It always amuses me when upper-class people with power and privilege start screeching about “elitism.” Today all manner of political, media and blogging elites — people with advanced degrees who’ve never been to a tractor pull in their lives — are snorting about elitism because Barack Obama said something that anyone with a real redneck background knows to be true — working-class, small-town whites feel left behind, bitter and frustrated.
This remark allegedly is an insult to working-class, small-town whites in Pennsylvania. I have a different perspective. Granted, my background is southern Missouri small-town working-class white, rather than Pennsylvania small-town working-class white, and there are subtle cultural distinctions between the two. While I may have kinfolk in half the trailer parks in the Ozarks, I admit that doesn’t qualify me to speak for Pennsylvanians. But over the past forty or so years small-town, working-class white America has been living through the shared experience of diminishing opportunity combined with increasing financial instability.
In community after community, the old factory or mining jobs that sustained the local economy are gone. Forty years ago, young folks left high school, signed on to jobs that paid Union-obtained wages and benefits, and looked forward to all the trappings of American middle-class affluence — homes, new cars, trips to Disney World. Now the bright young people move away to cities, and those who remain in the small towns sustain themselves — barely — by flipping hamburgers or cashiering at Wal-Mart.
The only ones who aren’t bitter and frustrated are those too young or too dim to realize life was much better a couple of generations ago.
I concur with many of Obama’s critics that the place of guns and religion in American culture is older, deeper, and much more complex than Obama’s remarks reflected. But don’t tell me small-town, working-class white folks in America aren’t xenophobic. They are, deeply, and they have been going back generations. That’s just a plain fact. Believe me, you don’t know the half of it until you’ve lived among them.
What’s rich about the current flap is that the biggest reason small-town, working-class whites have tended to vote “conservative” in recent decades is that the Right has stoked that bitterness, frustration and xenophobia, election after election, and turned it on the Left. As Joe Bageant pointed out in his pretty-brilliant book Deer Hunting With Jesus, small-town, working-class whites learn everything they know about the outside world from highly paid media elites like the perpetually angry and xenophobic Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. Fear and anger are the bread and butter of right-wing politics; it keeps the rubes compliant.
Limbaugh, btw, may be from southeast Missouri, but his family had tons of money. True Redneckland would have been a place Limbaugh visited growing up, but he never had to live there.
And today you’ve got people like John “Power Tool” Hinderaker (highly paid lawyer; graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard Law) discussing Obama’s “bigoted opinion, common among urban liberals, of people who live in ‘small towns.” I don’t know why Hinderaker put quotes about “small towns”; maybe he thinks there are no such things.
Quoting Oliver Willis:
Apparently Fox, Drudge, and Politico are just tired of a slow news week and are looking for something – anything – to whip up a frenzy over, and of course the go-to people for quotes on this are the elite of elite cons like Grover Norquist and Karl Rove. I mean, when is the last time those guys had a conversation with someone making less than six figures… besides the help?
I’ve long believed you aren’t a real American until you find yourself in some rural Kentucky roadhouse at 1 a.m. singing “Rocky Top” with the rest of the drunks. I dare say this is an experience not many of Obama’s critics have had. I admit that I’m far enough removed from my own roots that I no longer remember the words to “Rocky Top” beyond most of the first verse and the refrain, but I used to could sing it all the way through. I suspect, however, that the small-town, working-class world I grew up in would be utterly alien to the likes of Hinderaker.
From a working-class perspective, the three presidential candidates represent different slices of the elitist pie. You’ve got Senator Hillary Clinton, who grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago and graduated from Yale law school; Senator John McCain, son of a four-star admiral and U.S. Naval Academy graduate; and Barack Obama, the biracial graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law.
American politicians going back to Andrew Jackson have emphasized the more common aspects of their biographies to appeal to voters. Failing that, one might get away with affecting folksiness as George W. Bush does. But politicians need to be careful when they presume to speak for the folks.
“It’s being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter; well, that’s not my experience,” Mrs. Clinton told an audience at Drexel University.
Does anyone besides me find that hysterically funny? Of course it’s not been her experience. The only time she speaks to small-town, working-class commoners is when they’re lined up to shake her hand at a photo cop. She’s never been one of them. Obama has never been one of them, either, but he’s not pretending to be. Senator Clinton may think she’s found a talking point that will help her keep the lead in Pennsylvania, but she might want to be careful about portraying those small-town, working-class folks as being happy and optimistic.
Oliver Willis makes another good point:
It’s intriguing that Dems are never supposed to voice any criticism of rural America (which isn’t what Sen. Obama did) but Republicans are allowed to insult San Francisco, Massachusetts, the coasts, etc. It’s like there’s a double standard or something.
It’s all part of the Right’s elitist program of selling snake-oil to the rubes.