Ezra Klein recently interviewed Barack Obama on his New York Times sponsored podcast, and as you might imagine, Obama had a number of intriguing things to say about the hardening of political polarization, the backlash spurred by efforts to come to terms with the country’s racial history, and the structural advantages Republicans enjoy thanks to the composition of the Senate and the Electoral College. But here was the observation–and the question that elicited it– that struck me as a “dead on” explanation of American divisions right now.
Klein: In 2012, you won noncollege whites making less than $27,000 a year. Donald Trump then won them by more than 20 points. He kept them in 2020. What advice do you have to Democrats to bring educational polarization back down?
Obama: I actually think Joe Biden’s got good instincts on this. If you’re 45, and working in a blue collar job, and somebody is lecturing me about becoming a computer programmer, that feels like something got spit out of some think tank as opposed to how my real life is lived.
People knew I was left on issues like race, or gender equality, and L.G.B.T.Q. issues and so forth. But I think maybe the reason I was successful campaigning in downstate Illinois, or Iowa, or places like that is they never felt as if I was condemning them for not having gotten to the politically correct answer quick enough, or that somehow they were morally suspect because they had grown up with and believed more traditional values.
The challenge is when I started running in 2007-2008, it was still possible for me to go into a small town, in a disproportionately white conservative town in rural America, and get a fair hearing because people just hadn’t heard of me. They might say what kind of name is that? They might look at me and have a set of assumptions. But the filter just wasn’t that thick.
The prototypical example is I show up in a small town in Southern Illinois, which is closer to the South than it is to Chicago, both culturally as well as geographically. And usually, the local paper was owned by a modestly conservative, maybe even quite conservative usually, guy. He’d call me in. We’d have a cup of coffee. We’d have a conversation about tax policy, or trade, or whatever else he cared about. And at the end of it, usually I could expect some sort of story in the paper saying, well, we met with Obama. He seems like an intelligent young man. We don’t agree with him on much. He’s kind of liberal for our taste, but he had some interesting ideas. And you know, that was it.
So then I could go to the fish fry, or the V.F.W. hall, or all these other venues, and just talk to people. And they didn’t have any preconceptions about what I believed. They could just take me at face value. If I went into those same places now — or if any Democrat who’s campaigning goes in those places now — almost all news is from either Fox News, Sinclair news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page. And trying to penetrate that is really difficult.
They didn’t have any preconceptions about what I believed. That’s what has changed–thanks largely, as Obama notes, to the rightwing media ecosystem.
Self-identified “conservatives” (whose definition of “conservative” is increasingly limited to protecting White Christian privilege) think they know what “liberalism” is–it’s “woke” and supercilious, and its adherents are entitled globalists who sneer at them. Pointing out their misuse of terms like “socialist” or their misconceptions about “cancel culture” or their wildly inaccurate criticisms of Critical Race Theory only confirms that image.
The result is that the only coherent “policy” these folks exhibit is more an attitude than a position–they just want to “own the libs.” They just want to get a rise out of the people they believe are sneering at them. What is ironic is that the “libs” are overwhelmingly the ones counseling mutual understanding and recommending “reaching out”…but people who have internalized grievance have long since abandoned considering evidence contrary to those grievances.
The question, of course, is the same one I keep posing: What do we do? I will readily admit that–beyond working our tails off to keep these people out of power– I have no idea.
It’s clear that we are past the point where acting on well-meaning but tone-deaf pieties about “inviting dialogue” and trying to “understand their perspective” will ameliorate the resentment–or modify the racism that in most cases has generated it.
I strongly recommend clicking through and reading the entire transcript. It’s depressing, but enlightening. (And no, it doesn’t answer my question…)