There is no doubt that Obama’s recent comments that many rural Americans feel “bitter” about their economic situation, leading them to “cling” to guns, religion, and anti-gay and anti-immigrant sentiments, represent his worst political mistake to date. Both Clinton and McCain promptly jumped all over the comments, as well as the news media (ridiculously so in Wednesday’s ABC News “debate”).
That Obama made these comments in a closed meeting in San Francisco makes them all the more damaging. We will know soon whether this seriously damages his poll numbers; Obama is that rare politician who can take a terrible gaffe and turn it into a “teaching moment” (e.g., the Wright controversy).
Back in 2005 I wrote about this issue while disputing the main thesis in Thomas Franks’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas. Franks lays out in detail the ways in which rural Americans are distracted by “culture war” issues and duped into voting against their economic self-interest. I laid out in some detail why this argument—Obama’s argument (and Jim Webb’s too)—is somewhat elitist, but more importantly, wrong.
Issue by issue, I showed that for many Americans certain “values” issues trump economics, and that voters are making rational choices, just not in the way the left and Democrats would like.
This week Larry Bartels from Princeton took up my critique, and offered a different explanation. Analyzing socioeconomic data and poll results, Bartels makes the case that low income Americans do vote based more on economic issues, while the relatively affluent take socio-cultural issues more into account (perhaps because they don’t have to worry as much about money).
In some ways the 2008 Presidential Election will present a test, however imperfect, of this thesis. Assuming Obama is the Democratic nominee, Americans will have a choice between a candidate with an unambiguously progressive domestic agenda and a candidate who believes that Bush’s domestic agenda was too progressive.
If come November, with the economy likely in a recession or just coming out of one, McCain were still able to beat Obama, we would have to conclude that the majority of Americans are not primarily swayed by economic issues when it comes to voting.
If this transpires it will usher in a day of reckoning for the Democratic Party and the entire progressive movement, both of which would need to radically rethink their view of government and American values. Stay tuned.