Sun, 04/13/2008—I haven’t lived in rural Pennsylvania or in rural Indiana, but I have lived in rural upstate New York, in towns where there are so few Democrats that on some local election ballots, not a single position, from town council to justice of the peace, has a contest. As in China, your option is to vote for the Republican candidate, or to leave that line blank.
And many of the people in these towns, uniformly white, when they talk politics, spend a lot of their time complaining about black people, immigrants (neither of whom can even be found in the vicinity) and the threat to their guns.
Barack Obama is exactly right.
In Hancock, NY and Spencer, NY, there are no factory jobs. There used to be in Hancock, but the companies where people used to work have long since folded or moved south of the border, courtesy of the North American Free Trade Act promoted by Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1990s. In Spencer, there are no jobs because in the free-for-all bidding by companies for tax giveaways between communities, Spencer had nothing much to offer. The town is so dirt poor that when the library board, of which I was briefly president, got a measure on the ballot to have one extra dollar per taxpayer of school district taxes allocated to support the local little library, which was at that time totally supported by donations, the measure went down to resounding defeat (I was labeled a communist by some for promoting the idea!).
In 1992, neighbors in Spencer told me they were voting for George H. W. Bush—a patrician blue blood if ever there was one—because Bill Clinton, if elected “would take away our guns.”
Of course, he didn’t, and had no intention of doing so, but that didn’t matter.
Don’t get me wrong—the people in Hancock and Spencer are good folks. I'm pretty sure many of them probably give a higher proportion of their meager incomes to charity than do millionaires John McCain and Hillary Clinton. But Obama is right that in their angst and frustration at seeing the good economic times pass them by, at seeing themselves abandoned by the federal government in hard times, and at seeing candidates promise them everything during campaigns, only to ignore them after winning, they are bitter and frustrated.
And they have a right to be, and they should be.
One response to that bitterness and frustration is that they are open to the charlatans in both parties, and especially the Republican Party who have played on their basest fears. It’s Republicans who have whispered the poison in their ears that their high taxes are because “the Blacks” are getting all that welfare money and are getting all the jobs through “quotas.” It's the Republicans who have warned them about "hoards" of Mexicans coming across the border to steal their jobs. It’s the Republicans who have been warning them that Democrats are going to take their hunting rifles and shotguns away. It’s the Republicans and their Christian fundamentalist front men who have been saying that the Democrats have been causing the nation’s decline by supporting licentiousness and a “gay” agenda. And it's Republicans and Democrats who have been hyping the bogus issue of national defense to keep people from focussing on the deliberate dismantling of the US economy that is underway. (Over years of Republican and Democratic administrations, the tax contribution of US corporations to the national budget has fallen from 50% in 1940 to just 14% today. Between 1996 and 2000, 61% of all corporations and 39% of large corporations paid no taxes at all, and that situation has only gotten worse in the Bush years.)
Anything but the real issue, which is how to provide funds so that the children in places like Spencer and Hancock can get a decent education without bankrupting the local taxpayers, how those communities can get jobs again, so that their children won’t have to move out, how to ensure that everyone in town can have health insurance and access to medical care.
Barack Obama is right. I've seen it in person. The people in rural America are bitter and frustrated, and after years of being played by politicians, they fall victim to the charlatans who tell them it’s all because of “the Blacks,” or the immigrants, or who tell them that their guns are in danger. Or they turn to religions that preach division or apocalypse—a concept that offers the chance of a final, delicious revenge against the rich and the powerful oppressors on Wall Street and in Washington.
Now I don’t know what Obama has in mind to try and turn things around for these good people, but it’s a start that he’s at least talking to them not down, but honestly.
His talk in response to attacks on his statement about rural residents being “bitter and frustrated” is as good as anything Ralph Nader has said about the power and mendacity of the ruling political elite in America.
As he put it, to wild applause at a rally in Terra Haute, Indiana, explaining the difficulty of appealing to the rural working class voters in Pennsylvania:
“For the last 25 years they’ve seen jobs shift overseas, they’ve seen their economies collapse, they have lost their jobs, they’ve lost their pensions, they’ve lost their health care. And for 25-30 years, Democrats and Republicans have come before then and said we’re gonna make your community better. We’re gonna make it right.
“And nothing ever happens. And of course they’re bitter, and of course they’re frustrated. You would be too, in fact many of you are. Because the same thing has happened here in Indiana. The same thing has happened across the border in Decatur. (Wild applause) The same thing has happened across the country. Nobody’s looking out for you. Nobody is thinking about you.
“And so people end up, they don’t vote on economic issues, because they don’t expect anybody’s gonna help them. So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns—you know are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. You know, they, they take refuge in their faith, and their communities, their families—things they can count on. But they don’t believe they can count on Washington.
“So here’s what’s rich. Sen. Clinton says, `Well I don’t think people are bitter in Pennsylvania. You know I think Barack’s being condescending.’ And John McCain says, `Oh how can he say that? How can he say that people are bitter? You know he obviously is out of touch with the...’”
“Out of touch? Out of touch! I mean, John McCain, it took him three tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he’s saying I’m out of touch?”
“Sen. Clinton voted for a credit card-sponsored bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to get out of debt, after taking money from the financial services companies and she says I’m out of touch?
“No, I’m in touch. I know exactly what’s going on. I know what’s going on in Pennsylvania, I know what’s going on in Indiana. I know what’s going on in Illinois. (Standing ovation) People are fed up! They’re angry, and they’re frustrated and they’re bitter and they want to see a change in Washington, and that’s why I’m running for president of the United States of America!”
Now who knows whether this is all talk too. Maybe Obama is just one more political charlatan.
What is clear though is that this was a speech that we have not heard from a Democratic politician for decades, and it sure sounded good to hear it.
If Obama sticks to this rhetorical approach in the coming weeks, he will nail this nomination in spite of a concerted attack on him by the corporate media and by the combined forces of the Clintons and McCain.
And if he does win the nomination, and resists the siren calls of the Democratic Party leadership to “move to the middle,” and instead hones this populist message, he will go on to win the presidency.
That’s when the real challenge will come, for an aroused citizenry, in those rural communities and in the larger cities across that nation, to make a President Obama and a Democratic Congress deliver on these words.
For now, they’re pretty powerful words, and just hearing them coming from a Democratic Party frontrunner is an exciting change.
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This story was published on April 14, 2008.