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The True Condescending Elitists

Today MSNBC has been continuously referring to a poll that they conducted in an attempt to penetrate the minds of “blue collar” voters (a term which has been used so often in the last few months that it may soon lose its meaning). This enlightening poll breaks down Pennsylvania working class voters into four very insightful groups:

1. Hunters

2. Bowlers

3. Beer Drinkers

4. Gun Owners

pennsylvania politicsIgnoring, for the moment, that many of these groups are not even close to being mutually exclusive (particularly groups 1 and 4, which, if we are to believe the ubiquitously referenced logic for pro-gun legislation, should be the same exact people), it is very interesting, in light of the recent charges of “elitism” being throw around so carelessly, that MSNBC would conduct and then relentlessly cite this poll. When Barack Obama remarked at a San Francisco fund raiser that rural Pennsylvanians have become bitter about the economic situation in the state and have been clinging to guns, religion and antipathy towards immigrants in response, there were loud cries accusing him of condescension and failure to understand the small town-mentality. These accusations were amplified and trumpeted gleefully by the media whose members are always happy to portray Democrats as Ivory Tower elitists.

But what was largely lost in the ensuing debate over Obama’s character was the truth that is inherent in his statement. There has been a great amount of speculation as to the true intentions behind it, but I believe that the generally accepted interpretation is wrong. Rather than insinuating that the only reason rural Pennsylvanians and other Americans like them are religious or live traditional lifestyles is because of their economic predicament (an assertion that I don’t totally disagree with), I believe that what the Senator meant, in this case at least, is that when a population is abandoned by their government on economic issues (as many Pennsylvanians have been over the last 30 years), their political involvement becomes focused on issues that they believe they can still have a significant effect on. Year after year, decade after decade, Pennsylvanians have become increasingly convinced that whether there is a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent in office, the economy in their state will still be left out to dry. They have learned that despite all their rhetoric on stimulating job growth and preventing the outsourcing that has devastated much of the state, politicians will never follow up on these promises and that the situation may continue to get worse. In order to prevent a feeling of complete political innocuousness, they turn their attention to issues relating to their religion, to gun control, and to immigration, realms of the political dialogue in which they see they can still be an important factor. Under this line of thinking, faith, gun ownership and similar characteristics of rural Pennsylvania are an integrated part of the culture, which do not exist simply because of economic situations but become amplified and prioritized when a sense of abandonment takes hold of a community.

Now, this is certainly a debatable idea. The argument over the direction of causation between economics and culture/social structure goes back at least to Marx (economics determines social structure) and Weber (social characteristics determine economic activity). My point here is that I do not see Senator Obama’s remarks as revealing his inner elitism and disdain for rural Americans. Rather, I think he is truly trying to view Pennsylvania’s political culture through the eyes of a social scientist, a method that more politicians should probably utilize, regardless of whether or not the particular assertion Obama was making is entirely correct or not.

On the other hand, what I do find insulting and condescending, as a Pennsylvanian who has spent the majority of his time in the less urbanized middle ground of the state, are polls like the one MSNBC is using today and comments that are endlessly made by pundits that reflect that poll’s thinking. Even if you assume the most socially unacceptable interpretation of Obama’s remarks is the correct one (that the only reason why rural Americans are religious and traditional is because they are in poor economic health), to me, assuming that voters in the state are so moronic, so nonintellectual that they are unable to differentiate their participation in a bowling league or their love for Yuengling Lager from their political ideology is far more insulting. At least, under the harshest interpretation of the “bitter” statement, Obama was mapping out a somewhat identifiable process by which the phenomena of religion and nativism occur. The MSNBC poll, however, insinuates to the entire nation and anyone in the rest of the world who is closely following this election, that somehow, there is a direct correlation between a Pennsylvanian’s choice in alcoholic beverage and who he or she will vote for in a presidential election. Interestingly, in the beer drinking category, Obama and Clinton were tied. But the offense I take lies not in the answer, but in the formulation of the question in the first place. Imagine the phone call that Pennsylvania residents must have been subjected to: “Hello ma’am, may I ask you a few questions? Do you drink beer? Do you ever go bowling? For whom are you planning on voting?”

The pundits that subsequently take the information derived from polls such as these and attempt to formulate conclusions about voters only increase the idiocy of this game of prediction that they so love to play. One frequent MSNBC guest, Jonathan Alter, when asked why hunting, bowling and beer are relevant characteristics of PA voters, he responded, “Because there are a lot of them! Have you ever seen the movie Deer Hunter?” If a movie made thirty years ago is the source from which our media establishment “experts” are drawing their demographic information, we are all in trouble. And within his response lies the condescension of which I am speaking. It’s true that a good amount of Pennsylvanians love beer (myself included) and go bowling (myself not included), but for the vast majority of them, these activities have absolutely nothing to do with the way they make voting decisions or how their political ideology is shaped, and to assume that they do is true condescension. If Alter and the long line of pundits that MSNBC has been interviewing all day long really believe that these are significant factors in this race, then it reveals a deeply ingrained misunderstanding of the average and “blue collar” Americans on the behalf of which these experts supposedly speak. Next time, before they begin with the tirades about Senator Obama’s elitism and his disconnect from rural America, they should stop to contemplate whether or not they are truly in a position to attach these monikers to politicians, when they so obviously deserve them themselves. Oh, and Contessa Brewer, if you are reading this, call me sometime.