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Building Bridges

Reihan writes a typically smart entry for The Atlantic’s Current, and he identifies an important part of what Obama was attempting to do at that fundraiser:

But it resembled the sort of rhetoric that Obama does best: His armchair sociology, to put it harshly, was about building a bridge between so-called “coastal elites” and the toiling masses of the heartland, by making the former see the world from the latter’s point of view. It is just as easy to imagine him trying to explain the views of gay rights activists or, say, Jeremiah Wright to an audience of ardently traditional working class whites.

Quite right.  He was trying to explain those small town folks to the audience of coastal liberal donors.  I have to say once again that this is a terrible idea.  I would add that if Obama was supposed to be representing the “toiling masses,” he did a pretty bad job of it, since the impression he probably left with the San Franciscans was not just one that reinforced their pre-existing prejudices about “flyover country” but probably turned their regular dislike of small town people into a kind of pitying contempt.  “Oh, those poor Pennsylvanians, they know not what they do!”  Worse, it almost certainly confirmed them in the faith that sufficiently activist government that would “help” these people would remove the conditions that lead to all this unpleasant “clinging.” 

If the “middle of the road” person is in danger of getting run over, the self-appointed builder of bridges runs a frequent risk of being knocked off balance and falling into the deep and dark chasms below.  Some would call this effort courageous, but as a matter of winning elections and as a matter of advancing a policy agenda, which is surely more important to the candidate and his supporters than fostering intra-national understanding, it is fairly crazy.  But it is not just a tactical mistake to be engaged in an endless round of conversation-starting and negotiations between different groups of voters.  It draws attention to what will, in fact, be the least attractive aspects of Obama’s style in the general election.  First of all, there is the endless pursuit of consensus and unity, which makes some sense in a legislature but can be positively crippling in an executive position.  Different blocs of voters have their own interests; they are competitors for government largesse, government protection or the government’s benign neglect.  Generally, I think they don’t want to understand the other blocs, and don’t want to have other blocs explained to them.  An executive who does not pick favourites and choose sides ends up being feared and loved by no one, but distrusted by all.  Besides highlighting another episode where Obama’s own supporters seem intent on destroying him through their own misguided enthusiasm and good intentions, justifying the ways of small town America to the wine and cheese set exemplifies a couple of other problems with Obama’s campaign.  One is that it puts him into his academic, meta-candidate role, where he talks about his campaign as a kind of prism for understanding American society as if he were a pundit commenting on his own candidacy, and the other is that it conveys the impression that his campaign (and, if he won, his administration) would be a long, drawn-out graduate seminar in which the Professor holds forth on various subjects on a regular basis as a way of spurring on “dialogue.”  That definitely appeals to a certain kind of person, which is why Obama wins college grads and post-grad degree holders by gigantic margins.  For everyone else, it inspires the kind of dread and boredom that I sense in my students when I use the word uxorilocality. 

Patrick Deneen has written twoexcellent posts highlighting the underlying problem with any effort to justify the ways of the people in Middle America to the elites.  Prof. Deneen writes:

I was trying to point to the absurdity of the idea that Obama would say these things, that a Democratic front-runner, if asked how to explain about those folks living in big cities, would frame his response as one in which we could justify their beliefs in terms of a kind of economic determinism. So, imagine people in the heartland asking a Democratic frontrunner to explain their pro-choice position, saying something to the effect “I have to hold this position in spite of my personal beliefs because the elites of the party, who are our biggest donors, live in an economic condition in which the obligation to carry children of accidental pregnancies to term would prove to be economically inconvenient and a limitation on their personal freedom.” This would be a moment of extraordinary frankness of just the kind that Obama demonstrated in San Francisco – and just imagine the response if that statement, made behind closed doors in Latrobe, were to get out in the same way the San Francisco comments got out. But – here’s the point – it’s a kind of moment one musn’t remotely expect, because the current set of assumptions is that we explain the beliefs of people in Latrobe in light of the assumptions of the people in San Francisco (or New York – don’t get bent out of shape, Susan!), and not vice versa.

This has to do with the political consensus that accepts the desirability and sustainability of “progress” and perpetual “growth,” which go unchallenged even by most small town folks, because they are just as caught up with the promises of progress and growth and they are bitter or dissatisfied that the fruits of that growth have not extended to all.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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