Arrogance and Small-Town Voters

Here’s Slate‘s Melinda Henneberger commenting on small-town political attitudes:

When I went back there, and visited similar small towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, one thing I heard over and over–from registered Democrats!–was that their national party leaders were elitists who couldn’t seem to relate to their struggles. Again and again, they brought up Kerry’s windsurfing and polyglot wife and Hollywood friends and brand spanking new hunting attire as proof positive of the kind of elitism that was turning them into Republicans. Perhaps worst of all in their eyes was his habit of mocking Bush’s intelligence; every time Kerry laughed about how dumb the president supposedly was, they assumed he thought the same of them. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s how a high-school teacher in Fairfield, Ill., put it: “I used to be a Democrat, and I’m still very much independent. I voted for Clinton [in '92 and '96]. I’m religious but not a fanatic; I see a lot of gray. My mother has Alzheimer’s, so I’m for stem-cell research, and I’m not against people’s right to an abortion.’” But Kerry “just struck me as arrogant,’” while Bush inspired “the feeling that this was a more open person who would not be ‘I’m important and you’re not.’ ”

The occasion for these observations was Obama’s recent tactless (which isn’t to say false) remarks about small-town attitudes.

I think Henneberger’s remarks here are an accurate statement of the political realities faced by Democrats throughout many parts of America. But we really ought to take note of just how foolish and ill-considered these views really are.

Look at Henneberger’s list of particulars for why John Kerry was perceived as elitist. The wind surfing I understand, and likewise for the bit about the hunting clothes. But his polyglot wife? If you speak several languages you’re an elitist? Or if you have friends in Hollywood? I can guarantee you that no one in Hollywood holds it against you if you have friends in small towns.

As for that charming high school teacher, bang-up job psychoanalyzing the candidates. Real man of the people, President Bush. Bush, of course, is the scion of a megawealthy political dynasty, who had his father’s connections to bail him out of one mess after another. Kerry, by contrast, is a decorated war veteran who devoted nearly all of his adult life to public service. On what possible planet is Bush the open soul who understands people’s problems while Kerry is the arrogant elitist?

And how did all that psychologizing work out for him? I’d say “I’m important and you’re not” is quite possibly the best five-word description of Bush’s attitude that I have seen. If Bush understands the woes of small-town America, he certainly hasn’t shown much interest in them. Instead he pursues economic policies that resdistribute income upward, and creates an environment so conducive to corporate abuse and malfeasance that I suspect even a lot of CEO’s can’t believe their good fortune. And when he’s not doing that, he’s starting ill-conceived wars that are fought disproportionately by people like his students.

Right. But Kerry’s arrogant. Thank God we didn’t elect him President.

Comments

  1. #1 Richard
    April 14, 2008

    Dems need to point out the elitist, aristocratic policies of the Republicans again and again from now until November. Hammer it home and don’t let up.

  2. #2 GAC
    April 14, 2008

    It really bothers me the way Obama’s words get twisted against him in such ridiculous ways. It started with the race speech — people picked out the reference to his grandmother as calling her a racist. I recognize that I harbor, deep in the bowels of my semi-conscious self, some negative stereotypes about blacks, gays, etc … but I wouldn’t call myself bigoted. I don’t publicly display those stereotypes, I fight against them within myself.

    The same deal with Obama’s choice of words here. Admittedly, I can see where the twisting comes from, and where the comment wasn’t so tactful (given what I’ve heard about the context, the intended audience is a factor here) — but is it really so awful to say that people are bitter. Why shouldn’t people be bitter if their country and economy is failing them? As for the rest of it, it might have been phrased better — but he was highlighting issues that are often used to exploit the anger of this populous.

    I’m not fanatical about Obama. I think some of his policy ideas could be improved; and I think he still needs to get more of the real details of his policies down. I definitely don’t think he’s some kind of messiah. But I think he’s a powerful candidate, and probably the strongest of our candidates.

  3. #3 JimCH
    April 14, 2008

    Is there something more to Kerry’s windsurfing that I don’t remember because I don’t even understand how windsurfing, in & of itself, could be considered elitist. Certainly no more elitist than the canned hunts at the high dollar hunting clubs where Chaney goes to to shoot his friends in the face.

  4. #4 natural cynic
    April 14, 2008

    The occasion for these observations was Obama’s recent tactless (which isn’t to say false) remarks about small-town attitudes.

    This brings to mind the definition of cynic in Ambrose Beirce’s “The Devil/s Dictionary”:

    CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.

    or Col. Jessup’s

    “You want the truth. You can’t handle the truth.”

    We’ve got problems. If a candidate for president or a remora-like press can’t recognize that, then they should be in Wonderfuland, not here.

  5. #5 Kevin
    April 14, 2008

    Bitter? Bitter?

    what would they have to be bitter about?

    ungratefull wretches!

  6. #6 itchy
    April 14, 2008

    I’d say “I’m important and you’re not” is quite possibly the best five-word description of Bush’s attitude that I have seen.

