Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Lessons of Bittergate

I'm no fan of the -gate suffix being attached to political snafus, but now that the "2008 Campaign in retrospect" books are coming out, it's difficult to avoid using it. Bittergate, if you recall, was the shorthand name for the 'controversy' around Obama's comments in April 2008, at a fundraiser in San Francisco, stating that when blue-collar voters "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


Mayhill Fowler has recently published an excerpt from her forthcoming book about this so-called controversy on the Huffington Post. Her central claim is that
Obama's remark was and still is one of the biggest stories of that historic Presidential run. It is also still one of the least understood. Though I was the first to report on his comments in my Levittown post, here on HuffPost as a citizen journalist following the candidates and covering the campaign trail, it was not until later that I fully understood the driving forces behind that statement. I don't think it was really an accident at all, but rather, that in his quick rise to power, Barack Obama did not have the chance to get to know his fellow Americans -- at least not the ones in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

To conclude that Obama did not have a chance to get to know his fellow Americans means that Fowler doesn't really see the significance of the remark either. I think the largest problem with his remark is not that it's condescending (Clinton's take) or that of a "liberal elitist" (McCain), but that it states the most obvious open secret in American politics: that Republicans (and some Democrats) run on a politics of resentment. It's okay, if you an political commentator to talk about this (think of Thomas Frank here), but it's off limits for a politician to mention, even though every politician has to already know this. Which means that Obama knew his fellow Americans pretty well.

The politics of resentment is one of the driving forces of the teabagger phenomenon (remember when that term just referred to kink?), that is running the GOP train off the rails. The people involved probably really believe that their freedom is being taken away, and ally with the Republicans, not realizing that it is the Republican brand of neo-liberalism perpetuates the economic and social insecurity of the lower and middle class whites who cling to guns, religion and xenophobia. Ironically, something like health care is in their economic interest.

Not to mention that these demonstrations occur aided by a number of government services at their disposal. Over the summer, I recall conservatives at one or other tea party even complaining about the Metro that they nonetheless used for transportation. Or that these same people depend on police and fire departments, and even medical help. At the recent "Superbowl of Freedom" (note that conservatives don't get the irony of hyperbole), described by Dana Milbank (I know, not the best opinionator), on the steps of the Capitol, with people waving signs comparing government health care to Nazi death camps,
a man standing just beyond the TV cameras apparently suffered a heart attack 20 minutes after event began. Medical personnel from the Capitol physician's office -- an entity that could, quite accurately, be labeled government-run health care -- rushed over, attaching electrodes to his chest and giving him oxygen and an IV drip [...] By the time it was over, medics had administered government-run health care to at least five people in the crowd who were stricken as they denounced government-run health care.
Stories like this are supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of these kind of positions, but it is also important to understand the logic behind them. These conservatives might not even believe that government services are bad in and of themselves, but that their tax dollars might be redistributed to others in need of services who the lower class conservatives also view as getting some form of privilege. What they resent is that their relative status has declined while it seems others are unfairly getting ahead. The missing part of the story, however, is that the political party that they have aligned with is largely responsible for perpetuating their economic decline.

The thing is, these people aren't all lost to persuasion. They don't all parade around with idiotic signs. Some are disaffected and don't see how these changes could benefit them. They can be reasoned with, and it is one of the tasks of activists on the left to show how their plight is part of a larger social struggle for economic justice. I don't mean convincing them to vote Democratic. I mean using argumentation to help them see the larger connections between Wall Street, both parties, and globalization so that they can make more informed decisions about how to participate in politics. Maybe that means voting, but it can also mean unions, social movements, etc. The most important part is reintroducing a sense of social solidarity so often lacking in political discourse.

1 comment:

Sabrina said...

“I mean using argumentation to help them see the larger connections between Wall Street, both parties, and globalization so that they can make more informed decisions about how to participate in politics.”

This would be wonderful, however it seems to me the issue with the conservative population is attention span. They only seem to have an attention span long enough to consume the latest right wing shock tactic. So because of this issue, any argument or perhaps explanation of what a paramedic really is (Government Aid) goes by the wayside because they actually have to consume the facts. It feels as though they are much more apt to absorb ‘teabagger’ politics and run screaming down the street with a Hitler mustached Obama poster rather than actually listen to the argument both sides present. Also, the arguments from both sides are so far from each other. It would be nice to see some sort of accountability for false statements and scare tactics seen in the media. Sorry for the long comment, this subject is just so baffling to me.