Monday, April 14, 2008

Obama and the Hutterites

Way back in the winter of 1982 I took Sociology 101 at Beloit College. The professor was a kindly, somewhat detached fellow who spent the first few weeks of the course talking about an obscure Anabaptist sect called the Hutterites, describing their social structure, mores, religious beliefs and history. We learned a lot about the Hutterites during those few weeks, but what the professor was really doing was teaching us how social scientists, especially sociologists, look at groups of people. The presentation he gave was dispassionate, even clinical.

Like many college freshmen, it didn't immediately occur to me that perhaps something was missing in the presentation I was receiving in that lecture hall. When I went home for the summer, outside of the academic bubble, I thought more about what I'd learned and started to realize that something was missing. What was missing? The actual voice of the Hutterites themselves. What would a Hutterite say about what I'd learned? Did I understand their history, their world-view, their prospects as well as I thought? Or was I missing something?

As I've tried to make sense of the furor involving Barack Obama's now-famous statements about blue-collar Pennsylvanians, I've been thinking about the Hutterites. It's long been clear that Sen. Obama tends to affect a professorial style; of all the politicians who have recently trod the national stage, he has been the most didactic. I get the impression that he's always in teaching mode. I think this is one reason why he has been so wildly popular in certain highly educated circles.

Obama's presentation of the matter, like what I heard in that lecture hall, hangs together pretty well as long as you accept the central premise - that by looking at the data that social scientists consider, you can understand large groups of people. And certainly there's a lot of truth in that. While we are all individuals, as we aggregate together we tend to follow certain patterns. Sociologists, demographers and pollsters understand these things quite well and I sense that Sen. Obama's circle contains many people who view the world that way.

As anyone who has spent much time analyzing data comes to understand, the big question is the simple one: do the data really mean what they appear to mean? Or do we tend to put filters on the data and come up with false conclusions?

My sense is that Sen. Obama hasn't really heard the voices of the people he so clinically described in his San Francisco remarks. If he really understood the way blue collar Pennsylvanians live their lives, he wouldn't have said anything like what came out of his mouth that day.

I've seen Obama described as arrogant, hubristic, patronizing, disdainful and elitist in recent days. All of those things may be true. But what I really sense is this: while Obama's knowledge and intelligence may be vast, his understanding is not. Just as Hillary Clinton is famous for undertaking listening tours where she does all the talking, Obama may have listened to the voices of the people he purports to explain and hopes to serve. But I don't think he's really heard them. If he really hears the people his campaign may survive. But if he continues to view people in the same detailed yet ultimately unsatisfactory way that I was taught to think about the Hutterites, he won't. Nor will he deserve to.
Cross-posted at True North


Gino said...

you explained much of the issue i have with people of education, generally.

my 'education' ended, for the most part, in high school.
but when i hear these ivy league types talk about stuff, i cant help but recognize just how stupid and unknowledgable they really are.
speaking in an educated voice doesnt mean you are so smart. it just means you are educated, and the two terms are not self inclusive.
usually, the opposite is true.

its amazing, isn't it, that the only people who cant see what was wrong with the kelo decision were the harvard educated ones?

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with your sentiments. Especially on Kelo. It absolutely boggles my mind that ANYONE could agree with that decision. If I were an attorney that had been tasked with advancing that argument, I think I would have had to recuse myself.

This is just my opinion, but I really think you are reading an awful lot into what was, from all accounts, a side comment that was given in response to a pointed question. Obama's answer was a bad one, and he has (and should) definitely pay a price for saying it. Furthermore, the Right is correct to jump on it, and make as much political hay as possible. But I don't think he is that far off the mark with what he said, and I think you overreaching here.

You and I both know that he was talking about how wedge issues have been used to sway voters to vote against their own interests. If you don't believe that to be the case, I don't think you have been paying attention to American politics for the last 30 years. We both live in the Rust Belt, and have done so our entire lives. This is all anecdotal, but as you know, I live on the South Side of Chicago. Almost all of my friends are well informed, blue-collar, pro-union and are not college educated. All are Catholic and about half attend church regularly. Two of my closest friends have kids in Iraq, and my best friend has a little sister who he is raising in Iraq. He is also about to lose his trucking business and possibly his home, because of the downturn in the economy, the cost of fuel, and teh fact that he got himself talked into a bad mortgage by a shady mortgage broker he used to drink with. These are guys are all classic Reagan Democrats. They all voted for Bush in 2000, and about half of them did in 2004. They are all planning to vote for the Dem nominee later this year, and they are all quite pissed off right now. About Iraq, their 401Ks, mortgages, Bush, the state of labor unions, etc. And they collectively talk about how stupid they were to fall for crap like banning gay marriage, abortion, WMDs, etc. I am also hearing a lot of the same at AA meetings. So when you say you don't see any anger or bitterness in the electorate right now, I am not sure where you are looking or who you are talking to. I would also point out that, while this may be preliminary, "Bittergate" doesn't seem to have much legs. Since last Saturday, Obama's numbers vis-a-vis Clinton haven't moved much, in spite of the inordinate focus on what he said.
Please note that I am not saying your incorrect, I am just saying that I am not getting the same vibe from the vox populi that you are.


Mark Heuring said...

Let's make it unanimous on Kelo, which goes down in infamy with Plessy v. Ferguson as one of the worst decisions in Court history. As much as I hate Roe, I can at least understand the premise on which it was decided. Kelo simply ignores the Bill of Rights.

We have to begin at the beginning for the rest. You clearly accept the Thomas Frank "What's the matter with Kansas" premise, Rich. I don't. While governments can certainly affect the wealth creation process, politicians aren't really able to move the needle on the overall economy that much. I've lost jobs twice in the past five years; I have it on very good authority that George W. Bush did not ask Target to reorganize their operations team and get rid of several executives (including yours truly), nor did W. demand that Bank of America close their Minnesota offices and move operations to Oregon. Nor did George W. Bush tell your friend to make a bad mortgage or cause a downturn in the economy. As I recall, the business cycle happens irrespective of the occupant of the White House.

And you'll have to show me where I said that I don't see any anger or bitterness in the electorate. What I've said is that there's no reason to believe that things are going to change much if Obama becomes president. And I've spent most of the time talking about the assumptions that underlie Obama's comments, which are the same assumptions that Kerry, Dukakis, McGovern and even Adlai Stevenson had. The only Democrats who have been elected president in the last 40 years have been the ones who have kept those assumptions to themselves.

And if you look at the polling, the numbers have moved. Clinton has picked up 5 points in Pennsylvania in the last few days and is now comfortably back in the lead there.