I lived in New York City for 15 years, not a great qualification for assessing Barack Obama’s claims about small-town Americans – the ones who have grown “bitter” about their economic prospects and, as a result, “cling to” guns, religion, anti-immigrant sentiments or cholesterol maximizing diets. But bear with me.
The first New York election I saw up close was the 1989 mayoral race, when David Dinkins won a narrow victory over Rudy Giuliani. New York was a grim place that year, mostly because of a terrible crime problem. The “Central Park Jogger” had been brutalized that spring, and the story dominated the news and water-cooler conversations. This was the time when “No Radio” signs began appearing in the windows of cars parked overnight on the street, pathetic appeals to crack addicts to please break into the next parked car in order to steal anything that might be sold or traded for drugs.
Race relations were tense after Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old black kid, was shot to death in Bensonhurst. The city’s finances, always heavily dependent on Wall Street, were precarious after the market sell-off in October 1987.
So, what did Dinkins and Giuliani argue about? One of the most debated topics was abortion, an issue about which the mayor of New York has no legal authority or practical capacity to make any difference whatsoever.
That, weirdly, was the whole point. New Yorkers had little hope that a mayor could actually accomplish something – could make the streets safer, the taxes lower, or the government more effective. So the election became an affinity contest. Since the city government couldn’t do anything, voting for its office-holders was an expressive rather than an effective act. We don’t expect any of the candidates to make things better, the voters were saying, but since we have to watch one of these guys on the TV news for the next four years, let’s pick one who understands and respects what we care about, rather that someone who disdains us and the way we see the world.
Sen. Obama’s unfortunate foray in extemporaneous sociology was premised on the observation of a similar phenomenon: “Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. 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 going to regenerate and they have not.”Like the New Yorkers in 1989 who didn’t believe the city government could do anything to address their most pressing problems, the voters in small towns where factories have closed and young people have drifted away don’t believe the national government can do anything to address their most pressing concerns. Since the promises about economic revival made to them by both Republican and Democratic presidents have proven worthless, people stop voting on that basis, and turn to selecting the candidate whose worldview validates their own.
Obama’s argument borrows from the one made famous by Thomas Frank in his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? Democrats have embraced Frank’s thesis enthusiastically but perhaps too literally: If working-class Reagan Democrats want jobs and economic security, that’s what we’ll give them. Doing so will, once again, make these voters Democratic Democrats and all this foolishness about culture wars will be forgiven and forgotten. As a Pennsylvania state legislator told Byron York, his constituents are bitter because “they’re just tired of losing their jobs, losing opportunities, losing their young people, just because we haven’t had that federal help, that little push to keep those steel mills here, keep those coal mines here, and create manufacturing opportunities.”
The problem, as Noam Scheiber argued in The New Republic after the 2004 election, is that “Democrats have run up against the limits of what they – or anyone else – can do to create and protect good jobs, the top economic priority of working-class voters.” Restricting trade hasn’t helped America’s heavily protected textile industry, which lost half its jobs in a decade. Stronger unions aren’t likely to help, either: “The heavily unionized German manufacturing sector has lost about 25 percent of its jobs since 1991.”
Obama delivered his analysis to a group of Democratic donors, discussing the kind of campaign his party needs to run. That context reveals one more way in which his comments were tone-deaf. Working-class voters don’t need to “get persuaded” that we can make progress – they need to get shown. It’s not a problem that well-crafted ads and speeches – or well-funded campaigns – can address. Following Obama’s now-famous comments, Brett Lieberman of the Harrisburg Patriot News talked with voters in small Pennsylvania towns, and found out that they don’t expect Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Obama to improve their lives by bringing good jobs to their towns.
Since this kind of demonstration would require Obama not only to win the presidency, but then to enact policies that succeed spectacularly where those of his predecessors have failed, maybe it’s time for a different tack. As the candidate running to break free from the stale gridlock of Washington’s old debates, Obama might try saying that no one knows how to restore the economic vigor of rust-belt industrial towns, and politicians should stop pretending we do.
He could follow the lead of the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who argued last year that, despite repeated and expensive federal efforts to revive it, Buffalo, New York was the 13th most populous city in America in 1930 but now has a population 55% smaller than it had then, making it the 66th largest city in America. Glaeser recommends urban triage rather than urban renewal. The government should emphasize policies to help people in dying industrial towns – including policies that help them get out of those towns. Equip people with marketable skills and portable insurance, and upward mobility will naturally entail geographic mobility.
This won’t be an easy speech for Obama to deliver in Asheville, North Carolina or Kokomo, Indiana. If the people there really are bitter after decades of broken promises, however, they just might appreciate a little candor.