    And Dick Cheney’s can be summed up in one word: “So?”

    *That* is the definition of elitist.

  7. #7 bad Jim
    April 15, 2008

    every time Kerry laughed about how dumb the president supposedly was, they assumed he thought the same of them.

    So they voted for the dumber candidate.

    What’s the rule here? “I won’t vote for anyone smarter than me”?

  8. #8 seks
    April 15, 2008

    thank you nice work

  9. #9 grieve
    April 15, 2008

    Kerry and Bush aside, I think the point of the small towner was that politicians (elitist or otherwise) are disconnected from small town citizens.

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 15, 2008

    JimCH-

    I think the point about windsurfing is simply that it is something only people raised in opulence are likely to know something about.

    grieve-

    But the point seemed to be that Democrats specifically are out of touch while Republicans are not. If the high school teacher were levelling charges at all politicans I would still disagree with him, but I would not have come down so hard on him.

  11. #11 ctw
    April 15, 2008

    “the point about windsurfing is simply that it is something only people raised in opulence are likely to know something about”

    On this one, you have drunk the cool-aid. Windsurfing is a relatively economical sport, compared to, say, water-skiing or jet-skiing (neither of which is “elitist” based on my personal experience), requiring as they do more expensive equipment and gasoline (windsurfing is, uh, wind-powered). The people with whom I have windsurfed were reared about as far from opulence as Bush was from poverty.

    My guess is that the association with elitism has to do with the fact that windsurfing is neither a motorized nor a contact sport. Apparently, noise and violence -> macho.

    Tennis anyone?

    - Charles

  12. #12 JimCH
    April 15, 2008

    ctw…
    This was more-or-less my understanding but I’m pretty sure that Jason was merely reporting the “small town” perception.

    I sure as hell don’t understand it though. It would seem that windsurfing would be something that someone from a small ocean bordering state would more likely know something about. I think that you’re onto something with the “macho” conclusion. Maybe if you carried a baseball bat & smashed seal skulls while w’surfing you’d have more credibility.

  13. #13 Wes
    April 15, 2008

    Here’s how a high-school teacher in Fairfield, Ill., put it: “I used to be a Democrat, and I’m still very much independent. I voted for Clinton [in '92 and '96]. I’m religious but not a fanatic; I see a lot of gray. My mother has Alzheimer’s, so I’m for stem-cell research, and I’m not against people’s right to an abortion.” But Kerry “just struck me as arrogant,” while Bush inspired “the feeling that this was a more open person who would not be “I’m important and you’re not.’ ”

    So, he agrees with Kerry on the issues, but voted for Bush because he seemed like a nice guy…

    What the hell is wrong with people? You’re never going to buddy up with the President. You aren’t going to have a beer with him. He won’t be grilling steaks in the back yard with you. You aren’t going to be interacting with this guy. He’s not going to be your friend. If you choose based on personality, you gain nothing.

    It’s disturbing that people are willing to ignore the issues and instead vote based on the personality (as presented by the campaign) of a person they’ll never even meet or directly interact with. If anything, the Slate article makes me think that more effort needs to be made in voter awareness, education and outreach.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 15, 2008

    ctw-

    Okay, you got me! I actually don’t know anything about windsurfing. Maybe it is a macho thing…

  15. #15 Timj
    April 15, 2008

    Let’s face it. People want to vote for someone they personally relate to. And since a full 50% of people have below average intelligence, they may relate best to the least intelligent candidate. Especially when that person is running against someone much more intelligent (like Gore).

  16. #16 ctw
    April 15, 2008

    “Maybe if you carried a baseball bat & smashed seal skulls while w’surfing you’d have more credibility.”

    Actually, if the macho analysis is right, Jason may actually have a point. Only people who have never seen world-class windsurfers doing multiple flips off of Hawaii-height waves can consider windsurfing not macho. It’s frightening just to watch, even on TV.

    - Charles

  17. #17 JimCH
    April 15, 2008

    OK, but wouldn’t it be icing though if something also needlessly suffered?

  18. #18 Muhabbet
    April 15, 2008

    Thanks.

  19. #19 sauerkraut
    April 15, 2008

    John Kerry is elitist no matter what anyone says. And not just because Teresa got doused with plenty of Heinz57 sauce. I remember well the hillarity of Kerry complaining about a fire hydrant in front of his Louisberg Square condo… he wanted it moved so he could park there. Never mind that it was the only one within close proximity. Thankfully, no neighboring structure ever had a fire.

    But Barack Obama is a far different, and more humble cat, than Kerry could ever hope to be.

    Obama is correct about small town pennsyltuckians. I should know. I live in the middle of those folks and the people he off-handedly described live all around me. He should have avoided the religious aspect of it, tho.

  20. #20 Strider
    April 15, 2008

    Yah, uh what’s wrong with electing an elite for president? Seems to me we’d want kind of a smart person to be president. Or are you all begging for eight more years of Bush? Why is being part of the elite, as long as it’s earned, a bad thing?

  21. #21 Caledonian
    April 15, 2008

    What’s wrong with elites, period?

