Tuesday, April 22, 2008

More (if such were possible) about guns, religion, Obama, and Montana

David Crisp over at Billings Blog has a long and thoughtful post responding in part to MH musings on the "guns and religion" comments of Sen. Obama. It is worth reading, and there is too much to respond to each point, but some thoughts present themselves.

Before touching on some of the substance of the post, it is worth noting that Mr. Crisp offers his credentials of having lived for long periods in small towns and having grown up in a religious family.

This is not inconsequential. Mr. Crisp's writing do tend to reflect a generally fair treatment of the rural right. But the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.

One doesn't have to be from a big city liberal background to be condescending toward rural America and its cultural concerns. It is pretty commonplace for someone who grew up in a rural or small-town environment to move off to the big city and adopt both liberal ideas and airs of intellectual or moral superiority to those who stayed behind with their guns, gossip, and religion. Who is loudest in condemning the nastiness of smoking other than ex-smokers, after all?

Likewise, some of the most derogatory things you will hear about middle America come out of the mouths of those who are trying to distance themselves from their backgrounds. In the Montana Headlines experience, a reasonably good predictor of whether former small-town or rural dwellers retains sympathetic affinities to rural America in urban adulthood is the degree to which they hold conservative political views.

But to the Billings Blog post:

Montana Headlines cites George Packer, who says that Republicans have dominated presidential politics for most of the last half of the century because Democrats are blind to rural concerns. Packer's contention is dubious on multiple grounds.

For one thing, Republicans have held the presidency for 28 of the last 48 years. That's 58 percent of the time -- a nice margin but a bit short of dominant, especially when one considers that of the five Republicans who held the presidency during that period, one resigned in disgrace, two couldn't get re-elected and another not only lost the popular vote but may leave office as the most unpopular president in U.S. history.

First, a picky point. It really isn't accurate to say that President Ford couldn't get re-elected, since he was never elected in the first place. In fact, part of the reason why Ronald Reagan could run such a strong primary challenge to him was that Reagan had a nation-wide grass-roots base, while Ford didn't. He had never even run a state-wide election, let alone won a national one. (Note to John McCain -- if you want to win, don't even think about picking someone like Sec. State Rice for your Veep, who has never so much as run in a campaign for county commissioner.)

The only Republican President not to be re-elected since Hoover was Bush the elder, who lost in no small part because of one H. Ross Perot. What is amazing is that Bush won as many electoral votes as he did even with Perot siphoning off as much as 15 - 20% of the vote in some states.

Also, by choosing the last 48 years, Mr. Crisp's percentages are misleading, because by including the Kennedy-Johnson era, one is dipping back into a different time in American electoral politics. (In fairness, he could argue that starting with Nixon is cherry-picking, too, while someone else should argue for going back to 1952...)

But prior to 1968, populism of the right hadn't really yet come into its own, since in the 1960 and 1964 elections America really hadn't yet experienced any significant cultural changes since the revolution of the New Deal some 20 years prior. In the 40 years since the cultural upheaval that took place during Johnson's second term, by contrast, Democrats have held the Oval Office for exactly 12 years. This in spite of the fact that over most of that same period of time, Democrats held a substantial voter registration advantage over Republicans (they still have a registration advantage -- just not as large.)

And in only one of those three terms did a Democrat win a majority of the popular vote (in 1976 Jimmy Carter carried just under 51% of the vote.) In the other two Democratic victories, the majority of the popular vote was split between a mainstream Republican and what can best be described as a populist candidate of the right.

The fact that Republicans managed to win 7 of 10 Presidential elections over that period in spite of being in the minority and in spite of having flawed candidates like Nixon and W only makes the case stronger for the remarkable political power of the populism of the right.

And as has been pointed out on Montana Headlines, Democrats have risen to their current position of prominence in Montana in no small part because of a deliberate strategy of literally out-gunning the Republicans. The fact that Montana Democrats have been so eager to distance themselves from Obama's comments is far better evidence for the potential political negatives in those comments than is the shrill rhetoric of conservative talkers like Rush and Hannity.

MH readers may note that there has been a conspicuous absence of anything on this site about the Rev. Wright, Ayers and the Weather Underground, and other "guilt by association" attacks on Obama. It isn't that there aren't some troubling things about these associations, or that there might not end up being something there worthy of comment. But they remain only very indirect glimpses into how Obama thinks, and are thus limited in their usefulness. And people do want to know how he thinks and whether they trust him -- the very vagueness of his admittedly inspiring speeches and his lack of a track record as a public official mean that small things will receive disproportionate levels of attention. Someone with a lengthy record of public service of Sen. McCain or even Sen. Clinton is just not going to have tiny things scrutinized in the same way. There's more context.

Obama's potential for broad appeal is built on the idea that he can transcend the usual political divisions. His soaring rhetoric at the 2004 DNC about how "we serve a mighty God in the blue states," and his subsequent heavy use of religious imagery and preaching style in his speeches are sort of the equivalent of Montana's governor saying that he can talk about health care from the back of a horse or stressing the importance of making sure he is seen holding a gun, or pulling a rifle cartridge out of his pocket.

They are powerful visual and verbal images that are intended to tell religious and conservative rural America that "I understand you -- you can trust me -- I'm not Michael Dukakis or John Kerry."

But by channeling "What's the Matter with Kansas" in the cozy liberal confines of a San Francisco fundraiser, Sen. Obama was giving us another data point to consider and an alternative way to view him -- one that is more in keeping with how rural conservative folks are used to having their liberal betters talk about them. And with his Ivy League education, his aloof manner, and the obsequious behavior of his followers, it isn't hard to imagine him as one of our liberal betters.

As Packer pointed out in his New Yorker piece, the most common way that he had heard liberals defend Obama's comments was by saying that Obama was just saying out loud what everyone (i.e. every one of their fellow liberals) knows to be true.

So Obama's comments resonated deeply -- not so much because of the specifics of the comments, but because of the attitude that those kinds of comments represent to a lot of people out in the heartland. And one suspects that because of that, this episode will have legs.


David said...

Just to be clear: the decision to go back 48 years (nearly a half-century) was Mr. Packer's, not mine. Obviously, different starting points yield different results.

Interesting to note that additional context seems to argue that Mr. Obama was defending rural conservatives, not dismissing them. Peggy Noonan has a column worth reading (sorry, no link) that indicates Mr. Obama was trying to explain to San Francisco liberals why rural voters may seem to be single-minded racists. They aren't, he seemed to be saying, they have just been beaten up and are fighting back with the tools at hand.

Montana Headlines said...

Sorry -- I missed that Packer chose that figure. Noonan may well be right -- she's usually pretty level-headed. But if Packer and other liberal commentators are to be believed, many on the left took it the same way that Obama's critics did. Namely -- that if economic times were good, rural America wouldn't have the social concerns that they do.

Anonymous said...

Been watching the results come in from PA tonight. Obama's getting beaten bad, although he outspent Clinton by a big margin. So what explains her win. Didn't the voters know Clinton was a has been?

Presumably they didn't vote for her because they liked her policies more. I couldn't tell you of any big policy differences between the two.

Could the voters be racist? I dunno. I doubt that was much of a factor. Lynn Swann ran for governor back there and did relatively well, and there are other black politicians.

The pundits tonight said Clinton was winning in some rural parts of the state by 70 percent of the vote or better. Obama's "bitter" comments seem the most logical explanation, but perhaps there's some other factors too.

The following piece by Victor Davis Hanson offers some ideas on why Obama may suddenly be losing traction (below the Hollywood stuff): http://mt.pajamasmedia.com/xpress/