Speaking bluntly in the US presidential campaign
The blunt truth about speaking bluntly in the US presidential campaign
Once again Barack Obama is in the news for the wrong reasons. This time it is the speech he gave to a closed group of well-heeled Californians, at least one of whom was not as supportive of his cause as Mr. Obama may have hoped. In that speech the Senator from Illinois mentioned that small town (white) voters were “bitter” after 8 years of Republican rule in the White House, and that people in these communities were “clinging” to guns, religion and xenophobia as ways of coping with their declining economic, social and political fortunes in polyglot America.
In making these observations, Mr. Obama did two things that are cardinal sins for US presidential candidates. The first was to tell a small crowd of elite fund-raisers that all was not well amongst the voting masses. In doing so he crossed the (not so invisible) class divisions that, along with race, are the uncomfortable fault lines of American society. Having crossed the racial divide weeks ago after his relationship with a sharp-tongued Afro-American preacher were revealed, Mr. Obama went one step further and told the rich what was ailing their less well-off brethren. In doing so, his mistake as not so much to tell the truth, but to tell it to the wrong audience in the wrong way. Telling rich folk that common folk “cling” to guns, religion and ethnic antipathy because they are “bitter” over their economic misfortunes opened the door to accusations that he is both elitist and condescending.
The second mistake was to tell the truth at all. What Mr. Obama said is self-evident. As a political society, the US has become a bitterly divided and increasingly flawed democracy where many in the American electorate find solace in hard times by arming themselves against both government and criminals (the essence of the second amendment), in seeking God’s comfort when confronted by forces beyond their individual control and in blaming culturally different “others” for the mess the country is in. Of course, they also engage in escapist pursuits of the chemical, (pop) cultural and consumerist type, so Mr. Obama did not offer a full catalogue of the symptoms of American alienation. Although they are evidence of a deep malaise that Mr. Obama clearly understands needs immediate addressing, the problem is not so much that these syndromes exist but that they cannot be frankly addressed in political discourse.
Put another way, the problem for Mr. Obama, the other US presidential candidates and the political class in general is that when speaking the truth, be it speaking truth to power or stating conventional political wisdom, the key to success is to speak in a way that does not offend. In that sense, the key to political success is to speak no hard truth at all.
Contemporary US politics has become little more than organized hypocrisy in pursuit of power. Therefore, the first rule of politics is to avoid controversy. The second rule is to talk in palliatives rather than facts. In order to be electable US presidential candidates need to be deliberately vague and offer feel-good paeans to the eternal possibilities of social improvement and renewal, or if not, to the wisdom of experience and continuity of policy. They must not call a spade a spade if they hope to win. Instead they must make all constituencies feel as if the problems of America are the fault of someone else. In a country where abdication of personal responsibility has made for profitable legal industry, this should not be surprising.
Thus the white middle and working classes, who are disproportionately represented in the demographic of rural and small town America and who served as the backbone of George W Bush’s electoral support, cannot be called to account for their gullibility in doing so. There is no polite phrase other than naïve ignorance to describe the support given by these “Middle” Americans to a president and party dominated by Wall Street tycoons, financiers and oil barons, corporate raiders of various sorts, neo-imperialists, religious zealots and pampered children of the East Coast establishment such as Dubya himself.
The class orientation of the Republican party is anathema to everything that middle America represents, and small town Americans have every reason to be bitter given the debacles of the last 8 years in which their material fortunes have declined, their traditional role in society has been challenged, and (because they are the social core of the active duty as well as reserve military forces) they have seen their sons and daughters sent off on ill-conceived foreign military adventures that serve the interest of no one other than the Republican corporate elite. But for presidential candidates to state this obvious fact is to commit political hara-kiri because it reveals an ugly truth: the small town masses were used.
Be it weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as the excuse to go to war, or the cleansing properties of a return to conservative Christian values, or the painless investment opportunities opened up by the easy credit terms of sub-prime mortgages, it was small town America that got duped more than any other social group because they actually believed in the Republican snake oil being sold to them.
As collectivities Black and Hispanic Americans are more politically astute than their mainstream white counterparts. Their respective histories as oppressed and exploited minorities give them a very different read of the official story about American greatness. This does not make them more righteous or necessarily smarter; it just makes them less susceptible to mythical exhortations by unprincipled politicians.
They support their own (to a fault), they base their decisions more on self-interest than ideology, and they know how to vote tactically as well as on principle given the way in which US political and economic power is distributed. Urban Americans tend to be more skeptical of homespun political promises and more educated in the differences between political rhetoric and reality. Small town white Americans, on the other hand, tend to embrace the ideological construct known as “America the beautiful,” a purportedly God-sent home of the brave and land of the free where all have equal opportunity and freedom to choose.
They believe the foundational myth of the USA, and they are slow to allow reality to infringe upon it. When reality finally does intrude, and individual and collective escapism no longer suffices to salve their psychic wounds, many in small towns do, in fact, resort to the three historical crutches of Middle America under siege: guns, religion and ethnic scape-goating (although to be fair, the zenith of the pro-gun, Christian conservative and anti-immigration movement appears to have passed).
Therein lies the dilemma for Mr. Obama. He can identify some of the major symptoms of the American malaise, but he cannot come out and say it, much less mention the underlying causes. The US is in a parlous state in part because white middle and working class Americans, especially rural and small town Americans, allowed it to happen. They voted against their class and social interests when they supported the two Bush 43 administrations, and now they do not appreciate being reminded of that fact. For Mr. Obama to tell a crowd of effete wealthy liberal sun-tanned, botoxed, face-lifted, breast-augmented and liposuctioned political donors that the masses, were, in effect, asses is extremely foolish from a political standpoint and makes Middle America’s ignorance look quaint.
Mr. Obama’s rivals have seized on his gaffe to claim that he is “out-of touch” with mainstream America. Of course he is. He spends most of his time in Washington, DC. But does anyone believe that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain are somehow more in touch and less elitist than Mr. Obama? When compared to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama comes across as relatively sincere, genuinely concerned, focused and to the point. It is exactly these traits that make for his popular appeal, but which could well make him unelectable if he does not parse his words in ways that soothe rather than irritate Middle America’s self-inflicted wounds.
Perhaps then, it would be best for Barack Obama to forget about telling the truth and concentrate instead on rendering tribute to the myth of the American dream by continuing to speak in general prescriptive terms about hope and change while leaving the critique of American failures to others. That may not say much about his proposed remedies and the means to achieve them (or about him as a person of conviction), but it has the virtue of making Middle American voters feel simultaneously blameless and optimistic when considering his candidacy. In a country where symbolic politics trumps substantive policy and where candidate image and impressions matter more than concrete action, that could well be the key to his electoral success.
Paul G. Buchanan writes about comparative and international politics.