…in which McNutt discusses elitism, anti-intellectualism and American political culture

Following an election campaign as closely as I’ve tracked the Democratic presidential primaries this year can be something of a roller coaster ride, but for the most part I tend to keep my more extreme emotions in check. Sure, I’m clearly invested in an Obama victory and, by extension, an Obama presidency at this point, but my reasons for doing so are as analytical as they are emotional, as calculated as they are inspired.

But for all the times I get excited, it’s rare that I get angry about the whole affair. That’s probably because I’m going into this process with a decently-read understanding of how American politics works, and I’ve been doing this for just long enough that few things truly surprise me or feel ludicrously out-of-place. I’m often able to dismiss the latest media sensationalism or the newest attack ads as part of the system as opposed to some aberration.

But the camel’s back has been broken, and it’s this whole kafuffle about Obama’s “elitism” that’s done me in. It’s a “scandal” that plays to several my pet peeves about American politics, bringing out some of the worst elements of the chattering class in Washington and in the media, and playing off of some of the electorate’s most unwelcome aspects.

This whole story came from a column by Mayhill Fowler over at the Huffington Post. It revealed a comment that Obama made at a California fundraiser while attempting to explain to his audience what was going on in rural Pennsylvania and other states in the Midwest:

“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. 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.”

In her piece, Fowler used the statement as evidence that Obama still has a lot to learn about speaking to working-class Americans. But that conclusion – flawed, since he was speaking to a fundraiser audience – is nothing compared to the conclusions that McCain and Clinton jumped to. Fowler saw a starting point for discussion; Obama’s opponents saw an opportunity.

McCain’s people called the comments “remarkable” and “extremely revealing, noting that “it is hard to imagine someone running for president of the United States who is more out of touch with average Americans.” It’s Clinton, though, who’s truly making the most of this supposed gaffe: “Pennsylvanians don’t need a president who looks down on them; they need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them,” she said. Her campaign has seized this opportunity to completely rebrand the Obama/Clinton division: she’s spent the entire weekend talking about her experience with hunting and guns and all things blue-collar American, while painting him as elitist and out of touch

The idea of multi-millionares McCain and Clinton painting Obama – a former community organizer – as “out of touch” with working Americans is rich (pun intended), but that’s not what ticks me off about this whole ordeal. It’s more that it enables two of the drop-dead worst and most unwelcome elements of the present day American political climate.

* * * * *

Forget liberal or conservative: the true media bias in the 21st century is in favour of conflict at any expense. The fact that Hillary Clinton is still in this race owes a lot to her tenacity as a candidate and some very strong bases of support within the Democratic Party, but an equal partner in her continued campaign is the media. While most progressive bloggers and alternative media have accepted that Obama is almost mathematically certain to get the nomination and have moved onto attacking John McCain, the traditional media absolutely loves that the Democratic contest is still ongoing and providing great fodder for a 24-hour news cycle.

In contrast to the disciplined Obama campaign, the Clinton effort has been full of drama – the ouster of advisors, Bill gone wild, a completely misguided strategy, and more. This means that the media has had to dig a bit harder for Obama dirt to ensure balanced conflict in their news cycle. Sometimes they take something that’s a legitimate issue – Jeremiah Wright, for example – and succeed in blowing it a bit out of proportion. Other times, something innocuous like Obama’s statements about Ronald Reagan get pounced on by Clinton’s team and the media blindly accepts their construction of the remarks as a legitimate political issue.

I really don’t want to pick on Clinton too much – it betrays my biases, and I’m trying to be analytical-not-polemical here – but forgive me as I contrast Obama’s statement about “clinging to guns, etc.” to her oft-chided comments about her trip to Bosnia. On the one hand, you have a speech where Obama is trying to explain the roots of working-class discontent and ends up speaking with a few ill-advised word choices. On the other, you have a deliberate attempt to exaggerate a past experience into a demonstration of toughness and courageousness. One is a misstatement, a gaffe; the other is, at best, an attempt to mislead and, at worst, an outright lie.

So why does the media give these equal weight? This weekend, those two subjects were issues one and two on the Sunday talk shows; by virtue of currency, Obama’s situation came first. While both are legitimate points of discussion, there’s no comparison between them when it comes to which speaks to a particular candidacy’s legitimacy (and this isn’t even getting into the whole Mark Penn/Colombia thing, which is another can of worms).

There’s a difference between misleading and misspeaking, and it’s high time that journalists stopped giving the two of them equal weight in their campaign coverage.

* * * * *

But let’s move onto issue two: why is what Obama misspoke about a big deal in the first place?

