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Bitterness and Beyond

Whallah!: No Reason For Bitterness
The right wingers love to ridicule Obama’s statement about people feeling bitter. Yeah, like there’s just no reason at all anyone would feel upset.

After Obama’s “elitist” stumble, I checked out several rightwing sites, and very few attacked him for the bitterness quote. There was one pro trade, economically conservative, blog that took issue with the “bitterness” comment, but he generally saw the American standard of living as increasing since the 90’s. Overall though, the elitism charge was not for the “bitterness” comment but the working class clings to guns and god and their opposition to immigration and trade agreements.

There are those who try to argue that Obama was trying to “win over” these voters. This is usually followed by the highly elitist comment that the working class votes against there economic interests. They usually then say something outrageous like that was Thomas Frank’s thesis in What’s the Matter with Kansas. I have to assume many of these liberals have never read the book.

Thomas Frank writes brilliantly about populism. In One Market Under God he writes about the “market populism” of the 90’s, whereas in What’s the Matter with Kansas he writes about cultural populism. These two are alway compared to the economic populism of Kansas’ more progressive era.

Frank does discuss the liberal elitist narrative of “voters voting against their economic interests” and then offers a counter narrative. A cultural populism is economic populism in reverse. Class anger, rage, bitterness are expressed in cultural terms rather than economic ones. As What’s the Matter with Kansas progresses one sees clearly that the cultural war is a class war in disguise. It is a continual struggle between the economically mobile, socially moderate, Republicans, and the economically depressed, culturally conservative, Republicans. Its a very uneasy alliance in which mods would run on socially conservative themes yet rule as economic conservatives.

An elitist reading of this may bring one to the conclusion of , “see they don’t vote in their economic interest”. That is not Frank’s point however, he sees the working class as being pushed into the Republican Party more than anything else. As a whole, Frank does not seem to see the Democratic Party as any better on the economic front than the Republicans. In fact he puts much of the blame for the working class voting Republican on the anti-populist tendency of the Democratic Party.

Thomas Frank’s general thesis is that a cultural faux populism going head to head with an authentic economic populism will lose every time. Sherrod Brown is a perfect example of this. A state which leaned Republican, was socially conservative, went strongly Democratic when given an authentic populist alternative. Frank articulates several times in What’s the Matter with Kansas that the cultural war can not be won head on. To win the cultural war the battlefield must change into an economic one. In short, the Sherrod Brown, Dennis Kucinich, or Bernie Sanders strategy.

The Obama problem is the Kerry problem, when they try to play populist it does not look authentic (think bowling and jello molds). Obama, like Kerry, gives the impression of “talking down”. Even more so, Obama saw opposition to trade and immigration as irrational reactions to their economic situation, rather than their direct causes.

As Krugman hints at , why Obama is doing so poorly with working class voters is mostly self inflicted. In Pennsylvania, Obama continually attacked Hillary from the right using fear tactics of a heavy handed government forcing you to pay premiums. Why play these Republican fear games when he could instead have developed a stronger case for universal health care. Certainly workers and seniors opposition to Obama is in their economic interest. If they are happy with the status quot, they might as well stick with McCain. It seems to me if Obama truly wants to win these voters he should spend less time bowling and talking about jello molds, and more time developing economic populist policies.