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.