Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Obama and elitism: a view from the UK

As the whole ‘bitter’ flap continues to engulf the US presidential election, I thought it might be interesting to provide some insight into what the controversy looks like from across the Atlantic.

To review, last weekend Barack Obama answered a questioner at a “closed-door private fundraiser in San Francisco” (a detail both Clinton and McCain have managed to describe in the past week as if it were akin to a puppy-killing festival) who asked him why he’s had a hard time winning over white blue collar Democrats. Speaking off the cuff, he said:

“You go into some of 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. So it's not surprising then that 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."

His comments set off a storm of criticism from Clinton, McCain and the US Media, accusing him of being an elitist and of insulting blue-collar people. Were his comments inartful? Perhaps. Inaccurate? It would be hard to make the case that they were. The fact that many blue collar workers are now voting on ‘God guns and gays' issues is a widely acknowledged phenomenon (plus immigration, sadly there’s no g word for that). In the 2004 presidential election, for instance, more people based their vote on "moral issues" than at any time since exit polling began. Obama is here attempting to explain the origins of this pattern to a group of (presumably upper class) people on the West Coast, where many upper class Democrats currently feel perplexed as to why their blue collar brethren are voting this way. The question on the minds of this particular set of San Francisco voters is, ‘Why is this other subset of Americans voting on the basis of these cultural issues, when those issues have nothing to do with their own dire economic situation?’ Obama provided a rather basic sociological answer.

Here in the UK, the British are actually quite confused as to why these remarks are an issue at all. This is perhaps not surprising in a country where social class is still a big part of life, but there’s more to it than that. In the UK, it wouldn’t be unusual for a politician to make an observation about a particular socioeconomic group. Whereas in the US, class is a third rail which you are never supposed to acknowledge (and where everyone refers to themselves as ‘middle class’), here it’s a regular topic of discussion. So it’s hard for them to understand why this is such dangerous territory in US politics.

But more than that, what’s even more perplexing to them is the current US media narrative that his comments were ‘elitist’ and this therefore makes him unsuitable for the presidency. The idea that someone would be too well-educated (the media keep referring to his Harvard Law degree with derision) and thoughtful to be the US president seems quite counter-intuitive to them.

As the scandal has unfolded, Hillary Clinton’s reaction to it has seemed downright repulsive to the British (and keep in mind the Hillary Clinton is the favorite here in the UK, where Barack Obama is widely distrusted). In the past week Mrs. Clinton has gone on a whirlwind state tour downing shots and chugging beer, talking about Jesus to whoever will listen, and gloriously recounting her days shooting a gun out behind the barn with her granddad. In British eyes not only is this type of behavior odd (especially since it is a serious no-no for a British politician to discuss their religion) but its blatant pandering to and stereotyping of blue collar life seems more insulting than anything Barack Obama said.

Clearly Hillary Clinton has stumbled into a strategy that could deliver the miracle comeback she wants: aggressively exploiting her strength with working class Democrats as the primary race enters a final stage where rust belt states will make all the difference.

American Anti-Intellectualism

There is a clear contrast being drawn here. Barack Obama is continually stirring up the most dangerous and taboo topics in the United States. The first challenge, brought up by the comments of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, brought the uncomfortable issue of race relations to the forefront. Rather than retreating from it or going into tired political lines, he confronted it head on in a way that hasn’t been seen in American politics in decades. Now that a similar taboo has been unleashed over the issue of class, he has an opportunity to do it again, particularly in tonight's debate. But this issue may prove much more tricky than the race flap.

If the US really wants change, one thing that will need to be looked at is this increasingly absurd way of viewing the American presidency. The idea that a presidential candidate needs to be someone you’d want to “have a beer” with, someone who seems to share your background and think the way you do, is what got the United States into the mess it finds itself in today. Barack Obama is the anti-Bush in this respect. He had a completely atypical upbringing and he’s not afraid to discuss it. He’s an intellectual, and is highly educated. He doesn’t talk down to Americans but rather speaks to them like adults that can handle nuance.

If you sat down to have a beer with him you’d probably feel quite intimidated. But as John Stewart pointed out on the Daily Show Monday night, in what kind of bizarre universe are we living that this is considered a bad thing in America? ‘Elite’ means good, it means better than average. If we’ve come to the point where someone being better than the rest of us precludes them from being our president, we are really in trouble. American anti-intellectualism runs deep and nowhere is it stronger than in politics. But it is a condition which needs to be challenged if the country is to extract itself from its current malaise.

The fact that Hillary Clinton seems to need to belch her way across Pennsylvania to be considered presidential should be deeply embarrassing to us all. I can tell you that from across the Atlantic, I’m quite humiliated by it.


Jon Worth said...

I think you're a bit wide of the mark about British politics here...

Firstly having a go at intellectuals is part of British political debate - Gordon Brown has a PhD but never, ever mentions it. Brown also got in a hell of a mess with the Laura Spence story a few years ago - basically any UK politicians not educated at Oxford or Cambridge think it's fair game to have a go that those that are.

Secondly God - yes, there's less reference to religion in UK politics, but Blair and Brown have changed that. Blair made his conversion to catholicism, and Brown has said that may God be with the families of soldiers that died in Iraq. A decade ago such comments would have not been made. The UK has also massively expanded its religious schools.

Dave Keating said...

Heh, I think you're not thinking about these things in comparison to the US!

Keep in mind that Blair didn't really 'come out' about his religion until after he left office, and the British public reacted to that with great discomfort.

There is definitely much talk about how David Cameron is a 'toff,' but significantly the talk isn't around this precluding him from being prime minister. Yes he is trying to cultivate this young, common man image, but he's only trying to mimic the success of Blair and people don't seem to be buying it. That kind of 'common man' image might benefit him in the new post-Blair climate but it isn't a requirement.

I hardly see Gordon Brown pretending to be a man of the people, riding around in a tractor or clearing brush in the backyard of his ranch. Someone like Gordon Brown could never - and I mean never - be elected president in the US. He's dull, doesn't smile, and having a beer with him doesn't sound like it would be a barrel of laughs! The importance of this 'have a beer' test in US politics cannot be overstated. It just doesn't exist here in remotely the same way.

I think sometimes the media and other politicians here do sometimes have a go at the Oxbridge set, but the important difference is that that set is a powerful presence in UK politics. In the US, academia and politics do not mix, and it would be laughable to suggest there is a significant ivy league presence in Washington.

When it comes to how society views intellectuals, the US and Britain are very different places.

Jon Worth said...

Some valid arguments for sure... :-) But at least they temper a little the points you made in the original post. For what it's worth I'm personally very glad there's less religion in UK politics, and I'm not too glad that someone who is a lousy communicator is UK Prime Minister (although he does have other skills).

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