The "bitter" controversy shows little sign of dying down

The controversy over Barack Obama's comments about "bitter" Pennsylvanians is showing little sign of dying down. The press continued its drumbeat and the Clinton campaign continued to deploy an army of surrogates to make its case that Obama is a disaster-in-waiting for the general election. Via Politico's Ben Smith, the issue is getting a large amount of attention in Pennsylvania, with Sunday papers coming out with talk of it on their front-page.

Obama's comments contain two distinct elements that have sparked controversy: (1) the use of the word "bitter" and (2) the suggestion that the social values (religion, anti-immigration and guns) of the jobless are only symptoms of their economic difficulties (this is not necessarily what Obama meant, but it is the interpretation of his words that Obama's critics are responding to).

Surprisingly to me, a lot of battle is being waged on the first issue. Clinton's North Carolina campaign distributed stickers that read "I'm not bitter." What does it mean exactly to say that the loss of a job in these economically depressed areas should not make one feel bitter? Should everyone remain joyous and grateful no matter what one's economic conditions?

The defense of the Obama camp here is equally puzzling. A comment made by Bill Clinton in 1992 is now being circulated, supposedly to show that the former President had said something very similar to what Obama said in San Fransisco: "The reason [George H. W. Bush's tactic] works so well now is that you have all these economically insecure white people who are scared to death." I am not sure how this is the equivalent of the comments that are sparking debate today; Bill Clinton's quote contains nothing about economic fears determining social values. Has it become that controversial to suggest that the lower-class is "economically insecure" and even "bitter"? Answering in the affirmative, it seems to me, would be denying the very existence of classes in this country.

This, of course, is the point the Obama campaign is making in circulating Bill Clinton's quotes; saying that people are "bitter" is not controversial, they are arguing. But this certainly does not represent a push-back on the "cling to" part of Obama's comments, the part that, to me, seems like the more interesting one.

Two questions at hand, then: (1) Was Obama suggesting that economic fears determine social values? (2) If he was, is that such a scandal?

I am not going to try and answer the first question. This is where the Obama campaign is trying to work its way out of trouble: Obama almost immediately defended himself by saying that his point was that economic fears determine political behaviors, not their social values. It makes people vote on values like guns and god rather than on their economic conditions; it does not give them those values in the first place. This "What's the Matter with Kansas"-ian argument is also the point Bill Clinton was making in the comments I quoted above: The reason people are voting their fear rather than their economic interests is that they have become insecure.

But let's assume that Obama did mean what his original comments sounded like, namely that economic fears determined people's social values, their attachment to gun and gods. Is this a condescending/elitist argument? This is the most interesting question, of course. To answer it, it is important to distinguish between a Marxist belief in economic determinism and what a liberal would say. Roughly put, Marxism argues that economic conditions determines the socio-cultural superstructure, people's values and beliefs -- everything that would determine class identity. But (1) the determinism touches everyone, meaning that the values (and social capital) of the wealthy are grounded in their position at the top of the economic hierarchy; and thus this has little to do with one's subjective feelings towards one's economic condition (bitterness, insecurity) but rather with their objective position in the chain of production.

On the other hand (and once again roughly sketched) the liberal argument does not allow that everyone is being over-determined; rather, the suggestion is that those who are economically oppressed have to be brought up to the level of those who are economically secure. By granting more social rights and economic assistance to the lower-class, this development will also extend to the cultural arena, with a better socio-economic position being accompanied by increased ability to autonomously self-determine one's lives, untroubled by economic fears and concerns. This view remains committed to the need of finding a more economically just order, but it has nothing to do with the Marxist view in that it is only economic oppression that determines social values -- not any economic condition. And with the disappearance of systemic determinism, it becomes up to those in a comfortable position to "help" the less privileged.

This liberal position is characterized by some as condescending (the same criticism is voiced at the liberal language of development); others, obviously, will characterize the Marxist view as radical and embrace the idea of progress inherent in the latter. I am going to leave the last word to Slavoj Zizek's description of the difference as he writes it in his essay "Carl Schmitt in the Age of Post-Politics," published in The Challenge of Carl Schmitt:

Today, the very terrain of the struggle has change: the post-political liberal establishment not only fully acknowledges the gap between mere formal equality and its actualization/implementation, it not only acknowledges the exclusionary logic of ‘false’ ideological universality, it even actively fights this logic… What such a tolerant procedure prevents, however, is the gesture of politicization proper: although the difficulties of being an African-American single unemployed lesbian mother are adequately catalogued down to their most specific features, the concerned subject none the less somehow ‘feels’ that there is something ‘wrong’ and ‘frustrating’ in this very effort to do justice to her specific predicament – what she is deprived of is the possibility of a ‘metaphorical’ elevation of her specific ‘wrong’ into a stand-in for the universal wrong... the fact that I, precisely, am not merely that specific individual exposed to a set of specific injustices...

