Let’s look past Hilary Clinton to think a bit about how this primary season unfolded. I think there’s something important about the votes that went her way.

First, yes, there were people who preferred Clinton for sound enough reasons: either they judged electability in her favor, or found some very specific aspect of her policy proposals preferable.

Her support from some professional and white-collar women don’t require much explanation. Clinton became a powerful surrogate for their own frustrations and a symbol of their achievements. At some point, all of us will support a candidate for this reason, because they’re someone with whom we personally identify. There’s also not much point in arguing with someone who strongly supports a candidate for this reason, any more than you can meaningfully disagree with someone’s sense of who they are.

What I think is important is Clinton’s support from white working-class voters. A lot has been made of the racial basis for this vote. That was certainly an aspect of this vote, and I’m still fairly disgusted with the way the Clinton campaign played knowingly to that logic at times. I think it’s a more complicated matter than than race, however.

I don’t think it was about policy, that somehow Clinton was offering a set of ideas or proposals that white working-class Democrats found especially appealling as an address to their problems. Nor do I think it was anything about Clinton’s personal presentation or image that made her especially appealing. Without Obama as a foil, I think Clinton would carry about as much appeal for such voters as John Kerry, Al Gore or Walter Mondale did, which is to say some but not a heck of a lot. It took Obama to make her into something other than a liberal policy wonk.

What I think we saw was the real red state, blue state divide burbling up once again. One of the tragic stupidities of the way we’ve talked about that divide in the last decade is to see it as a divide between the parties or between the religious and non-religious. It’s not Republicans and Democrats, or liberals and conservatives. Nor is there as much or as stark a divide as the image implies. What I do think is present is the peculiar architecture of social distinction in early 21st Century American society, a matrix that links geography, size of community, local political economy, and habitus.

It’s not so much that Hilary did anything positive or affirmative to make her the “beer track” candidate, but that the clear enthusiasm of the “wine track” for Obama drew a social agonistics towards her like lightning towards a metal pole. Obama’s bitterness comment, for all that it was both badly timed and baldly articulated, spoke to what was going on underneath the surface.

I’ve written about this before here, and I’ve learned that there are people who get very angry about the basic proposition that ex-industrial and rural American communities are peopled at least in part by folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave when life and opportunity went sour, as well as by people who believe that there is something authentically preferable and beautiful about the life they’ve found in small towns and old industrial cities. Like it or not, the fact of depopulation and migration is a fact. You can argue that it’s because the choice has been made for communities against their will, as a kind of slow economic or social violence, or that this is another form of creative destruction, inevitable and in the long run positive. But it has happened.

The cultural gap that magnifies the social fractures is also real, but it strikes me as being far more bridgeable. Much of the depth and width of that chasm comes from the behavior of economic and social elites, from a continuing lack of proportionality and perspective about our own hobbyhorses and preferences. We can have a lot of purple states, and a general booze track where wine and beer drinkers raise their glasses to one another in comity. The cost of that on both sides is putting aside much of the culture war as trivial and needlessly divisive, and recognizing that there may be a great many issues that fall under that heading, some of them substantive–for example, guns and gun control. Moreover, we shouldn’t think that putting aside the culture war solves anything about the real social cleavages that have given it so much energy.

That to me is part of what Obama means by the audacity of hope: that there should be another way to win office, represent Americans and lead the country than playing on the culture war fiddle while everything burns down. To me, the most distasteful thing about Clinton’s campaign is that I don’t think she started out with any intention to play that tune (indeed, as I see it, it once was anything but music to her campaign) but that when the opportunity came, she performed an enthusiastic jig and reel for the sake of one more day on the campaign trail.

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2 Responses to Pitstop

  1. hestal says:

    I wonder if the next five months will be spent rehashing the idea that Hillary Clinton is no good, and her husband is no good, and they are even worse as a pair.

    I wonder what will happen when Obama makes good on his promise that I hear him make one night on TV. He was talking about national health insurance. He said that he would bring the health insurance companies to a big table on CSpan. Then he said, with a facial expression that I would describe as a smirk, but others would describe as a beatific smile, that he would have the biggest chair at the table because he would be president. And the audience went wild. Then he said that he and the health insurance companies would start negotiating and would not stop until the problem was solved.

    What a load of horse hockey. If he is foolish enough to attempt such a thing those guys will eat him for lunch. The health insurance companies want national health insurance more than anybody else in the country, and they won’t stop until they get a program that is designed to their specifications. I don’t think Obama will be able to do anything about it.

    Obama reminds me of Jimmy Carter when he was running. He had a beatific grin, but it wasn’t long until he was dressed in his cardigan, hunkered down in the White House, and lecturing the nation on the “malaise” that was infecting the country.

    But Carter is long gone and now so is Hillary, so a really audacious, hopeful man would start getting down to the specifics and instead of telling us what his website says about the issues he would be responding to the questions that come from the People, including people who know something about things such as health insurance.

    But that ain’t gonna happen, because that is a little too audacious. The smart thing to do right now, in order to reach that lifelong goal of being king of the world, is to beat on the other guy by calling him “old,” and when he responds with some slur of his own, then call him “racist.” If your curve ball is working, keep throwing it, that’s what I always say.

  2. CJ says:

    You mention you’ve written about the topic of midwestern/rust-belt economic decline and the social consequences. I’m from the midwest and that topic has interested me ever since I left the midwest for college and grad school–where did you talk about it on this blog before? Do you have any recommended must-reads on the topic? I’m really interested in the idea that there’s a segment of the population that’s still there who are there because they wouldn’t or couldn’t leave–and why the ones who wouldn’t leave chose not to.

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