Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wilentz on the "elitism" of the Obama camp

In a different election year, under different circumstances, one would hope that this piece by historian Sean Wilentz would never have beeen written. Perhaps it was better left unsaid today. Read it in full, but know that it is basically an onslaught against the perceived "elitism" of the Obama camp, as well as a historical analysis, of a sort, of the importance of the white working class in Democratic Party victories.

Wilentz's obvious and celebrated historiographic credentials require no explanation. However, his deployment of his knowledge here seems to lack fairness and reasonableness (must be all that Rawls I've been reading). Not to put too fine a point on it, Wilentz is very selective in his amassing of evidence of Obama camp "dismissiveness." Everything he says about "the Obama campaign and its sympathizers" (many of whom, obviously, being in no way representative of the candidate's own views) could be cast back in the teeth of Clinton supporters. So a magazine said rural American towns are "shitholes." So an Obama supporter said "a vote for Hillary is a vote for whiteness." (In actual fact, the person in question did not say that: she said, "Hillary in a last ditch effort to clinch the nomination is spinning the election narrative to demonstrate her appeal to white Americans and to appeal to white Americans in staunch language which suggests that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for whiteness." If you can't read the difference, you are probably operating in bad faith.) One can find plenty of objectionable material at a place like Larry Johnson's No Quarter blog, but this should not be the point of electoral analysis.

One is never quite sure of Wilentz's presuppositions. It is one thing to write a column chiding one's political party for neglecting an important element of its electoral base. This position has the virtue of assuming that the Party would like to capture those votes but is currently failing to do so, unknowingly.

It is quite another thing to imply that the Party is willfully, maliciously excluding a portion of its historical base, seemingly for ideological reasons (e.g., "
the condescension with which many of Obama's supporters - and, apparently, the candidate himself - hold the crude 'low information' types whom they believe dominate the white working class," "[a sea-change] that has been coming since the late 1960s, when large portions of the Left began regarding white workers as hopeless and hateful reactionaries"). Could elite ideology itself really account for such a (purported) foolish neglect of a potential power base?

Neither does Wilentz bother to explain why white working-class voters appear to favor Clinton. He says, "They regard her as better on these issues. Obama's campaign and its passionate supporters refuse to acknowledge that these voters consider him weaker -- and that Clinton's positions, different from his, as well as her experience actually attract support." This is not an explanation, nor does it do nearly enough work in an argument that the differentia specifica of the candidates rests on the substantial issues and not on race. (Note also the extremely one-sided treatment by Wilentz of what he calls "the white working class," implying that this bloc has remained unchanged since the days of Jackson and presumably has the same interests and inflexible demands today.)

The Democratic Presidential nomination should come down to a one-time popular vote. As I have noted before, it regrettably does not, and the labyrinthine twistings and turnings of the process should make Democrats aware of its somewhat arbitrary outcomes. They should therefore be amenable and unbiased towards the winner, given that the contest is reasonably fair and close.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be happening. This combustible state of affairs is further stoked by partisans like Wilentz, who seem to be saying that white working-class voters have nothing to gain from an Obama presidency. (On the contrary, they have not only something to gain, but actually very much.) I find Wilentz's raw populism and parochialism distasteful (perhaps this is the "college-educated elite" in me talking), and I would dispute his out-of-hand rejection of "right-thinking affluent liberals and downtrodden minorities, especially African-Americans." As long as these groups can be incorporated into a party along with white working-class voters, who would complain of their mere existence? Who wouldn't want them in their coalition? The Democratic Party is (nominally) the party of progress, and much of the progress of the past half-century has been the politicization of previously unheard groups such as racial and cultural minorities, women, and students.

Thus, I think Wilentz actually does the "white working-class" a disservice when he implies that they do not and should not have to work with movements within the "new politics." In the absence of evidence that the Obama campaign is actively ignoring and distancing itself from working-class whites, Wilentz's critique downplays white working people's capacity for coalition-building, and it injects a further sense of sectarianism into what should be (o rare dream!) a movement of the dispossessed against the privileged few.


Blogger SusanUnPC said...

Please send me an e-mail -- susanunpc at gmail dot com

1:49 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

I think you've said it well. This idea of the Jacksonian white working class is a bit of an absurd category, as you point out. It's certainly more than useless to think about the continuities between Democrats and Republicans over the last 180 years--one needn't look hard for the various moments when Democrats were slaveholders and aristocratic "Bourbons" and Republicans (the party of fricking Abraham Lincoln and Robert La Follete) friends of the working class.

Wilentz uses and abuses history in more than one way here. To say the Democratic Party has been historically the party of the white working class is a bit deceiving in itself, as it neglects the fact that "whites" in Jackson's day were quite a different breed (er...nationality) of whites in FDR's day. The winning and lasting Democratic coalition Roosevelt built was one of predominately white *ethnics,* blacks, etc. Where Obama is having the most trouble, interestingly enough (and as Josh Marshall has pointed out on a couple of occasions) is not with the progeny of these white ethnics, but rather with Scotch-Irish descendants in Appalachia. While these folks might indeed be strong liberal Democrats, the evidence suggests that race (read: racism) *is* a factor in how they vote. Shouldn't we be making some further distinctions, then, between the white working class in Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois, etc. and those in Appalachia?

9:19 PM  

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