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? is one of my absolute favourite books, and for all its flaws is probably one of the most well-reasoned explanations for why working-class Americans have turned away from the Democratic Party in the last two or three decades. His thesis: that as Democrats stopped talking about populism and ceased to provide an economic alternative to the Republicans, many Americans have been left to vote on cultural domestic issues (gun control, gay marriage, etc.) where they can at least feel like they can make a difference with their vote.

Sound familiar? Obama was basically making the same argument, and it’s one that he’s made before (check out this clip from Charlie Rose back in 2004). It certainly came across with less finesse than he intended, mind you, but frankly I think that he would have come under fire even if he had explained it perfectly. Why?

Canadians sometimes have trouble understanding American anti-intellectualism, because our country doesn’t share the mindset to the same degree. It stems from America’s revolutionary origins, and since then a mistrust of authority – political, social and yes, intellectual – has ran deep in the nation’s psyche. The foundation of the nation’s political culture is the enabling of the individual, and anyone who attempts to tell the individual what to do, or what to think, is almost guaranteed to come under suspicion.

In the political sphere – which was already unkind to intellectualism – the rise of late 20th century conservatism has amplified this phenomenon. The philosophical core of modern conservatism is basically the rejection of the social theory and social science that became popular in the 1960s, which tried to understand political and societal change with broad, macro strokes. This offended many who saw the individual as the paramount force in society: how could people be responsible for their own actions if they’re at the whim of broader social forces.

This has created a bit of a strange dynamic – politicians are, of course, allowed to talk to the electorate, but if they want to talk about the electorate, they have to tread VERY carefully. Obama’s crime was that he talked about voters in Pennsylvania not as a group of individuals but as a social phenomenon; their behaviours explained not by individual motive but by their economic status. He didn’t sound like Obama the community organizer; he sounded like Obama the Harvard-educated academic.

The question that I have is probably the same one as you: what’s wrong with Obama the Harvard-educated academic? To me, one of Obama’s greatest assets as a candidate is that he brings both the elite and the grassroots to politics. That he can speak about social movements and theory does not make him “out of touch” and “elitist”; it provides him with more perspectives on which to tackle the complex issues that the United States faces.

In any other world, Obama’s explanation of his word choice (which you can watch below) would be more than enough to put this whole thing at rest. But in America, in the 21st century, that sort of analysis and perspective is not only unwise; it’s downright unwelcome. And those of us who believe that the political realm should be a venue for all forms of discussion – including, yes, the analytical – continue to see the national dialogue stilted and stifled.

Edit: That video was Obama’s response on Friday night right after this story broke. But he took an even more aggressive stance on the issue yesterday at a speech in Steelton, PA. It’s nine minutes long, but the whole thing is worth a watch. Here’s hoping that he’s this aggressive on the issue in the debate on Wednesday night:

Edit Again: I want to add to this with something that Josh Marshall over at the quite-excellent Talking Points Memo wrote earlier today:

With the Wright business and now with this, the more nuanced version of the Clinton line has been that what ‘we’ think is not really the point. It’s what Republicans will do with it in the fall. And that’s a real concern that I definitely have. I won’t deny it. I’ve never thought Obama was a perfect candidate. But as we get deeper into the primary calendar, increasingly so, this ‘what the Republicans will do’ line has become more of a simulacrum, or a license, if you will, to do what Republicans actually do do. That is to say, to grab for political advantage by peddling stereotypes about Democrats and liberals that are really no less offensive than the ones we’re talking about about Americans from small town and rural America.

And seeing Hillary go on about how Obama has contempt for folks in small town America, how he’s elitist, well … no, it’s not because I think she’s either. I never have. But after seeing her hit unfairly with just the same stuff for years, it just encapsulates the last three-plus months of her campaign which I can only describe as a furious descent into nonsense and self-parody. Part of it makes me want to cry. But at this point all I can really do is laugh.

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3 responses to “…in which McNutt discusses elitism, anti-intellectualism and American political culture

  1. I’m not sure Canada is as pro-elitism as you posit; witness the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, and our own distaste for a Harvard-educated leader in the form of Michael Ignatieff.

    Great post though — like you, I’m emotionally invested in Obama enough to approve of any polemics that defend him.

  2. I agree with you, Padraic, although I don’t think that anti-intellectualism has pervaded our culture to anywhere near the same degree. Perhaps a look at Canadian attitudes towards “elite” is a subject for another post…

  3. Have you read Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason? It goes into the anti-intellectualism in the US in pretty good, infuriating, terrifying detail.

    Great post, kudos for being able to analyze this situation so rationally. Whenever I think about it for more than a few minutes, I just want to smack Hillary. Argh, that Annie Oakley bit drives me insane.

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