I wrote the other day (in a post that was reprinted by RealClearPolitics) about the motives of the Clinton campaign and the Right-Wing Noise Machine in inflating a few ambiguous remarks made by Barack Obama about rural voters in Pennsylvania into a major feeding frenzy. But now it appears every political writer on earth feels constrained to use “Bitter-gate” to expound on some Big Theory or other about elitism or the future of the Democratic Party.
Consider Michael Lind’s vast article in Salon today. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Lind, let me just say that the two adjectives his work most often conjures up are “brilliant” and “cranky.” He is indeed one erudite dude, but he has chosen to deploy his intelligence and learning in the obsessive service of various Big Revisionist Theories, invariably served up in a tone of anticipatory anger towards the fools and knaves he knows will mock or ignore him (he was briefly a Charter Blogger at TPMCafe, but bowed out quickly when he predictably got barbecued in the comment threads).
One of Michael’s big obsessions is the ethnic dimension of political allegiances. He once wrote an entire book that was ostensibly “about” George W. Bush, but was actually an elaborate and passionately rendered reinterpretation of Texas political history through the lens of the ethnic rivalry between Germans and Scotch-Irish (the Scotch-Irish were the villians of this tale, as in much of Lind’s earlier work; that makes it even odder that he’s now treating this evil group as part of a virtuous anti-Yankee coalition essential to Democratic victory).
Given his ethnic preoccupations, it didn’t particularly surprise me to learn that Lind’s take on “Bitter-gate” is to associate Barack Obama with the sneering elitism and moralism of the Greater New England Yankee diaspora, whose landing-points across the country more-or-less coincide with those lily-white states where Obama has done especially well in the nominating contest. And this association, he says, is politically disastrous.
The question, then, is not why Greater New England progressives would vote for Obama. He presses all their age-old buttons: opposition to war, nonpartisan reform. The question is why anyone would assume that such a candidate would appeal to other Democratic constituencies, other than blacks (voting in this case for the favorite-son candidate).
Indeed, the Greater New England moralist culture has been rejected by practically every other substantial subculture in the United States: Irish-Americans in Northeastern cities, Appalachian white Baptists and now, evidently, Mexican-Americans. And this has always been the case.
So: the unwilliingness to vote for Barack Obama by some working-class white voters isn’t about race and isn’t about Hillary Clinton, really. It’s about the instinctive knowledge of these voters that Obama represents the hated New England ethic, which his “bitter” comments simply illustrated.
As it happens, the Greater New England Theory is hardly novel. It was one element of Kevin Phillips’ ethnic-based analysis of political trends in The Emerging Republican Majority, nearly forty years ago. Lind’s version of the theory superimposes an ethnic take on the famous “wine-track, beer-track” distinction that is so often used to distinguish the followings of Democratic presidential candidates
The problem with Lind’s exposition, and many others that share its fundamental premise if not its ethnic bitterness–if you will excuse the term–is that it endows one group of voters with almost supernatural political power not necessarily justified by their size or strategic importance. Sure, Obama’s relative weakness–at least in Democratic primaries–among white working-class voters in Appalachia or heavily Catholic areas would be a problem for him in winning states like Pennsylvania and Ohio in a general election. But Hillary Clinton’s relative weakness in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa would be a problem as well. And you know what? It’s really not all that accurate to assign whole states to ethnic categories. One of the successful non-Yankee Democrats Lind cites as a role model was a guy named Jimmy Carter from my home state of Georgia. His appeal to southern regional pride helped him a lot, not only in the South, but in southern-inflected areas of the midwest. But he damn near lost Ohio, and the presidency, because of his relative weakness in the heavily Yankeefied Western Reserve area of the state.
A vote is a vote; the Democratic Party is at present a coalition party that includes both “wine-track” and “beer-track” voters, and Yankees and non-Yankees. Even if Michael Lind is entirely right about the ethnic underpinnings of the current Democratic nominating contest, attributing moral or political superiority to one element of the coalition at the expense of another represents exactly the sort of contemptuous type-casting that Obama has been accused of in “Bitter-gate.”
It is time, folks, for Democrats and the chattering classes to calm themselves about the Greater Meaning of this or that demographic group’s preference for one candidate or the other in the nominating contest. Lest we forget, the whole “identity-based” pattern of voting we have seen is to a large part attributable to the scant policy differences separating Barack Obama from Hillary Clinton, and also to the historic nature of both candidacies. The idea that “losing” groups are going to migrate en masse to John McCain in November is not only a dubious proposition, but one that Democrats should fight like sin. Burn off all the chaff of “analysis,” and the fact remains that Barack Obama has a much better idea (as Mark Schmitt usefully points out today) of how to help those “bitter” working-class white voters than John McCain, while Hillary Clinton offers a much better prospect for the reforms desired by “wine-track” voters than any Republican, including McCain.
The endlessly discussed idea that either Democratic candidate represents one element of our coalition at the definitive expense of the other is frankly the best and perhaps only hope for a Republican victory in November. The persistence of these manichean assumptions about our candidates, whether delivered as horse-race analysis or as Big Theories like Lind’s, are beginning to make me feel–yes–bitter.