as rioting during World Trade Organization summits, the worst and most famous of which took place in Seattle. Marching in opposition to free trade were, among others, representatives of labor unions – you know, blue collar workers who felt left behind by free trade.


That they’d feel the same way a decade later, as their communities continue to decline and jobs continue to disappear, is unquestionable. The notion that – after two decades of neglect by the political class – those workers would stand with sleeves rolled up and optimism in their eyes, invites laughter. Calling someone who correctly identifies these feelings of abandonment an elitist, especially by Clinton and McCain, is rich.


Clinton, for most of the campaign, has traded off her experiences as First Lady during the prosperity of her husband’s presidency. (There is a case to be made that the prosperity during his presidency was a combination of tech market manipulation and the good luck of stable and cheap oil.) McCain built his economic conservative street cred on the notion of free trade, for which he received top honors from the pro-free-trade Cato Institute.


The ultimate question isn’t whether Obama’s comments were accurate. People are angry and feel abandoned by the nation’s political class. If they weren’t, the campaigns wouldn’t be trying so hard to cast their candidates as agents of change. The question is whether that anger and resentment can be engaged in a way that diminishes it, or whether the candidates will dodge the issue and focus on irrelevancies . . . which, unless I’m missing something significant, was the point in the first place.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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