What ‘Bittergate’ reveals about the 2008 race

Barack Obama’s views about rednecks clinging to guns and God are certainly offensive. But he isn’t the only Democrat who holds them.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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News of Barack Obama’s recent remarks about the white working class has set off a huge storm of criticism from all sides. At a fundraising event in San Francisco on 6 April, Obama spoke about the difficulties his campaign faced in convincing white workers to vote for him in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary. The quote that’s got everyone worked up is this: ‘So 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.’ (1)

There’s a lot wrong in this statement, and Obama has been rightly criticised for it. Elitist, condescending, patronising, smug – it’s all of those things. Obama essentially labels the voters of Pennsylvania as bigoted rednecks. And by lumping guns and religion in with racism and anti-immigrant views, he reveals that he considers all of these practices to be equally backward. His snobbish disdain allows Republican critics to paint him – as they did previous Democratic presidential candidates – as out of touch with Middle American values. Obama’s description of certain Americans as bitter has led to the controversy around his comments being christened ‘Bittergate’.

Furthermore, Obama’s ‘explanation’ as to why Pennsylvanian voters ‘cling’ to their backward habits – he blames economic insecurity – is really patronising. This rationale, intended to be generous, is just vulgar economic determinism, whereby all political and social phenomena can be explained by unemployment and low wages. He, and other enlightened ones like him, presumably have rational, intellectual reasons for their beliefs, but the sheep-like masses are prone to irrational attachments whenever economic stagnation hits. If only the unemployed Pennsylvanians had jobs, like San Francisco liberals, they would relax and see the sense of right-on values of diversity and multiculturalism.

All in all, Obama’s comments make him appear aloof and uninformed about the people he claims he wants to represent. Obama comes across as more Anthropologist-in-Chief than presidential candidate. At his fundraising event, he seemed to be explaining the strange ways of some unusual tribe to friendly San Francisco liberals who just cannot fathom why white working-class people would not simply automatically vote for Obama.

Given these problems with Obama’s remarks, it may seem obvious why they have caused a hail of protest that has yet to subside. But it isn’t obvious at all.

Why are his comments viewed as outrageous, when they have been commonplace within the Democratic Party for many years? That workers have been misled by ‘values’ issues like religion is, as Democratic pundit Arianna Huffington puts it, a party ‘article of faith’ (2). In San Francisco, Obama was speaking in Democratic Party shorthand.

The contempt for the working classes among sections of the Democratic Party is quite amazing. During the 2004 presidential election, Huffington herself referred to voters ‘reacting not with their linear and logical left brain but with their lizard brain and their more emotional right brain’ (3). After John Kerry’s defeat, many turned to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? for an explanation. Frank’s condescending thesis was that workers are so thick that they don’t know their own interests. They are duped by the conservative PR machine into voting for Republicans; so it’s nothing to do with the lack of big ideas and inspiring politics in the Democratic Party, then. Obama’s latest comments seem to be built on Frank’s arguments.

Since the defeat of 2004, Democrats have been searching around for their own ‘values’ that could, opportunistically, connect with the lizard brains in the working class. And it keeps finding more of these types in new places. Indeed, it was (Bill) Clinton operative James Carville who, in 2006, discovered that Pennsylvania was full of rednecks. Carville observed that Pennsylvania, although in the Northeast, is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in-between (4).

These anti-working class views have continued up to today. For instance, some, such as former Clinton labour secretary Robert Reich, claim that everything Obama said was true (5). Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (one of the most-watched ‘political’ TV programmes), believes Obama was being too forgiving: ‘These people don’t turn to God and guns and mistrust of foreigners because of a downturn in the economy. Those are the very foundations those towns are built on.’ (5)

More to the point, why is Obama taking such heat now when he himself made the same points only a few weeks ago in his highly-publicised speech on race? In it, he portrayed white workers (including his own white grandmother!) as bigots, and explained ‘white anger’ by reference to economic difficulties. And yet, despite essentially containing the same content, that speech was widely praised, even seen by some as an historic contribution on a par with Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 speech at Cooper Union and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (7). You can almost begin to sympathise with Obama, who is probably wondering what happened in only a few weeks.

So, no, it wasn’t obvious that Obama’s comments to the San Francisco fundraisers would cause such a ruckus. The real reasons it caused outrage are more specific.

First of all, Obama’s comments are supposedly shocking because of how he expressed himself, not because of the content of the views themselves. Obama’s sin was that he expressed himself too crudely, and made it appear too much like an obvious attack on the workers of Pennsylvania. In this way, Obama breached the liberal etiquette: yes, you can look down on the masses, but just don’t appear like you’re pushing their noses in it. Hillary Clinton holds similar views, but she has not stated them as directly as Obama did. As Stephen Colbert, another popular pundit from Comedy Central notes, the other wonky Ivy League lawyer in the primary just knows how to condescend better (8).

Secondly, Obama’s gaffe matters more because it reinforces existing perceptions of him. Before his remarks, his support was seen as one-sidedly based on upscale white liberals and blacks generally. The one group he needs to win over – white workers – he has now insulted. Despite being so far ahead of Clinton that it is virtually mathematically impossible for her to catch him in terms of delegates prior to the Democratic Party convention, many voters still turn out to vote for Hillary (for example, the polls have her winning Pennsylvania). And despite calls for the party to unite behind Obama, undeclared superdelegates continue to stay undeclared. There is no bandwagon effect: after an initial buzz, his campaign appeared to stall.

