Barack Obama’s comments about the white working class have thrown the political campaign into a particularly comic spasm of pretense and hypocrisy, but I was planning to let it go, I really was, until George F. Will decided to leap to the defense of the proletariat. Yes, that George F. Will. The fabulously wealthy, bow tie–wearing, pretentious reference–mongering, Anglophilic fop who grew up in a university town as a professor’s son, earned two advanced degrees, has a designated table at a French restaurant in Georgetown, and, had he dwelt for any extended time among the working class, would be lucky to escape without his underwear being yanked up over his ears. Will devoted his column to expressing his displeasure at Obama’s “condescension” toward the working class.
Obama’s offense, as we all know, was to call white working-class voters “bitter” over their economic misfortune during the last few decades, and thus prone to “cling to” guns and religion. Taken literally, Obama was saying that these voters have taken up religion and gun ownership only over the last few decades--a notion so transparently false that he surely couldn’t believe it. And, in fact, he doesn’t: In a 2004 interview with Charlie Rose, Obama described how traditions of hunting and churchgoing stretch back generations. He proceeded to argue that, in the absence of plausible economic improvement, people in small towns will vote on the basis of those traditions that give their lives stability. This is not a controversial view among Democrats. Bill Clinton once said that Republicans “find the most economically insecure white men and scare the living daylights out of them”--a less respectful expression of the same analysis.
But Clinton said that more than a decade and a half ago, and, since then, Democrats and Republicans have developed an exquisite sensitivity toward any slight against the white working class. Blue-collar whites now occupy the same position in American politics that people of color hold in the smaller political subculture of academia: a victim-hero class whose positions (usually as interpreted by outsiders) enjoy the presumption of moral superiority.
The victim-hero class is the object of competitive flattery and the subject of mutual accusations of disrespect. You can’t read a Peggy Noonan paean to real America--“a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality”--without thinking of a junior faculty member extolling the dignity of Guatemalan peasant women. Bill O’Reilly’s or Tim Russert’s endless invocations of their working-class backgrounds are the equivalent of the campus activist who introduces every opinion by saying “As a woman of color . . . .” (The one difference being that the latter really is a woman of color, while the former are multimillionaires who retain only the most remote connection to blue-collar life.)
Since blue-collar whites have been trending Republican, conservatives enjoy a presumptive affinity and have taken it upon themselves to police the political culture for any affronts against their favored class. The rules of the game, understood now by all sides, hold that elitism is defined entirely in social, rather than economic, terms. Thus Obama’s attempts to highlight his (relative) lack of wealth did not win him any points. Nor did McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, attract any criticism when he called Obama an “elitist” within a few days of convening a gathering of Washington lobbyists at Johnny’s Half Shell on Capitol Hill.
On the other hand, McCain did stir up a bit of negative publicity when bloggers discovered that what his campaign website billed as Cindy McCain’s recipes turned out to be copied verbatim from the Food Network. To be down with the working class, you needn’t represent its political interests or even share its lifestyle. You simply have to be able to convincingly imitate its social customs.
To urge the white working class to vote on the basis of economic policy is itself considered an act of elitism. When Obama and other liberals reproach blue-collar whites for voting their values over their wallet, argues Will, they are accusing those workers of “false consciousness.” A Wall Street Journal editorial took umbrage that Obama “diminishes the convictions of those voters who care more about the right to bear arms, or faith in God, than they do about the AFL-CIO’s agenda.”
But nobody’s challenging the validity of caring more about your religion, or even your right to hunt, than your income. The objection is whether it makes sense to vote on that basis. There are, after all, stark differences between the two parties on economic matters. Republicans do want to make working-class voters pay a higher proportion of the tax burden, restrain popular social programs, erode the value of the minimum wage, and so on.
Democrats, on the other hand, have no plans to keep anybody from attending church or hunting. A few years ago, their gun-control agenda revolved around issues like safety locks, banning assault weapons, and other restrictions carefully designed to have virtually no impact on hunters or average gun owners. Now Democrats have abandoned even those meager steps. The GOP’s appeal on those “issues” rests on cultural pandering rather than any concrete legislative program.
And, while it may be elitist to say so, voting for a politician merely because he can mimic your lifestyle is not a very good idea. George Will and the Journal editors would never dream of voting on the basis of which candidate related best to their culture. They support the candidates who share their policy goals, not those who share their passion for watching baseball, or flogging the servants, or whatever other pastimes they may enjoy.
Now, it’s true that many working-class whites also vote on social issues that do have some political relevance, like abortion or gay marriage. It’s certainly not irrational on its face to vote your values over your wallet. (Democratic billionaires do it, too.) On the other hand, conservatives routinely express their fury that a majority of Jews stubbornly flout their own “self-interest”--defined as low tax rates and a maximally hawkish Middle East policy--to vote Democratic. The process of trying to persuade others to reconsider the nature of their self-interest is not some Marxist exercise or an accusation of false consciousness. It’s what we call “democracy.”
Sorry, did that sound condescending?
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.