    It seems to be that the harm arises when people assume that because they are elite in one way (most especially when they are granted that status merely because of an accident of birth) that they are elite in other ways.

    Actually being elite is hardly a bad thing – it is in fact highly desirable, at least by reasonable people. Who would you prefer for your surgeon – a mediocre performer, or the best in the business?

    By most measures, Kerry *is* more intellectually elite than the average person. That is not a sin. If Americans can’t bring themselves to admit that there may be people who are simply better than they are at something, and to consider voting for a person despite the fact that their superiority makes them feel inferior, they deserve the government they get.

  22. #22 Susan
    April 16, 2008

    I’m not entirely sure what the public perception of the word “elitest” is. Both Bush and Kerry went to the same ivy league university they’re obviously both rich. the truth is you don’t become a presidential candidate unless you’re rich and you’re being backed by rich and powerful people. I think people (especially in small towns) who see anybody who presents himself (or herself) as intelligent as elitest. There is a very real suspicion towards intellectuals in small towns.

  23. #23 Caledonian
    April 16, 2008

    I’m not entirely sure what the public perception of the word “elitest” is.

    In the vernacular, an ‘elite’ is a person who believes he’s better than you are. Kerry presented himself as a capable, intelligent, well-educated statesman. Bush presented himself as a down-home common man.

    Guess who won?

  24. #24 Akusai
    April 16, 2008

    I had an irritating debate over this with two coworkers the other night. One insisted that Obama was out-of-touch and elistist and blah blah blah and then said that if Hilary didn’t get the nomination, she just wouldn’t vote. Are they that different?

    The other debated with me whether Obama’s statement was true, then took the tack of saying “Well, even if it is, he shouldn’t have said it. At least Hillary, McCain, and Bush know how to identify with the common man.”

    I pointed out to him that not a one of them is anything but “elite” by his down-home, gee-golly-shucks definition, which is, as has been said, essentially “More educated and wealthier than me.” His rejoinder: “Yeah, but at least they don’t act like it! Don’t you want to elect a president who represents the common man?”

    Not for a finger-licking second.

  25. #25 Scott
    April 16, 2008

    The common “man” sucks. If “he” didn’t suck, we’d all have thousands of good friends.

  26. #26 mark
    April 16, 2008

    Help! Help! We’re under attack from the intelligent, educated segment of society!

  27. #27 antaresrichard
    April 17, 2008

    Not “macho” eh? Are they implying “effetism” as well?

  28. #28 Christophe Thill
    April 17, 2008

    Oh, so the common man is dumb, uneducated, and with a 100 words vocabulary?

    Even if he was, “representing” is to be understood as in politics, not as in art. If you want to represent common people, you must be able to identify their problems and needs, but also the cause of those. Fix the objectives, analyse the problem, work on it. Because if it’s about unemployment, you’re not going to visit each one of them and say “I have a job for you”. You’re going to act at another level, and do whatever you see fit so that the economy creates more jobs. Something that people are not always able to do. People complain about food getting expensive: does that mean they all know why it does? I don’t think so.

  29. #29 Reginald Selkirk
    April 17, 2008

    What’s wrong with a little elitism? Do we really want the dimmest bulb in the country to hold the highest office in the land? (Actually, the American electorate has addressed that question, and I don’t like their answer.)

  30. #30 jo5ef
    April 18, 2008

    But Kerry “just struck me as arrogant,”
    I’m sure he wasn’t influenced by the slick and highly effective right wing propaganda machine that seems to run so incessantly there in the states. I mean, the question about lapel pins, what is wrong with you all? Why cant i think of any other western country where that question would be taken seriously for a nanosecond?

  31. #31 Roadtripper
    April 18, 2008

    What’s this about small-town democrats turning into republicans? I grew up in a small town not far from the aforementioned Fairfield IL, left 22 years ago and never went back. As far as I could tell, they were all republicans ages before I left–no democrats in sight.

    They were also complete idiots, for the most part. (I mean small town folk in general, not just Fairfield, IL.) Aside from being a rich, wealthy, arrogant bastard, Bush actually does have a few things in common with small town voters–he’s a clueless, pious twit with no grasp of reality.

    Rt

  32. #32 rimpal
    April 21, 2008

    So Kerry goes windsurfing – an elite sport. What about John Edwards, a marathoner and summiteer who climbed the Kilimanjaro with his late son? Is that elite? Oh no, but running or mountaineering needs great physical conditioning. That’s not a macho thing like quail hunting or driving a super-SUV. We get the idea.

  33. #33 Doha Damadola
    April 24, 2008

    Kerry an elitist! I don’t know. I think the Republicans just used that in a veiled way to attack Kerry’s wife. At the Democratic Convention, I can still hear the commentators talking disappointedly about Kerry not telling his story and not letting the public get to know him and his family. He might have been elitist, or he might not. I for one don’t know because I never got to know him that well. And the whole Swift Boat thing. Why didn’t he ever answer that? We should try to do better with Obama.