"bitter" voters

I've been very disappointed by the press coverage of the recent brouhaha surrounding Obama calling certain voters bitter. When Obama's obviously extemporaneous remarks are interpreted in context it is abundantly clear that there is nothing to get worked up about. Here's what he said in San Francisco:
So, it depends on where you are, but I think it's fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people are most cynical about government. The people are mis-appre...they're misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this contest have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to 'white working-class don't wanna work -- don't wanna vote for the black guy.' That's...there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today - kind of implies that it's sort of a race thing.

Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long. They feel so betrayed by government that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism.

But -- so the questions you're most likely to get about me, 'Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What is the concrete thing?' What they wanna hear is so we'll give you talking points about what we're proposing -- to close tax loopholes, uh you know uh roll back the tax cuts for the top 1%, Obama's gonna give tax breaks to uh middle-class folks and we're gonna provide healthcare for every American.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you'll find is, is that people of every background -- there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you'll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I'd be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you're doing what you're doing.

Obama subsequently clarified his intent speaking in Indiana:
People don't vote on economic issues because they don't expect anybody is going to help them. So people end up voting on issues like guns and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. They take refuge in their faith and their community, and their family, and the things they can count on. But they don't believe they can count on Washington.

What should be clear from these quotes is that Obama was saying that "working-class white voters" are rational, just not in the way many expected. Obama recognizes that this demographic has often voted on values rather than on economic issues. Rather than explaining their behavior in a way that makes it out to be irrational -- by attributing it to religious persuasion, intellectual deficit, or (in this election) racial bias -- Obama explains their behavior on the basis of a pessimistic induction about politician's campaign promises: "Many times before politicians have made campaign promises to improve our economic situation but have not delivered, so when a politician next makes a campaign promise to improve our economic situation we will not expect them to be upheld and consequently will not vote on the basis of that expectation; rather we will vote on the basis of a candidates values which we have better reason to think will be maintained." Much like behavioral economists, with whose work he is reported to be familiar, Obama is seeking rational explanations for seemingly irrational behavior, and attempting to transform those rational explanations into concrete (electoral) gains.

So there you have it, according to his opponents and many in the media, Obama has "insulted" voters by making them out to be rational!


Blogger rebecca said...

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21 September, 2008 23:04  

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