Larry Bartels has an interesting Op-Ed piece up at the New York Times website titled "Who's Bitter Now?" in which he deconstructs Obama's "bitter/clinging" stereotype, and addresses the wrongs in Obama's approach and thinking on the subject.
During Wednesday night's Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia, Barack Obama once more tried to explain what he meant when he suggested earlier this month that small-town people of modest means "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them" out of frustration with their place in a changing American economy. Mr. Obama acknowledged that his wording offended some voters, but he also reiterated his impression that "wedge issues take prominence" when voters are frustrated by "difficult times."
Last week in Terre Haute, Ind., Mr. Obama explained that the people he had in mind "don't vote on economic issues, because they don't expect anybody's going to help them." He added: "So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on. But they don't believe they can count on Washington."
This is a remarkably detailed and vivid account of the political sociology of the American electorate. What is even more remarkable is that it is wrong on virtually every count.
The off-the-record, unscripted remarks made by Obama at the San Francisco fundraiser reveal the inner thought process and bias of Obama in a way his usual highly-scripted (and sometimes plagiarized) speeches do not. Bartels finds Obama thinking flawed in this regard.
Small-town people of modest means and limited education are not fixated on cultural issues. Rather, it is affluent, college-educated people living in cities and suburbs who are most exercised by guns and religion. In contemporary American politics, social issues are the opiate of the elites.
For the sake of concreteness, let's define the people Mr. Obama had in mind as people whose family incomes are less than $60,000 (an amount that divides the electorate roughly in half), who do not have college degrees and who live in small towns or rural areas. For the sake of convenience, let's call these people the small-town working class, though that term is inevitably imprecise. In 2004, they were about 18 percent of the population and about 16 percent of voters.
For purposes of comparison, consider the people who are their demographic opposites: people whose family incomes are $60,000 or more, who are college graduates and who live in cities or suburbs. These (again, conveniently labeled) cosmopolitan voters were about 11 percent of the population in 2004 and about 13 percent of voters. While admittedly crude, these definitions provide a systematic basis for assessing the accuracy of Mr. Obama's view of contemporary class politics.
Small-town, working-class people are more likely than their cosmopolitan counterparts, not less, to say they trust the government to do what's right. In the 2004 National Election Study conducted by the University of Michigan, 54 percent of these people said that the government in Washington can be trusted to do what is right most of the time or just about always. Only 38 percent of cosmopolitan people expressed a similar level of trust in the federal government.
Do small-town, working-class voters cast ballots on the basis of social issues? Yes, but less than other voters do. Among these voters, those who are anti-abortion were only 6 percentage points more likely than those who favor abortion rights to vote for President Bush in 2004. The corresponding difference for the rest of the electorate was 27 points, and for cosmopolitan voters it was a remarkable 58 points. Similarly, the votes cast by the cosmopolitan crowd in 2004 were much more likely to reflect voters' positions on gun control and gay marriage.
Small-town, working-class voters were also less likely to connect religion and politics. Support for President Bush was only 5 percentage points higher among the 39 percent of small-town voters who said they attended religious services every week or almost every week than among those who seldom or never attended religious services. The corresponding difference among cosmopolitan voters (34 percent of whom said they attended religious services regularly) was 29 percentage points.
It is true that American voters attach significantly more weight to social issues than they did 20 years ago. It is also true that church attendance has become a stronger predictor of voting behavior. But both of those changes are concentrated primarily among people who are affluent and well educated, not among the working class.
Bartels' analysis suggests to me that Obama not only fails in his supposed 'insight" into small-town motivations, Obama's also revealed his own stereotypical bias. In attempting to resonate with the rich and famous on San Francisco's mansion row, Obama fed back to them their own bias as well. No wonder they all nodded in agreement.
It is the well-educated and affluent folks' bias against guns and religion that is the stronger predictor of behavior in the voting booth - and Obama's "out-of-touch' statement revealed his own inner-workings to a far greater extent than he revealed any small-town voting insight as he attempted to do.
He's not only wrong on both accounts, his "arrogance" is a well-founded criticism. Obama "met the enemy" on that Sunday in San Francisco -- and has so far failed to recognize the face in the mirror.
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