Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

When It’s Better To Be Bitter

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.

Discussions - 11 Comments

On the whole, I agree, though Asheville is, I think, an unfortunate choice for pairing with Kokomo. My impression as a tourist is that that particular North Carolina city has come a long way in the past twenty years. It now feels--a little too much for my taste--like Montpelier or Burlington, Vermont.

It might be interesting to draw a contrast between the adjustment of Rust Belt and Sun Belt cities to the departure of old industries. A number of Sun Belt places--in the Carolinas, for example--seem to be doing just fine, thank you very much. Some of it is, I'm sure, the weather, which has been attracting retirees for a long time. But there is a good bit of business-friendly government as well, which can't be said of a state like Michigan.

I think there's a flaw in the analogy between rust-belt America voting on "God and guns" and NYC voting on abortion. As noted in the post, the mayor of New York City has no ability to influence the law on abortion (and presumably would have no such power even if Roe were overruled, since abortion regulation would then revert to the purview of the state legislature). However, presidents and congressmen do have the power to pass or reject gun control laws (at least until the Supreme Ct says otherwise), and the president and the Senate together determine the composition of the Supreme Ct, which, of course, could overrule Roe if so inclined. The president and congress also determine immigration policy. Thus, taking abortion, gun policy and immigration into account when voting for president or congress is not irrational in the same way that it is irrational to vote for a mayoral candidate based on his position on abortion.

Of course, the view of politicians like Obama and latter-day Marxists like Frank is that it is, by definition, irrational to disagree with the orthodox DNC position on any of these issues.

How will voters respond to a politician who tells them that, in essence, the places where they have lived their who lives are passe, and that the best the government can do is to help them to move on? It is the American way, but will it play in Peoria?

The basic concept of Obama's statement doesn't seem to be in doubt. Communities which have been depressed for 25 years are generally bitter in tone, and justifiably so. That he is "tone-deaf" in wanting to persuade those folks that things can and will change seems to be the primary thesis of your argument.

Here's the deal though, he's talking about an election and any theory during a political election which is anything other than persuation--logos, ethos, or pathos--is bunk. The idea that the poor folks who've been down for so long need to be 'show' that things can change is just foolishness.

First he needs to win their votes. Then he can start to affect policy.

I'm not sure he can persuade those folks and get their votes, regardless (because, ultimately, he is a black man and while he would not say it that does play a factor in depressed, white regions), but persuasion is the nature of an election process and your contention is non-sequitur.

I don't think that "no one knows" why these jobs left and have not come back. By and large it's government regulation that drove them out. The same widgits can be made in China or Korea at a fration of the cost because they don't have the government-imposed overhead of a factory in America.

Equip people with marketable skills

Whether skills are marketable or not seems to rest with the government. For instance, several years ago computer skills were marketable. Then the government flooded the market with cheap workers from abroad with the same skills. The same thing has occured in the building trade, though the cheap labor there has the added insult of being here illegaly. At least its technically illegal - our government approves of this law-breaking.

The root of the problem seems to be that the American government does not see it as its role to represent the best interests of the American people. In fact, listening to Obama, McCain and Co. it's hard not to get the impression that they actually rather dislike the American people.

Communities which have been depressed for 25 years are generally bitter in tone

Obama and friends have been making out pretty well for themselves, by all accounts. What accounts for their bitter tone, which is significantly more bitter than that of the poor white working class?

Obama IS part of the "stale gridlock." He is a lockstep liberal Dem., and liberal Dems are the main problem. Voting records don't lie -- not to that extent. Interestingly, if the people of NY voted on the basis of culture rather than so-called issues, they ended up choosing well in 1993. Because Rudy, chosen on the basis of culture (if he was), got tremendous practical results. In part, may I add, because his cultural beliefs were right, or far more right than Dinkins'.
Voters aren't so bright about what are called "the issues" because they don't have the facts and aren't interested enough in the facts. Their gut-level cultural decisions merit more respect, however.

Since Thomas Frank has been mentioned in at least a couple of posts here that attempt to capitalize on "Bittergate," perhaps it would be pertinent to see what Mr. Frank himself thinks of Obama's statement, the surrounding brouhaha, and the underlying issues. Some choice highlights:

"In truth, I have no way of knowing whether some passage of mine inspired Mr. Obama's tactless assertion that the hard-done-by clutch guns and irrationally oppose free-trade deals. In point of fact, I oppose many of those trade deals myself.

