Sunday, April 13, 2008

Somebody's been reading too much Thomas Frank

It's an article of faith among many left-wing intellectuals that Americans -- rural Americans in particular -- vote for Republicans only because they're too damned stupid to realize that they'd be better off if the government ran their healthcare, intervened more directly in the economy and relieved people of the burdensome responsibility of managing their own lives. The thesis, most famously stated by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?, goes on to suggest that rural-dwellers not only vote against the economic policies that would best serve them, but they also have been gulled by clever conservatives into thinking that social and cultural issues like abortion, religion and gun control are worth worrying about.

Now, lefties may widely believe this proposition, but rarely do you see it so baldly stated by a political candidate as it was by Barack Obama before a not-so closed to the press as he expected gathering of San Francisco Democrats.

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.

Part of the problem with Obama's (and Frank's) thesis is the simple assumption that nobody could disagree that heavy state intervention in the economy is the best deal for average people. Forget the debates among economists or the failure of the world's socialist economies -- it's a settled matter for them that interventionist economic policies are better for working people than free-market economic policies. So it's not possible that many voters could legitimately hold an informed preference for the opposing party's proposals.

Obama, though, manages to add a level of complexity by adding "anti-trade sentiment" to the litany of foolish notions to which rural Pennsylvanians cling in their despair over their economic fate. This, after all, is the same Barack Obama who, not too long ago, assured rust-belt voters of his own antipathy to free-trade agreements -- and quietly whispered to Canadian officials that he meant none of what he said. So, is this further evidence that he's mouthing populist bullshit on trade as part of his own effort to fool the rubes?

Yep -- it sounds that way.

Then there's the premise that "bitter" small-town dwellers "cling to guns or religion" among other social issues as political lifesavers in a world that's grown unresponsive to their economic interests. Support for gun rights, strong religious faith and skepticism over immigration, among other views, then become, if we are to believe Obama, irrational anchors rooted in resentment to be dispensed with by the right outreach program. Are we really to believe that these folks would leave behind their supposed bitterness -- and their socially conservative beliefs -- if Mr. "Yes We Can" could just persuade them that nirvana can be achieved through higher taxes and tighter economic regulations?

What a profoundly condescending view of people who hold beliefs at odds with his own.

That Obama sold his contemptuous perspective on small-towners and their silly social views in front of a San Francisco audience is especially ironic. The City by the Bay defines its political culture at least as much by closely held social views as does any rural notch on the Bible belt. From permitting gay marriage to protecting medical marijuana to banning plastic shopping bags, San Francisco is very much about social policy. That's understandable because social and cultural issues are important, no matter what Thomas Frank says. These issues are important because people think they are important, and the level of passion issues excite in people is what defines their centrality -- not the preferences of snooty writers who think the unwashed masses don't know their own good.

This doesn't mean that Barack Obama is obliged to adopt social views with which he disagrees. I certainly prefer that he doesn't, since I probably agree with his social views more than those of the small-town Pennsylvanians to whom he condescends. But it's possible to disagree with people without disparaging the legitimacy of the process by which they arrived at opinions at odds with your own. In fact, it's critical to do so if you aspire to hold powerful political office in a vast and diverse nation.

A candidate who adheres to the position that people who don't support him are inherently irrational is one who poses a danger if he wins election.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 19, 2009 12:46 AM  

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