Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The New Yorker weighs in on Democratic condescension

This morning, Montana Headlines posted at Big Sky Cairn some more thoughts about the "guns and religion" comments of Sen. Obama, taking as our jumping off point a column by George Will about the subject.

But it isn't just conservative pundits and supporters of Sen. Clinton who are jumping on this one. At that bastion of right-wing nutjobs, the New Yorker, George Packer weighed in yesterday with a piece called "What's the matter with Democrats?" It engages in that refreshing exercise -- honest self-examination. An excerpt:

...his remark doesn’t require strenuous feats of interpretation. Obama was letting his audience of donors know that he, like them, sees through the cultural irrationalities and obsessions of American victims of globalization and Republican rule.

As Democratic political analysis, what he said is hardly new. Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is a book-length exposition of Obama’s one sentence. In fact, it’s such a familiar line of thinking in liberal circles that the most common defense of Obama is that he was simply saying what everyone knows is so.

But then, after a short discourse on the populist politics of the right and how it has played out in Presidential politics going back at least to Nixon, Packer drops the hammer:

But Republicans couldn’t have dominated Presidential elections for nearly half a century if there were nothing to their charges.

To say that you can see through someone—that what someone believes is actually something else entirely—is an act of condescension, and the person being seen through is naturally going to take exception. One doesn’t have to be Bill Kristol to know this. It’s as if a politician were to say to Andrew Sullivan (who won’t tolerate a bad word about Obama), “You’re just clinging to gay rights because you’re frustrated by the size of government. Once we cut entitlements, you won’t care about same-sex marriage.”

The real problem with what Obama said is that it’s basically untrue. In southwestern Pennsylvania, religion, hunting, and insularity predate the post-industrial era. They’ve have become politically manipulable points in part because of economic decline, but to confuse wedge issues with traditional values is the mark of the high-minded reformer or the political junkie, or both.

Not only is what Obama said basically untrue about middle America, it is, according to Packer, reflective of what all too many Democrats really think:

Obama’s devotees, who have an unattractively worshipful tendency to blame his mistakes on everyone but him, would do their candidate and the Democratic Party a favor by acknowledging the damage he’s done to both.

It wasn’t accidental. Obama betrayed his own and his Party’s essential weakness, and in the process handed the opposition a great gift. He won’t be able to turn this weakness into the kind of strength that ends eras and wins elections until he understands what happened over the past few days.

We would agree. What is important, though, is not that Democrats with a weakness for condescending attitudes learn how better to disguise their thoughts and choose their words more carefully -- it is that they consider the possibility of thinking differently.

We in Montana know about condescending attitudes being skilfully disguised for electoral purposes. We have a governor who seems to believe that as long as he is on horseback or carrying a gun (preferably both) in television ads, the rest of the message doesn't matter that much. And we have a junior U.S. Senator who posed with a gun in hunting gear -- but who hadn't held a hunting license in Montana for as far back as records went. But sometimes, embracing an image ends up changing attitudes, so there is room for tempering our Republican cynicism.

We hope for the best on these points, both from Sen. Obama -- who could be our next President -- and from Montana Democrats, who are our friends and neighbors in this great state.


Anonymous said...

Quite interesting piece. Surprised to see it in the New Yorker. Here's a somewhat related piece from today's NY Times called "Who's Bitter Now?":

Ed Kemmick said...

I'm always amused when people are surprised to find pieces like this in the New Yorker. These are the same people surprised to find good reporting and balanced analysis on NPR. The fact is, both outfits have a liberal tilt but still employ a lot of really good people with enough professionalism and self-respect to tell the truth and report honestly.

Some of the best criticism I've seen of liberal pieties has been written by New Yorker critics. Like Orwell, their criticism actually has depth because they speak from positions of sympathy and understanding, rather than simply expressing contempt. If you haven't read George Packer's book on Iraq, "The Assassin's Gate," do. He was completely in favor of the invasion, mainly because he knew a lot of exiled Iraqis whose hopes and dreams he absorbed, which only deepened his disillusionment with the inept, arrogant, utterly stupid policies of Bush, Rumsfield, Cheney and company.

Montana Headlines said...

Agreed. That's why I read the New Yorker, Harpers, etc.

My intent was not to express surprise, but rather to balance Will's piece.

And as you say, thoughtful criticism from within is always particularly powerful.

Packer's book sounds like it is worth reading.

Ed Kemmick said...

Mr. Headlines, I was referring to the surprise expressed by the anonymous commenter.

Montana Headlines said...

Gotcha -- I was a little slow on the uptake.

Anonymous said...

Obama will be the Democrat's nominee in November and Montana will be competitive for the first time since 1992.

It is really pretty simple.

Montana Headlines said...

You are right about the former, but unless a populist candidate of the right enters the race as a third party (as in 1992,) you couldn't be more wrong about the latter.

In other words, unless Ron Paul decides to run 3rd party, Obama is toast in Montana. And even then, he would probably still lose, since Ron Paul is more anti-war than Obama is.

Ed Kemmick said...

You tools of the establishment, you brainwashed-by-the-mainstream-media fools. Ron Paul is going to win the election.

Montana Headlines said...

Ed, I always knew you were a closet Paulista. You'll have to be watched even more closely, now.