Assuming that Obama did mean that economic fears determine social values (and, as I said, this is a point that is up for debate), the Illinois Senator's comments clearly took the latter form -- which is what is making people call it condescending. And it would be hard for him to wish that he had taken the less condescending and more leftist route. This is America after all; it's probably better to be labeled condescending than Marxist.


  • Interesting analysis. It seems pretty clear that Obama did mean that people's values were determined. That's why it sounded (and was) condescending.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 13 April, 2008 21:56  

  • Poor Obama let his real self be exposed. Very sad that the masses are of such low intelligence that they require their leaders to fein a mental illness to be electable. Becoming a president requires serious acting ability. There is no doubt that "clinging" to superstitions like religion and unfounded physical fear that drives gun obsessions is a social class issue. The social class issue is not simply one of economic oppression,rather of intellectual deficiency. The intelligence deficit is the root of the frustration. Those of a higher intellect are by such advantage free of economic oppression and free of social class restraints. Those of us at the top are actually flying above the radar in that we already "have" and no longer strive in measurable ways (reportable income,educational degrees) and enjoy anonymity. We're supporting Hillary. She's a better actor.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 13 April, 2008 21:57  

  • "Should everyone remain joyous and grateful no matter what one's economic conditions?"

    To answer your question in a non-political way, yes.

    1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
    "Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

    So, to respond politically, I do think it's a little rough on his part to say that those of us rural white folks who have lost our jobs are only religious because we lost our jobs. We are religious and faithful because we chose to be. And we are not all bitter, because if you believe in the Bible and what it says, you live by the verse above.

    I think there is an elitism that we as a Democratic Party have to fight in terms of perception by the general public, at least the public that surrounds me in my area and in similar areas nationwide. I simply can't vote for a man that has trouble holding back on those types of comments and supporters that are even worse about it.

    By Anonymous High Country (NC) for Hillary, At 14 April, 2008 00:22  

  • Only by the freedom we enjoy can one choose. To say all people must do anything by the command of the supernatural is simply unamerican. Those who choose to suspend their disbelief are free to do so. To expect the realists to effectively solve the problems you escape while legitimizing your fantasy is to cripple their efforts. Burying your head in the sand never solved anything. I hope I live to see the day when this biological defect is curable/preventable and superstition no longer is a scourge upon this planet. No man that suffers the constraints of another's religion is free.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 06:44  

  • I think this story will probably blow over by mid week. It's a debate over a couple of poorly worded sentences at a fundraiser. More importantly there is, as of yet, no video; the lifeblood of any of these manufactured outrages. I don't rate it as bad as the Wright story but above the NAFTAgate brewhaha.

    Another problem with the story is that what he said in fact is true. But Obama tends to speak, not in safe sound bites like most politicians, but with complex well thought out ideas that attempt to educate the questioner. Sometimes these may come accross as a putdown rather than the educated responce they are intended to be.

    The question of whether Obama is an elitist is really quite funny. These days anyone who can seriously run for POTUS is an elitist. You need to have the education, money and, most importantly, the EGO to think you can lead the free world. The illusion that these people are just like you and me is laughable.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 07:59  

  • As I had said in earlier posts, I think that this gaffe caused considerable damage, but not irrepairly. This is something that is much more salient in the general, but Hillary seems conviced that a Obama nomination would lead to a McCain and that using this issue to weaken him is the only way she can get superdelegats on board. I do wonder if she knows that getting the nomination by politically destroying Obama will hurt her electibility as least as much if not more than an Obama nomination.

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 14 April, 2008 08:13  

  • Very true - Hillary's only chance to get the nomination is to pull down Obama. But in doing so she weakens the nomination and makes it less valubale for her. If she gets the nomination McCain will win. For the following reasons :

    1) He trumps her "experience" - even Clinton admits that
    2) He has proven appeal to independents, she does not
    3) He has shown bi-partisanship and change (unless the Dems can tag him with Bush's record).
    4) Some Dems will be disgruntled if Clinton gets the nomination now - either voting for McCain or staying home.
    5) Clinton has a base with old white women - well why wouldn't the old white women voter for an old, white man?? She will lose some of that base.
    6) Clinton (Bill and/or Hillary) scandals, mis-speaking etc.

    I am surprised Obama didn`t just say he misspoke - after all that is "acceptable" for Clinton (ie Bosnia)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 08:18  

  • Anonymous 7:59 you are absolutly right, anyone who wants to run for president is elite in terms of being richer, more educated, more ambitious than the average. I mean McCain is married to an multimillion beer heiress and Hillary and Bill get millions in speaking fees. I believe that Obamas last tax returns gave him and his wife a combined salary of under 1 million? That is relatvily modest compared to both his opponents and of other presidents and candiates throughout history.

