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April 14, 2008
Barack Obama and the Many Fake Working Man’s Heroes
When Barack Obama made
his controversial remarks about disillusioned Pennsylvanians at an April
6 fundraiser in San Francisco, he could not have anticipated the burst
of working-class pride that would follow, especially from those who are
not working class and generally have no interest in the working class
unless it benefits them politically.
Of course, in the
aftermath, Obama is half-apologetic, disavowing the content of his
remarks but not the context. I am an Obama supporter and a liberal, but
I was also a resident of southwestern Pennsylvania for 22 years. While
Obama’s remarks had the right sentiment, they were completely off-base
and problematic for his campaign there.
Obama’s gaffe was as
follows: “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and . .
. the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them .
. . 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
and Obama’s opponents, Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, were quick
to recognize how advantageous these remarks could be for them – the
perfect opportunity to show how “in-touch” they are with the
lower-middle-class and how tragically out-of-touch Obama is with them.
Clinton immediately began touting her quaint experiences with her father
and firearms at a cabin outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania and downing a
shot of Crown Royal at a bar in Indiana (while Obama, an indignant Chris
Matthews was quick to point out, refused coffee at an Indiana diner in
favor of orange juice – the nerve!). Then McCain’s campaign called Obama
“elitist” and condescending “toward hard-working Americans.”
But we haven’t heard
much from Pennsylvanians themselves. As someone who grew up in rural
Pennsylvania, where the first day of buck season meant a day off from
school, and someone who lived my college years in a failed industrial
town on the Monongahela River that clings to just a glimmer of what it
once was, I can attest that Obama is right to point out the loss of hope
in things ever getting better and the need for someone in Washington to
advocate for the repair of these places. However, I don’t agree that
this bitterness over circumstance is what fuels the Pennsylvania
identity of which Obama speaks – the guns, the church, the remnants of
Sure, many people in
these small Pennsylvania towns are disillusioned with their government.
But many are simply complacent, having missed the heyday of industrial
prosperity by nearly a full generation. What they see now – the
crumbling factories, sagging roofs and empty buildings that once housed
thriving businesses along main street – is what they’ve always known.
passion for guns and religion and, sadly, racist sentiment is inherited,
not cultivated out of a distrust for the government. Obama’s claims may
make perfect sense to born-and-bred Californians, and rhetorically it
was an admirable strategy – to blame the things liberals seem to hate
about rural America on people the liberals hate even more. But not only
has he inflamed the passions of working-class Pennsylvanians who shudder
to see religion and guns lumped together with racism as the mark of the
embittered, he has pegged their reasoning all wrong.
Do I think that what
Obama said shows his secret distain for working-class America? No. Do I
think that what he said shows a lack of understanding for working-class
America and their cultural and economic inheritance? Absolutely.
What I find disturbing,
though, about this whole “celebration of the common man” turn in the
election is how contrived it all seems coming from people so completely
divorced from the common man. Conservative pundits, whom, I would
add, mostly enjoy cushy positions at the top of their networks, seem to
insist that Republicans are “regular people” – people who know how to
bowl and shoot guns and drink coffee. But, if we’re being honest, most
politicians are not normal people by virtue of their positions.
Sure, they can put up a
believable front – hence George W. Bush’s Texas colloquialisms and “beer
buddy” rhetoric despite his bourgeois upbringing and his spoon-fed
political opportunities, but in the end, he is not and never was
a working-class American. McCain is not a working-class American. Obama
and Clinton are not working-class Americans. They might have been at one
point in their lives, as they are quick to point out, but now they
certainly aren’t. They are vying for one of the most important positions
in the world, not wondering how they are going to manage to pay their
electric bill that month. One party claiming a greater allegiance to the
common man is just ludicrous and smells of political opportunism.
My father, who still
lives in the southwestern Pennsylvania home I grew up in, staked an
Obama sign into our yard this week, and my mother is worried that
someone is going to throw rocks through our front window. Some
hyperbolize that this will mark the end of Obama’s campaign. It’s
disheartening because rather than resorting to empty cowboy,
whiskey-drinking rhetoric, Obama seems to truly care about working-class
America. But after one slip-up, he might be pegged as an elitist
liberal, while those who give tax breaks to the wealthy are touted as
the saviors of the working class.
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