Saturday, April 12, 2008

Barack Obama's Comments on "Bitter" Midwesterners

It was recently revealed by the Huffington Post that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (IL) made the following comments about residents in the Midwest on April 6, 2008:
"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 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 has been criticized for being dismissive of the political positions of Midwesterners. In response, he offered these comments in his defense on April 11:
"When I go around and talk to people, there is frustration and there is anger and there is bitterness. And what's worse is when people are expressing their anger, and politicians try to say, 'What are you angry about?' Of course they're bitter. Of course they're frustrated. You would be, too -- in fact, many of you are."
"And so people don't vote on economic issues, because they don't expect anybody's going to help them. People are voting on issues like guns, are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. They take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and the things they can count on. But they don't believe they can count on Washington."
And he made these comments a day later on April 12:
"Lately, there’s been a little typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois, who are bitter. ... They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through. So I said, well you know, when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on. So people, they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community. And they get mad about illegal immigrants who are coming over to this country or they get frustrated about how things are changing. That’s a natural response. ... Now, I didn't say it as well as I should have. ... Because the truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, those are important, that’s what sustains us. But what is absolutely true is that people don’t feel like they are being listened to."
"If I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that. The underlying truth of what I said remains, which is simply that people who have seen their way of life upended because of economic distress are frustrated and rightfully so."
Let's start with Obama's initial statement, and then look at his attempts to defend them.

Obama's initial assertion was that many Midwesterners are facing economic hardships, such as unemployment, and that they find that no one is responding to their plight. So, Obama says, they become bitter and take refuge in religion or gun ownership. Or they blame their hardship on and nurture a resentment toward immigrants or trade.

This assertion is questionable on a lot of points. So far as the news reports go, Obama offers no evidence for his claim that this is how some (let alone many or all) Midwesterners respond to economic hardship. Moreover, he doesn't (again, as far as the news reports go) consider any other explanations for why Midwesterners might have the beliefs they have about religion, gun ownership, trade and immigration. He doesn't seem to consider that Midwesterners take refuge in their religion because they believe it's true and that it provides them with spiritual and moral guidance; that they support gun ownership on the grounds that it is within their moral and constitutional rights and that it enhances their safety; or that they oppose certain trade deals because they unfairly put the U.S. at a disadvantage.

Senator Obama's comment about immigration deserves particular scrutiny. His initial comments accuse Midwesterners (or at least some of them) of "antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment". While his later comments instead refer to ILLEGAL immigration, it sounds as if Obama is furthering the caricature that anyone who is opposed to illegal immigration or amnesty is an anti-immigrant xenophobe. This distortion is all too common in current political discussion, and, at the very least, Obama does nothing to contradict it.

(In fact, he has engaged in it previously: see the "Obama on Republican Immigration Policy" section on The Civil Debate Page's February 6, 2008, "More Presidential Primary Highlights" entry. It is in the pre-Blogger archives. Further examples of this pervasive distortion can be found in the February 17, 2008, "More Distortions on Immigration Reform" entry, as well as in the December 11, 2007, "False Accusations of Being Anti-Immigrant" entry, and the October 22, 2007, entry, "Name-Calling in the Debate on Illegal Immigration" in the 2007 archives.)

In general, what is wrong with Obama's initial assertion is that he doesn't appear to allow that the positions Midwesterners are taking on these issues are motivated by moral considerations. Instead, he dismisses and diminishes their beliefs by claiming that they are based on selfish or feeble foundations, such as bitterness and helplessness. This, of course, is what many politicians routinely do, and it is a major part of what is wrong with contemporary political debate. Despite his frequent protests against "negative politics," Obama just engages in more of the same.

Even if Midwesterners and others are wrong in some or all of their beliefs about religion, guns, trade and immigration (which is surely a matter of debate), it is both condescending and inaccurate for Obama to speak as if no attempt at moral calculation went into any of these beliefs. He makes it sound as if there's no moral or rational considerations in their thinking, just resentment and bitterness about job loss.

Obama's attempts to defend his assertion on April 11 and 12 do nothing to address this flaw. He apologizes, but he does it without admitting what he is apologizing for. That is, he doesn't admit that he was wrong to caricature people's beliefs in a derisive manner.

He does, however, manage to make things worse. He adds opposition to gay marriage to the list of beliefs arrived at via bitterness. And he offers a dubious translation of his initial assertion, saying that by "antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment," what he really meant was that Midwesterners "take refuge ... in their community".

And, of course, he misrepresents his critics, saying they are worked up "because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois, who are bitter." I'm not aware of anybody who has criticized Obama for saying that people in the Midwest were bitter or upset. In fact, Obama's critics are worked up because he - falsely - said that the beliefs of many Midwesterners on religion, guns, trade, and immigration (and gay rights, too, apparently) were arrived at without taking into account moral considerations.

If Obama truly wants to make up for his mistakes, he should say, "I misspoke, I shouldn't have said that." But he can't do that while insisting, as he does, that what he said is true.

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