His faux pas also takes on exaggerated significance because of the hollowness of Obama’s message. As noted earlier in spiked, Obama does not represent real change, or a movement (9). In a different context, you could imagine the public dismissing the brouhaha about his remarks if they were instead focused on a solid message about specific changes. But, in the absence of that kind of discussion, his gaffe matters because it increasingly appears that he has no issues of substance to redirect voters’ attention to.

Finally, and most damagingly, Obama’s blundering comments have become a big deal because they make him appear inauthentic. In this election campaign, authenticity has been elevated to a key criterion, and to date Obama has seemed to be judged the most authentic (10). Cynical about politicians generally, many voters have been searching to discover the ‘real’ person behind the façade of the candidate. The context in which Obama’s comments were made – in a private meeting to a friendly crowd, only released later by a blogger – seemed to make them appear unguarded and closer to the ‘true’ Obama. The news of Obama’s remarks was therefore experienced as an ‘aha!’ moment, because we now supposedly had a vantage into Obama’s real thoughts. The man who was once seen as the most authentic was now found to be putting forward a slick show. His voluminous writings and numerous public utterances were now considered a mask; based on a single sentence, the real Obama was said to be found behind the closed doors in San Francisco.

Will Obama’s gaffe signal the beginning of the end for his candidacy? It seems unlikely. In the short term, it has certainly benefitted Clinton. She clearly had him on the defensive in the debate on Wednesday evening. But it still remains mathematically hard to surpass Obama in delegates, and would therefore require Clinton to convince the superdelegates to override the primary voters.

Also, Clinton’s attempts to capitalise on the ‘bittergate’ episode could ultimately backfire on her, as she might appear to be too gleefully engaging in Republican-style attacks on her opponent. Furthermore, her own attempt to appear as just one of the workers (after she and her husband earned $109million since 2001) is pandering of the worst sort. Downing shots of Crown Royal whisky makes her seem ridiculous. And her defence of religion can appear coldly calculating. For instance she praised the Pope upon his arrival in the US – for maintaining a carbon-neutral city. Her references to faith appear transparent exercises in opportunist vote-seeking.

Further, Clinton has her own problems to deal with. She too has been confronted with her own gaffes, such as her fairy tales about avoiding sniper fire in Bosnia. Democrats keep talking about how Clinton and Obama are tearing each other apart, but it appears that they don’t need each other to do that – they are quite able to self-destruct separately, thank you. Meanwhile, the electorate watches as the Democrats discuss issues that Republicans put on the agenda years ago (religion and guns), and do not say anything substantial or controversial on issues that they claim to have strong opinions about, like Iraq (as witnessed by the unimpressive performances they both put in while interviewing the US military commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, last week).

Given the Democratic Party disarray, many have said the real beneficiaries will be John McCain and the Republicans. Conservatives have certainly jumped on Obama’s remarks with renewed fervour. There is a palpable sigh of relief – they were worried that, in Obama, they might have needed to come up with a new plan to deal with a candidate who appears above the fray. But now that recent remarks have, they believe, shown Obama to be, deep down, a conventional liberal, they can dust off their old playbook. The discussion about guns and God, in particular, seems to be in their sweet spot.

However, it is easy to overestimate how much McCain and the Republicans will benefit too. We live in a different era, and we shouldn’t expect the 2008 election to simply be a rerun of the recent ones. While everyone is going on about God and guns, it’s less recognised that evangelical Christianity is more often on the defensive, and hunting is a less popular sport (11). And even if Obama’s candidacy is damaged by his latest remarks, the forces that have propelled him – such as the backlash against petty partisan bickering – still remain.

The bottom line is that the political class as a whole – Democrat and Republican alike – are held in low regard by the public. Previously Obama appeared as a politician who understood this and who vowed to work to change this state of affairs. He was perceived as uplifting, someone who promised to bring people together. That golden halo is now gone. Today, Obama complains that he is the victim of ‘politics’, by which he means gotcha-style negative attacks, like the criticisms about his remarks in San Francisco. Many will agree with him that such ‘politics’ are a turn-off, but they are now more likely to see Obama as part of the problem rather than the solution.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) Mayhill Fowler, Obama: No Surprise That Hard-Pressed Pennsylvanians Turn Bitter, Huffington Post, 11 April 2008

(2) Clinton is Doing McCain’s Job for Him, Real Clear Politics, 14 April 2008

(3) Arianna Huffington, Appealing to our Lizard Brains,, 13 October 2004

(4) Carrie Budoff Brown, Extreme Makeover: Pennsylvania Edition

(5) See Robert Reich’s blog

(6) Jon Stewart Mocks Obama ‘Bitter’ Controversy, Huffington Post, 15 April 2008

(7) Garry Wills, ‘Two Speeches on Race’, New York Review of Books, 1 May 2008

(8) Cited in Maureen Dowd, Eggheads and Cheese Balls, New York Times, 16 April 2008

(9) See Sean Collins, Will Obama Change American Politics?

(10) See Sean Collins, Desperately Seeking the Authentic President

(11) Barbara Ehrenreich, Of Bitterness and Boilermakers, Slate, 16 April 2008

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Topics USA


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