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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Bowled over by the straight talk express

    “”It’s not surprising that 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,”” Barack Obama said at a fundraiser in San Francisco April 6.

    Immediately, the comment was seized upon nervously by columnists and journalists everywhere; Salon.com’s Mike Madden even asserted that “”white working class voters … are key to November’s election, which means this won’t be the last you hear about bitter Pennsylvanians.””

    No one was happier than the increasingly desperate Clinton campaign, who called Obama’s remarks “”elitist.”” What Hillary Clinton failed to mention is that those remarks were absolutely true.

    Political scientists and operatives alike have long known just how effective wedge issues are in campaigns. The trifecta of “”God, guns and gays”” is both catchy and valuable, especially in distracting voters from their candidates’ other, more unsavory political goals. It’s how many politicians, whose economic politics are directly at odds with that of their constituents, get elected in the first place. For example, conservative, poor voters supported the Bush tax cuts in the early years of his presidency in droves, even though the cuts directly contradicted their own economic interests. They were presented extremely artfully, with most of the benefits to the middle and lower ends of the spectrum front-loaded and transparent, and the extraordinary benefits to the rich masked through delays. The cuts were sold expertly as overwhelmingly beneficial to regular folk, and the Bush administration was believed.

    A less sinister, but still valid, comparison is that of the cheaper-textbook proposals that crop up around Associated Students of the University of Arizona election time, despite the fact that ASUA’s biggest chunk of funding comes from the bookstore itself. ASUA, as the organization that represents student interests, ought to support less expensive textbooks and supplies, but there’s a real conflict of interest. In election after election, however, politicians big and small turn voters’ focus elsewhere, whether it is to proposals for healthier eating on campus, tax benefits that camouflage the benefits for the wealthy by falsely trumpeting the welfare of the poor or another issue entirely – gay marriage, abortion, the red-blue state divide itself. It happens in each election cycle, and it’s done with surprising ease.

    Obama was telling the truth at that fundraiser, and Sen. Clinton and just about every other political operative knows that. The obvious pleasure Clinton has taken in excoriating Obama for his remarks borders on the obscene, simply because he did not lie. Was it rude? Perhaps. Did it lack his usual rhetorical finesse? Absolutely. But in an election where the constant refrain is that the thing people most desire is change, how dare we get miffed when someone asks us to become better political thinkers? God forbid voters aren’t coddled, massaged and wooed in the same counterproductive, useless way they have been for years and years. As voters are unwilling to examine their own decision-making, politicians are afraid to do it for them. The result is an ossified electorate in which the status quo is king.

    Because of this kind of slavish devotion to vote-getting and cynical manipulation of voters’ emotions, voters are never asked to get smarter. Both approaches are rooted in childlike ignorance and self-interest, and produce elections in which people clamor for change without ever having to suffer the discomfort of challenging their own preconceptions.

    Sen. Obama, in reference to his remarks, later offered a non-apology apology. “”Now it may be that I chose my words badly. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last,”” he said to a group of steelworkers in Pennsylvania. People can take issue all they want with the way in which he said what he said – after all, parsing sound bites ad nauseum is a time-honored tradition in our super-sophisticated political discourse – but it will be a true shame if his remarks are written off entirely.

    In November 2004, people voted because they were scared. The economy was shaky, No Child Left Behind was a confirmed flop, but the reassuring Dad-figures in the White House told us firmly that if they were re-elected, they would keep us safe in their warm Republican embrace. In 2006, a National Intelligence Estimate stated unequivocally that the war in Iraq has fueled radicalism and left the world far less safe than before. In this election, all of us – working class and otherwise, Pennsylvanian and San Franciscan – need to assert ourselves as adults and confront these ugly political realities, instead of luxuriating in the passivity that has given us two disastrous Bush terms in office. We can, and should, force politicians to start thinking of their constituents as people worthy of being challenged, rather than walking on eggshells so as to preserve our bubble of optimism, even as everything crumbles around us.

    Sarah Devlin is a sophomore majoring in English and political science. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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