Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Narrowing of Politics

Obama in 2004, on Charlie Rose:

(via TPM)

The problem with "Bittergate," as someone (Marc Ambinder?) has dubbed it, is that there are two ways to read this last sentence:

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.


Dan said...

Wow. Great post Tim. That YouTube clip reframes the entire thing.

One wonders about the responsibilities of partisans and media folk alike to search for truth, and not sensation. What if, when faced with an odd-sounding comment (from anyone?) reporters and pundits said things like: well, taking this in the context of what this candidate has long said, I bet they were getting at this...

Bad TV, maybe. But oh, if only it were so.

Tim said...

I think part of the trouble is that the media has no interest at all in defusing stories. Debunking, yes, but defusing, never.

The other problem is that nobody in the media either really wants to step on that third (and fourth and fifth and sixth) rail; it's touchy for everyone. It is a very delicate thing -- maybe because we've all been worn over to be excessively sensitive.

aqhong said...

"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."

That is the best one-sentence encapsulation of this entire "controversy" I've read yet.

Anonymous said...

For me personally, the additional context of which I was previously aware of, did not lessen the narrowness and condescension of Obama's remarks. He is stating that these disaffected Americans have slipped through the cracks of the Clinton and Bush administration and are, as a result, cynical and disenfranchised with American government. Ironically these people he has so narrowly and incorrectly categorized, are the very people who dont want government's help, and would prefer to be left behind by government. They do not view government as the solution to their problems, thus they do not feel bitter against the government when problems in their life occur.
The reason these hot button issues get focused on so much, is because these issues are issues that people see in their every day life. The thought of losing the right of gun ownership is much more terrifying to the average gun owner than inconsistencies in free trade agreements with Columbia. Despite the most consistent efforts of the liberal minded, people such as the the gun owner Obama refers to (as an example) are not mindless puppets, whose own thoughts and opinions are controlled by that of politicians using the issue at hand as a hot button catalysts to promote votes. Rather, the gun owner (again as an example, you could also insert "evangelical" or any other demographic you choose) truly DO feel affected by the issue at hand. Too many liberals try to say, "well that issue is just used to get demographic X" to the voting poll. While this is undoubtedly true, it still does not mean this issue itself is invalid and not important.
Why does every offensive thing Obama say, get a pass by the general public? He calls his grandma a "typical white person" claims he doesnt want his daughters to be "punished with a baby" the "bitter gate" comments, etc etc. Instead of being held accountable for his actions and remarks, they are explained away as misunderstandings by the general public who are labeled as unable to comprehend what he was "trying to say." If people wonder WHY he appears elitist and aloof, it is because he keeps telling us we misunderstood what he said. This is typical liberal thinking. The common cannot understand higher thinking.
Why has no own addressed his liberal policies on abortion, such as his vote against "The Born-ALive Infant Protection Act" that was introduced in the Illinois senate? Too many Christians aren't even aware of these things and are mesmerized by the hope and unity this man promises. Why does a man who claims to be a uniter and a healer attend a church where such hatred exists? Why does he excuse the hateful behavior of his own pastor, attending his church for 20 years, but condemns Don Imus for saying "nappy headed ho's?" It's total hypocrisy, but he's getting a pass. Why does his own wife seem so bitter? Why is he already dividing the nation with condescending remarks and hes not even in the oval office yet? If this man takes office, a huge division is going to occur in this country. The conservatives are likely going to feel what the liberals have been feeling the past 8 years. The only difference is that Bush is what he said he is. Not everyone liked it, but at least he put it out there for all to see. Now we have a hollow candidate, preaching hope and unity who will be unable to deliver any of that. I hope you are right when you say we wont see anything like this for a long time.