But I know one thing with absolute certainty. The media flurry kicked up by Mr. Obama's gaffe powerfully confirms an argument I actually did make: That as they return again to the culture war, what the soldiers on all sides are doing is talking about class without actually addressing the economic basis of the subject...

...It is by this familiar maneuver that the people who have designed and supported the policies that have brought the class divide back to America – the people who have actually, really transformed our society from an egalitarian into an elitist one – perfume themselves with the essence of honest toil, like a cologne distilled from the sweat of laid-off workers. Likewise do their retainers in the wider world – the conservative politicians and the pundits who lovingly curate all this phony authenticity – become jes' folks, the most populist fellows of them all.

But suppose we read on, and we find the news item about the hedge fund managers who made $2 billion and $3 billion last year, or the story about the vaporizing of our home equity. Suppose we become a little . . . bitter about this. What do our pundits and politicians tell us then?

That there is no place for such sentiment in the Party of the People. That 'bitterness' is an ugly and inadmissible emotion. That 'divisiveness' is a thing to be shunned at all costs.

Conservatism, on the other hand, has no problem with bitterness; as the champion strategist Howard Phillips said almost three decades ago, the movement's job is to 'organize discontent.' And organize they have. They have welcomed it, they have flattered it, they have invited it in with millions of treason-screaming direct-mail letters, they have given it a nice warm home on angry radio shows situated up and down the AM dial. There is not only bitterness out there; there is a bitterness industry...

...If Barack Obama or anyone else really cares to know what I think, I will simplify it all down to this. The landmark political fact of our time is the replacement of our middle-class republic by a plutocracy. If some candidate has a scheme to reverse this trend, they've got my vote, whether they prefer Courvoisier or beer bongs spiked with cough syrup. I don't care whether they enjoy my books, or would rather have every scrap of paper bearing my writing loaded into a C-47 and dumped into Lake Michigan. If it will help restore the land of relative equality I was born in, I'll fly the plane myself."

Amazingly, in an era where the "liberal" MSM is hiring more commentators who are not only right-wing, but who have been consistently and dramatically wrong since 9/11 (think Bill Kristol and Lucianne Goldberg's son), the Wall Street Journal has opted to take on Thomas Frank to pen a weekly column. Maybe the Ashbrook program should get him to come speak!

I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Frank, due to his earlier crusade against "revolt-in-style" leftism in favor of bread-and-butter class-interest conflict. Some of the mocking that his 90s Baffler 'zine dished out to Gen-X leftoid hipsters was oh-so-deserved, and quite deliciously delivered. But the basic problem is that most of the class-war-first Dems like Frank can't really transcend the Culture War divide. They do despise Christian culture. They just do. They are incapable of really thinking about how a Christian populist strain might again be a significant part of the Democrat coalition. They refuse to learn from folks like Bill Galston and Wendell Berry, folks who know that the Culture War goes deep, and that working class Americans are damn right to be concerned about it.

Note Frank's histrionic use of the word "plutocracy." How many steps is he from the lunacy of a Chomskyite? One could have hoped he'd use his WSJ column to provide the bread-and-butter facts of the Democrat/union economic case, but this sort of talk is a bad omen.

And do note the refusal of Frank to acknowledge the fact, that whatever the media landscape looked like in the Rush Limbaugh 90s, that since at least 2003 the Democrats have indulged heavily in bitterness, anger, etc., to the extent that the old stereotype of a conservative advantage in the "bitter-and-angry-man-department" has become totally laughable.


Nice Baffler reference! I hadn't thought about that in years.

Thanks, Paul. I distinctly remember an article he had about Gen X-ers frothing at the mouth to intern for MTV and other hip companies titled Interns Built the Pyramids!, bordered by fantastically hilarious illustrations of nose-ringed hipsters fetching coffee for boomer ponytailed bosses, and so forth. Frank's prose was good and his overall stance was fairly original, but most of all, Baffler had one seriously great art/design "department."

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL:

Warning: include(/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2008/04/when-its-better-to-be-bitter.php on line 706

Warning: include(): Failed opening '/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/opt/sp/php7.2/lib/php') in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2008/04/when-its-better-to-be-bitter.php on line 706