    However, since the south (which is the poorest part of the nation) became a GOP stronghold Republicans have used the "Dems are elite" models to paint democrats as out of touch and to win elections among working class voters. This is despite the fact that the wealthiest Americans (probably starting from those making $500k and definitly the multimillion/billion CEOS) lean Republican and they get much more benefits from Republican rule like massive tax cuts, compared to what the working class gets. Heh maybe my partianship is influencing me but it is clear that both Democrats and Republicans are full of elites.

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 14 April, 2008 08:26  

  • Obama will lose because he has an inherently racist base that will destroy him in their arrogance. Just watch as they cry foul and defend the worst among themselves.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 08:46  

  • Excuse me anon 8:46 (ashamed to tell us your name) I support Obama, I am white and not racist. So I take exception to your blanket generalisation that his base is inherently racist. Should we say the Clinton base is inherently sexist?? I think not but to follow your logic that would be case.

    By Anonymous Mike, At 14 April, 2008 09:42  

  • I'm really befuddled and annoyed by all the controversy. I'm not voting for a therapist; I'm voting for a president. So I don't care whether a candidate "understands" me or "relates to" me. I care only about what that candidate will or will not do while in office.

    I'd try to ask people why they're voting for someone. There are plenty of people like me who may make terrible presidents. There are plenty of people unlike me who may be terrific. The only question is whether they have good solutions to the problems that face us today. Charges of "elitism" to me are utterly irrelevant. The candidates' proposals are what they are, regardless of the source or motivation, and can and should be examined on their merits.

    When we focus on what matters, then we'll have functional politics again. But if we're going to analyze every word choice to see who "relates" to us better at the expense of larger issues, well, I suppose we'll (continue to) get what we deserve.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 14 April, 2008 10:17  

  • maybe I'm missing something but what I took from Obama's remarks (read in complete context) is that when times get hard Republicans appeal to rural voters through guns,God & gays(etc) instead of voting their economic self interest.The media and corporations also help push these divisions and distract folks from who is really hurting the working class.I've seen this time and again. And it seems a natural instinct for people to lash out or blame others for what ails them.Seems to me he spoke the truth (but was somewhat inarticulate).I think this is way over analized and overblown cause the media is desperate for something to yap about.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 10:48  

  • It is true that the past couple of weeks have been a slow news time. The media was used to primaries every few days recently.

    Hopefully something more substantive will occur - like Zimbabwe, China/Tibet, the housing market etc.

    By Anonymous Guy, At 14 April, 2008 10:58  

  • Obama DEFENDED Wright last night to a friendly audience. Big mistake. Bigots are supposed to be distanced,not defended when it's convenient to curry support. My name is irrelevant, not useful unless you plan to attack me personally instead of addressing an opinion. Plenty of people know me. Obama wants bigots in his base and they'll bring him down. Watch how he falls now.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 11:26  

  • Obama was merely making an observation. He was not talking down to anyone directly. The analogy is that of a parent talking to a psychologist about their troubled child behind that child's back. He had on numerous occasions lectured black audiences about various subjects directly, and he had also stated quite clearly as part of his standard stump speech that he would tell people not what they wanted to hear but what they needed to hear. So the remark is not out of character with Obama, but it is what one would expect. As to whether poor uneducated whites in PA are in fact bitter (about the situation in our country), the truth is they probably have a right to be, and indeed many of them ARE bitter. So what? Over 80 percent of the American people think that the USA in on the wrong path. Who has not felt bitter about what Bush has done to America? Is Obama an elitist? Well, probably so. But please don't think that Mrs. Clinton is not, or that John Kerry was not, or that Al Gore and Bill Clinton were not.

    By Blogger Daniel Greenfield, At 14 April, 2008 11:58  

  • We need an elite for leader. Too bad the shmoes want a follower and they outnumber the free thinkers 4 to 1. We're going to nominate the candidate that secures the less offensive base of shmoes. Rule no. 1, dump the lightning rods like Wright. Obama doesn't need him.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 12:05  

  • What we really need in the White House is a woman who will lie, cheat and steal to get there. Nothing should be off limits-- everything is permissible. She should even kill is it's necessary. And the Clintons are the kind of immoral corporate puppets to do it. GO CLINTONS!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 16:29  

  • Obama and McCain lie,cheat and steal too but they're just not smart enough to pull it off without each other. Hillary can think before dribbling verbal diarrhea.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 14 April, 2008 17:01  

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