Admittedly, Obama’s wording about working class Pennsylvanians was less than ideal. What’s interested me though is not so much his words, but the intensity of the reaction to them. What explains it? It’s not enough to cite “Kinsley Gaffe.” Even assuming he imprudently said what he really thinks (i.e., a Category II Kinsley), the follow-up question is why this particular belief would trigger such an intense backlash. One obvious reason is that it’s an obnoxious way to word his point. The less obvious one, though, is rooted in so-called “liberal self-hatred.”
The best way to understand this phenomenon is to return to the run-up to the Iraq War. Near the beginning of Heads in the Sand, Yglesias spends some time discussing the curious tendency of respected, liberal foreign policy voices to spend their scarce time bashing extreme marginal left-wing views (either imaginary or Ward Churchill-esque). I haven’t read much, so he may go on to explain why anti-war liberals spent so much time attacking the extreme left rather than the imminent war. My theory, though, is that the focus on the margins illustrates liberal guilt and inferiority.
More specifically, I think far too many liberals — particularly those in positions with political or journalistic influence — have deeply internalized conservative criticisms. I suppose these criticisms go back a long way (e.g., Adlai Stevenson), but they seem to have gained greater resonance in the past twenty-five years or so with the rise of Reagan and the 1994 election.
As a result, far too many liberals — particularly circa 2002-03 — had internalized the view that they were snobby, that they were elitist, that they were too anti-religion, or that they were insufficiently patriotic in the eyes of the American public. It’s not so much that they actually were any of these things (at least in any great number). It’s that they feared (deeply feared) being perceived in this way by the American public. To borrow from Dylan, a lot of issues came and went, but the Great Dirty Hippie never escaped their mind.
This curious self-loathing — the shame and guilt associated with perfectly valid and moral views — explains the rush to “condemn the marginal” in the lead up to war. It’s quite telling that, as the country marched off to a horribly misguided war, many liberal skeptics were more concerned with clarifying that they were not mindlessly liberal hippie pacifists. In doing so, they gave considerable political cover to the war advocates.
But the Iraq War is merely one example. Liberal self-loathing is evident in a number of contexts. In fact, you might consider it the theoretical foundation of the “Wanker of the Day.” To me, what truly makes one a wanker is when you care more about avoiding perceptions of hippie-ness than about the substance and politics of the underlying issue.
The 2005 Social Security debate provides another great example of this dynamic. What infuriated me about the media coverage was the rampant wankerousness. I got the sense that individual journalists and pundits — particularly Tim Russert — cared more about proving their non-hippie bona fides than about the substance of an extremely reckless proposed change to the most successful, efficient government program in American history. Rather than looking closely how many people depend upon the Social Security system, they chose to draw a line in the sand and say “here is where I’ll prove I’m not a wild liberal.” In doing so, and similarly to Iraq, people like Russert put the burden of proof on Democrats to explain what (unnecessary) changes they would propose.
Turning back to Obama, this same dynamic explains the intense reaction to his words. Among liberals, there’s this ever-present fear that Obama — record-setting, charismatic Obama — is always teetering on the edge of collapse. To you, I say “chill out.” He’s a tough, resilient candidate as he’s shown again and again. But among always-nervous guilty liberals, Obama’s inartful wording portends not merely a bad press cycle or two, but electoral collapse because it fulfills the elitist stereotypes they live in mortal terror of.
Among conservatives, Obama’s words provide a pretext to hammer him using the “elitist” narrative that has worked so marvelously over the years. Sure, some conservatives were genuinely and sincerely upset. But most just smelled the opportunity to use their weapon of choice. And the reason that weapon often works is because it’s abundantly clear that liberals are affected by it. In short, conservatives can smell the fear. And so when liberal candidates (or anyone) obsequiously beg for forgiveness for, say, enjoying steamed milk and espresso, it simply reinforces the efficacy of this line of attack. For this reason, the more one tries to avoid looking too liberal, the more one will -- ironically enough -- be subject to the attacks. The fear invites future attacks.
That’s why the correct tactic is precisely what Obama is doing — running with his words and even counter-attacking with them. The substance of the words isn’t really the point. What he said was inartfully worded, but it was hardly a dismissal of religion. He was, to me, explaining why economically distressed communities tend to emphasize these particular issues.
Anyway, the larger point is to avoid looking weak — to avoid putting blood in the water. The press, I’m sure, expected to follow Obama around this week getting him to apologize fifty times. Instead, he just reemphasized those very words in a somewhat different way without running from them.
The initial reaction to Obama’s words was that the gaffe shows his weakness as a candidate. His counter-attack, however, shows just the opposite.