Veteran political analyst Ronald Brownstein, late of the LA Times and now at the National Journal, analyzes Barack Obama’s very bad week with a simple cultural reference. He says that Obama isn’t in Kansas anymore, a reference to a famously condescending liberal analysis of middle America by Thomas Frank regarding Obama’s “Crackerquiddick” remarks earlier this month in San Francisco. But after his debate performance, Brownstein could also apply a Wizard of Oz meaning as America peeked behind the green curtain, and found no wizard at all:
The irony of Barack Obama’s “bitter” comments is that he was lamenting the failure of white working-class people to vote their “class interests” before an audience of affluent San Francisco Democrats doing exactly the same thing.
That should have been his first hint that he had veered into an intellectual dead end in claiming that working-class communities “cling to guns or religion … or anti-immigrant sentiment” because they are “bitter” over their economic circumstances. …
But Obama’s words are worth scrutinizing because they reflect a bedrock belief on the left, the conviction that Republicans have seduced blue-collar whites by diverting their focus from economic issues toward the emotional social issues that Obama cited. That perspective reached its apotheosis in What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, the 2004 best-seller by Thomas Frank that portrayed Republican blue-collar gains as a form of mass “derangement” driven by the “hallucinatory appeal” of “cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion.” Physically, Obama was in California when he described the working-class as “bitter,” but mentally he was in Frank’s Kansas.
What makes this dichotomy so fascinating is that middle America has no trouble understanding the elite who, as Brownstein notes, also vote against their apparent economic principles in funding bigger government by requiring more taxes. The supposedly benighted Midwesterners understand that economics doesn’t always drive political viewpoints — and in fact, probably doesn’t in most cases. That notion doesn’t occur to liberal elites because they learned their politics from a quasi-Marxist academia that reduces all politics to dollar signs.
Conservatives don’t believe in laissez-faire economics just because they hope to strike it rich as individuals in the market. Most of us understand that we face long odds in doing so, and most don’t even have that as a goal. The conservative approach to economics and especially to less intrusive government is the knowledge that competitive markets work in mostly rational ways, while monopolies create massive inefficiencies and stunt development and growth. Government becomes the ultimate monopoly, backed with confiscatory powers that can and do work in capricious, irrational, and oppressive manners.
Obama clearly falls into the condescending category that believes all values spring from economics, and that everyone can be bought off by government intervention. Neither Obama nor Frank could open their minds to comprehend that people hold values outside of their wallets, who see the trade between initial comfort and the loss of freedom as a foolish transaction. Neither credit middle Americans for transcending their own personal needs for what they believe to be the best policies for the nation as a whole. That’s why Obama’s remarks will resonate, both for a rather insulting appraisal of the importance of religious faith and the integrity of middle America, and for the cluelessness in which he offered his endorsement of the Frankian hypothesis.