The Killer Elite
Who speaks for the gun-toting, God-fearing proles?
At this point in the news cycle, it is perhaps unnecessary to reprint Sen. Barack Obama's continuously reprinted comments about those bitter, clingy, armed, pious, and disaffected voters of Pennsylvania. But in case your interest in this never-ending race waned upon the exit of Mike Gravel, here is, once again, the Illinois Democrat explaining why the rural poor are supposedly swayed by conservative—rather than liberal—populism: "You go into 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 it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Now, let's ignore that last bit of hypocrisy—if anyone has fanned the flames of anti-trade sentiment, it's Obama—and say that it's not too difficult to agree with The Economist's characterization of these comments as a bit "snooty." The claim that religious zeal (the Christian fundamentalism is implied) or gun ownership correlates to the number of shuttered Pennsylvania factories is pretty thin gruel. Recognizing this, both Obama's current opponents, Sens. Clinton (D-N.Y.) and McCain (R-Ariz.), pounced, calling the comments "elitist" and accusing their fellow senator of being hopelessly "out of touch" with the real America.
For its part, many in the media—excepting the conservative-leaning Fox News, of course—jumped into the breach to defend their beloved frontrunner. Consider the reaction of the pundits on CNN's The Situation Room, hosted by Wolf Blitzer, to the charge that Obama displayed a hidden contempt for the armed and religious. First, CNN's house windbag Jack Cafferty denied that Obama was trading in elitism. Rather, explained Cafferty, Obama was simply acknowledging that Pennsylvania is the Saudi Arabia of America. "What happens to [unemployed] folks like that in the Middle East, you ask? Well, take a look. They go to places like al Qaeda training camps." Regardless of whether gun ownership and economic desperation are causative, Cafferty (who has his own problems with inflammatory comments) denounced previous American leaders—cough, Bill Clinton, cough—that "shipped the jobs overseas and signed phony trade deals like NAFTA."
U.S. News & World Report Contributing Editor Gloria Borger weighed in with wrist-slap for Obama's "inartful" terminology. "But," she continued, "I think he's expressing a sentiment of mad as hell voters not going to take it anymore that we've seen throughout this election." The McCain and Clinton campaigns, Borger said, were after the same thing, which is to "portray Obama as this sort of effete elitist who doesn't understand the real working class people or Independent voters."
And, finally, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin sputtered that the whole thing was taken out of context. It was, he proclaimed, a "fake issue. I think [Hillary Clinton] is completely distorting what Obama said. And I think it's just shocking, frankly… I think [Clinton's attack] ad is a disgrace." Toobin declared that by dint of his family background, Obama was incapable of elitism: "Well, I just think it's remarkable that Barack Obama, this guy who grew up in a single family household with no money, who lived in Indonesia, who, you know, was—came from very modest upbringings, somehow he's the elitist." (While certainly not rich, it's worth reminding that Obama, the son of two university-educated parents, attended an "exclusive and prestigious" private school in Hawaii, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School.)
So in The Situation Room, there was consensus. The story was silly season stuff; a prototypically Clintonian diversion from the substantive issues.
While CNN scoffed at the thought of Obama not understanding the rural, white working-class voter, a number of pro-Obama bloggers and pundits were turning on his accusers. At The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan linked to a column by New Criterion editor Roger Kimball, and directed readers to "check out the photo" of Kimball wearing a bowtie and sporting turtle-shell glasses. What does this elitist buffon know from elitism?
Writing in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait railed at the "hypocrisy" of certain elite media figures, saving special ire for "George F. Will [who] decided to leap to the defense of the proletariat. Yes, that George F. Will."
In case you didn't immediately understand the source of Chait's sarcasm, he clarified that Will is "the fabulously wealthy, bowtie-wearing, pretentious reference-mongering, Anglophilic fop who grew up in a university town as a professor's son, earned two advanced degrees, has a designated table at a French restaurant in Georgetown, and, had he dwelt for any extended time among the working class, would be lucky to escape without his underwear being yanked up over his ears." Oh dear. Rumor has it that, in his Georgetown estate, Will has a shelf devoted to the novels of Evelyn Waugh, that poncy, ascot-wearing Brit (boo!) who wrote florid novels about fox hunting and buggery, which Will reportedly reads while consuming expensive French food!
So here we have a class-war version of the "chickenhawk" charge. Don't advocate for war unless you have served, don't speak for the peasants if you wear a bowtie and recommend Chesterton novels to your (probably foreign) friends. Members of the right-leaning bourgeoisie are incapable of spotting and deploring such condescension directed at those who typically vote for right-leaning candidates.
Chait writes that populist, fist-shaking pundits such as Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly, who bully guests and interviewers with references to their "real America," blue-collar credentials, "are multimillionaires who retain only the most remote connection to blue-collar life." This is true enough. But Obama's defenders use the very same line of argumentation in explaining away his "bitter" comments. So when critics such as Toobin tell Wolf Blitzer that Obama "grew up in a single family household with no money," it is perhaps worth mentioning that it should also be tough for Obama to retain his working-class connections—if he ever had any—when he earned $4.2 million in 2007.
Though it likely had little or no effect on yesterday's loss in Pennsylvania—potentially insulted voters were leaning largely toward Hillary Clinton anyway—it is not outrageous to think that Obama's extemporaneous bit of pop sociology was indicative of a generally condescending attitude towards the Other (that was the basic point of Will's column, which found precedent for such feelings in Adlai Stevenson's failed presidential runs in 1952 and 1956). That attitude will surely be revisited in the general election.
The inclusion of guns in Obama's complaint is, I think, especially revealing. A convincing argument can be made that xenophobia is more appealing to the dispossessed and downtrodden—They're taking our jobs! They're invading our country!—and a convincing case can be made that Obama has employed similar, though not explicitly xenophobic, language when railing against NAFTA stealing American jobs. But what does any of this have to do with guns, other than to signify that these are bitter country rubes that, to paraphrase What's the Matter with Kansas author Thomas Frank, foolishly vote against their own interests?
Nevertheless, Jeffrey Toobin told CNN viewers, what Obama said "was factually accurate." But is it? As Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "It turns out [gun owners] have the same level of formal education as nongun owners, on average. Furthermore, they earn 32% more per year than nonowners. Americans with guns are neither a small nor downtrodden group. Nor are they 'bitter.' In 2006, 36% of gun owners said they were 'very happy,' while 9% were 'not too happy.' Meanwhile, only 30% of people without guns were very happy, and 16% were not too happy."
So Obama's gun analysis was not only incoherent (how does one "explain their frustrations" by shooting skeet, anyway?), but based on lazy presumption and stereotype that's not that backed up by any data. And George Will might well be a fop, but his distillation of Obama's argument strikes me as reasonable: "Americans, especially working-class conservatives, are unable, because of their false consciousness, to deconstruct their social context and embrace the liberal program." In other words, Barack Obama thinks that, whether they know it or not, the gun-toting plebes of America are in desperate need of "change."
Michael Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.