Published April 18, 2008
During this long campaign season, the GOP has been grudgingly warming up to their candidate. Meanwhile they've quite naturally salivated at every misstep as a chance to poke holes in the competition.
One such chance came recently at a fund-raiser in San Francisco. The event was supposed to go under the radar. Nothing remarkable was supposed to come out of it, but one Obama supporter, Mayhill Fowler, who happens to run an influential blog was, unbeknownst to the Obama campaign, invited to the event and was surprised by something she heard her candidate say, which she quotes and then comments on:
"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," Obama said. "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. And 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."
Obama made a problematic judgment call in trying to explain working class culture to a much wealthier audience. He described blue collar Pennsylvanians with a series of what in the eyes of Californians might be considered pure negatives: guns, clinging to religion, antipathy, xenophobia.
If you listen to the audio of the event, starting around 34:00, it's harder to get worked up about it. As fellow event attendee, David Coleman, points out, Obama was stressing to a Pennsylvania volunteer that it was more important to empathize with the plight of the Pennsylvania voters than stress talking points:
As the week's firestorm evolved over these remarks at which I was an accidental observer, I have reflected upon the regrettable irony that has emerged from Senator Obama's response to a friendly question: no good effort at intelligent analysis, candor -- and what I heard as an attempt to convey a profound understanding of both what people feel and why they feel it - goes unpunished. Such insights by a political candidate might otherwise be valued. In a national campaign subject to opposition research, his analytical musing has instead created an immense amount of political flak.
Just how much political flak? Well, no less a political heavyweight than Weekly Standard publisher, Neocon scion, and Iraq War cheerleader William Kristol wrote in the New York Times that Obama's recent comments had inspired him to pull out his Karl Marx reader:
This sent me to Marx’s famous statement about religion in the introduction to his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”:
“Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people.”
Or, more succinctly, and in the original German in which Marx somehow always sounds better: “Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes.”
Now, this is a point of view with a long intellectual pedigree prior to Marx, and many vocal adherents continuing into the 21st century. I don’t believe the claim is true, but it’s certainly worth considering, in college classrooms and beyond.
But it’s one thing for a German thinker to assert that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.” It’s another thing for an American presidential candidate to claim that we “cling to ... religion” out of economic frustration.
Never mind that Kristol and his party have successfully used religion, guns, and immigration as wedge issues with these same voters over the last generation or more. You can read more on this theme in Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas. However, Dan Schnur, former communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, turns this theme on its head and notes:
The mistake that Senator Obama and Mr. Frank both make is that they assume that only the values of culturally conservative voters require justification. An environmentally conscious, pro-stem cell bond trader who votes Democratic is lauded for selflessness and open-mindedness. A gun-owning, church-going factory worker who supports Republican candidates, on the other hand, must be the victim of partisan deception. This double standard is at the heart of the Democratic challenge in national elections: rather than diminish these cultural beliefs as a byproduct of economic discomfort, a more experienced and open-minded candidate would recognize and respect the foundations on which these values are based.
What finally caught my eye out of this whole episode was the reaction of Saturday Night Live alumnus and author Julia Sweeney, who blogged about her change of heart in the election. After the Bosnia tarmac recollection fiasco, she was upset with Clinton. Something about Obama's candor about Pennsylvanians and religion struck a chord:
I went to Café Press and I ordered an Obama sticker for my car. I guess that’s it. I’m in for Obama. I actually loved what he said about bitter people turning to religion and guns. Of course, I see it the same way. Oh I hope he wins, I really, really do.
Don't pressure me with your great speeches, taunt me with your veiled derisive religious comments. I will fully commit with money eventually, I swear! Just.. for now, let's celebrate the fact that I ordered a bumper sticker from Cafe Press.
In the end, I have to agree with the comments about religion, too. And a Clinton supporter with whom I spoke said she thought the remarks were right on, too. After all, isn't religion really based on fear? At least during the recruitment process? Fear of the eternal, fear of the consequences of sin, of everlasting punishment, of the wrath of God? Maybe, paradoxically, once you've embraced it, you're able to take comfort in it from fear. But, then, periodically there are those revival meetings where the spectre of hellfire is stoked afresh in the collective conscience to bring the fear back and encourage that closer walk with God. So, religion represents a comfort for believers from the world, a shelter from the storms of life.
Reader Joel Peskoff wrote a letter to the New York Times editor after reading Kristol's editorial that I thought was a fine rebuttal and with which I'll close:
In the speech in question, Mr. Obama was describing small towns in Pennsylvania and in the Midwest where jobs have been lost for 25 years, yet residents vote against their own interests. In those towns, the frustrated workers repeatedly vote for the Republicans, who are less likely to protect their jobs and safety, while being more likely to benefit the workers’ corporate employers.
How do the Republicans do it? Through the use of conservative opinion makers who divert attention from bread-and-butter issues that really affect frustrated voters and instead focus on guns, gays and immigrant blaming, and whether a candidate was wearing a flag pin in his lapel.