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What Underlies Obama's Analysis of "The People"

The controversy over Senator Barack Obama’s remarks about “bitterness” in small town Pennsylvania will bring back memories to anyone who has studied social and political movements during the past half century. Asked on April 6 why his candidacy had failed to catch fire among voters in such places, Obama responded that the “jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And it’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people not like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Obama’s second sentence calls to mind the ways in which “consensus” historians and “pluralist” social theorists fifty years ago interpreted the behavior of angry Americans, especially residents of rural areas and small towns. Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer and (following their lead) many less well-known scholars attributed middle American anger to anomie, alienation, cultural lag, status anxiety, and/or a psychological “paranoid style.” In its heyday, which lasted from roughly 1955 to 1975, this intellectual orthodoxy served as a default explanation of anyone who shunned pragmatic wheeling-and-dealing in favor of allegedly pointless symbolic politics. The typical list of outsiders and long run losers included the Federalist party, the Whig party, the Populist party, the Ku Klux Klan, Coughlinites, McCarthyites, Goldwaterites, and post-World War II evangelical Protestants (who were supposed to have faded into oblivion after the Scopes monkey trial). On the other side of the congealing right-center-left spectrum, essentially the same social-psychological defects were said to motivate Communists, Popular Front liberals and “sixties” campus radicals.

Consensus-pluralist theory was partly a reaction against the previous orthodoxy—a buoyant celebration of “the people” that dominated the Great Depression. According to that era’s default explanation of social change, “the people” were innately progressive, practical, and heroic. As C. Vann Woodward rightly noted in an early critique, the consensus-pluralist orthodoxy reflected the intellectuals’ post-World War II disenchantment with “the people.” Often repentant radicals, they concluded in retrospect that “the people” weren’t very wise after all. On the contrary, at any moment they might turn into totalitarian “mass men.”

Numerous critiques of the consensus-pluralist orthodoxy have appeared since the sixties, including a few by me (especially in the book noted in my bio line at the top of this article). There were three debilitating problems with this theory. First, it tended to be reductionist. Church attendance, ethnic solidarity, and other allegedly atavistic behavior were typically dismissed as social-psychological symptoms devoid of any sensible rationale. Second, consensus historians and pluralist social theorists rarely applied their critique in even handed fashion. Thus the revolutionary rhetoric of scruffy campus radicals in the sixties was attributed to student status anxiety while the claim by distinguished scholars that these kids resembled the Hitler Youth of the Weimar Republic was considered an insightful analogy. Third, the arbitrary distinction between rational interest politics and irrational status or cultural politics would surprise anyone who ever won an election or led a successful popular movement.

Despite these defects, the best pluralist and consensus thinkers advanced our understanding of how “the people” act beyond the clichés dominant during the Great Depression. With the possible exception of the most extreme “rational expectations” economists, few scholars would now dismiss out of hand all social-psychological explanations of church-going, deer hunting, or general grumbling by unemployed auto workers or status anxious academics. Since popular psychology in its self-help idiom has thrived in the United States for more than a century, most of “the people” themselves might (depending on their mood) be open to explanations of their own behavior that go beyond attributions of innate wisdom, altruism, and heroism. Accordingly, there is nothing exceptional about Obama’s April 6 comments except that they came from a presidential candidate.

To be sure that is a big except. For the past several days, therefore, Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton have been dueling about the implication of his words in interviews, speeches, and parallel appearances on a CNN “Compassion Forum.” Guns appeared here and there in this controversy but the central theme has been the connection between religion and “the people.”

Senator Clinton claimed to infer from Obama’s April 6 remarks that he is “elitist and out of touch” with American “values and beliefs.” Small town Pennsylvanians, she added, “do not need a “president who looks down on them.” Not only were Obama’s words offensive, but the place he uttered them was also suspect: “a closed door fund raiser in San Francisco.” Although Clinton fondly mentioned hunting trips with her father, she focused on lessons learned growing up in a “church-going family.” Emphasizing Obama’s most politically incorrect words, Clinton declared, “The people of faith I know don’t cling to religion because they are bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor but because they are spiritually rich.”

In response Obama mixed a low key counter attack with a clarification of his message, the same tactics he used on March 18 to defend his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In this case the low key counter attack poked fun at Clinton’s references to hunting; she was “talking like she’s Annie Oakley.” As to the alleged elitism of his April 6 remarks, he had merely said “something everybody knows is true.” There are a “whole bunch of folks in small towns . . . who are bitter” as a result of an economic decline. In such circumstances, “you turn to what you can count on,” Obama said. For many men and women, this meant voting “about guns” or taking “comfort from their faith and their family and their community.” This behavior was “natural.”

Meanwhile, the mainstream news media have played their usual giddy and obtuse role in escalating the controversy. The worst single comment came from Michael Gerson, an evangelical former speech writer for President Bush. Speaking on CNN after the “Compassion Forum,” Gerson accused Obama of “crude academic Marxism.” Has Gerson really never encountered un-crude social and psychological interpretations of religious practice—for example, Max Weberism, William Jamesism, or H. Richard Niebuhrism?

What can we learn from this stump speech version of the venerable intellectual debate about “the people?” What does it show about the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates and their understanding of the country they want to lead?

Although Senator Clinton has undoubtedly encountered Max Weberism, William Jamesism, and perhaps even H. Richard Niebuhrism, Obama’s off-the-cuff social psychology of religion may well have offended her. By all accounts, she has been a serious Methodist social gospeler since adolescence. Unlike many social gospelers, she feels the presence of a transcendent God in her daily life.

Obama calls himself a “devout Christian” and—alas, this needs to be stressed--there is no reason to doubt this self-description. Yet, perhaps because he embraced Christianity as an adult, his faith looks much more cerebral than Senator Clinton’s. Like Jimmy Carter, Obama has absorbed the central ideas of “Christian realist” Reinhold Niebuhr (H. Richard’s equally smart brother). It is hardly surprising, then, that a social-psychological explanation of religious (and other) behavior comes easily to him.

Obama’s background yields no automatic affinity with small town America or with the broader white working class (which is now enjoying perhaps its brightest moment in the political sun since Richard Nixon conceptualized the “silent majority” in 1969). Even so, Obama is no latter-day version of the condescending consensus-pluralist theorists. He neither reduces the behavior of “bitter” Americans to psychological symptoms nor regards their “symbolic politics” of guns and God as unrelated to their economic circumstances. In reiterating “what everybody knows is true,” Obama shows a respect for voters unusual among candidates with a chance to win. He believes that “the people” can accept embarrassing truths at least some of the time.

In a curious way Senator Clinton shares more common ground than Obama with the condescending consensus-pluralist theorists. However much Clinton may be personally offended by Obama’s ad hoc social psychology of religion, she is also pursuing a strategy to gain votes. Perhaps, as Hofstadter, Bell, Lipset, Glazer, and others argued a half century ago, “the people” can be induced to oppose a candidate because his words injure their self-esteem.

As for what “the people” themselves think, we shall see.