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.
One way of reading it is that Obama thinks joblessness drives small-town Americans to guns, religion, and xenophobia. The other -- and this is clearly what Obama advances in the 2004 interview, and I think was trying to advance at the SF fundraiser, is more complicated, and much more Obama's style. That is, for better or for worse, it is not about people and their beliefs or their circumstances, but about politics itself.
Here is the context:
Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter)...
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. 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. 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. 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.
In other words, cynicism about politics and government, and their apparent inability to affect the biggest issues in people's lives, leads not just to disaffection, but to a narrowing of the political issues that gain traction with voters. This compounds the result of an already cynical political system (and press). Politics becomes a game with only a handful of moves: guns, trade, immigration, taxes, choice, religion, war. These aren't small issues -- some of them are the very biggest -- but they are a very small portion of the business of government. They dominate, polarize, and electrify our discourse to a disproportionate degree. And very often, they preclude the solution of problems.
The irony is that every time Obama tries to point out the narrowness of our political discussion, he butts head with that narrowness itself. For all of the praise Obama received for his speech on race, there were strong voices that disliked the political mention of race at all, and even more who inevitably viewed the speech through the skinny lenses Obama was trying to break.
The same is proving true for this speech. In trying to advance an explanation for why Democrats lose on cultural issues and are perceived as elite and out-of-touch, Obama has been attacked for his disrespect of people's culture and for being elite and out-of-touch.
What's most attracted me to Obama, from the very beginning of his campaign, is his sense of what kind of politics can be possible in America. It may very well be a professor's sense of the possible, rather than the pundit's. If he can succeed, it stands a fighting chance of changing the way we talk and the way we think about all of this. If not, then forget it. We won't see anything like this again for a long, long time.