Sunday, April 13, 2008


“Late Friday evening, the Indiana Republican Party accused Mr. Obama of belittling ‘Midwestern values.’” Barack’s sin: in response to a question at a fundraiser in San Francisco, he noted that those white, working-class voters who have been left behind in the Bush and Clinton years have been embittered by their experiences.

There are two parts to Obama's comment: the first that Rustbelters are bitter, the second that their bitterness has attracted them to the divisive cultural politics.

“So it’s not surprising then 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,” stated Obama.

Hillary’s response: “It’s being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter: well that’s not my experience.” Well maybe if Hillary actually took a few minutes to talk to some Rustbelt voters rather than pretending to be one by dusting off old pictures of her parents’ summer cottage near Scranton, telling us that her father taught her how to use a gun, or donning her bowling shoes and pretending to enjoy the Reagan Democrats’ sport of choice, she’d think differently. But then again, pulling in over a hundred million dollars in household income over the last several years and living in Chappaqua, the land of hedge fund managers and deer-proof shrubbery, doesn’t exactly put you in touch with the working-class and their resentments.

I’m loathe to besmirch the reputation of Hubert H. Humphrey by comparing him to Hillary, but it sounds to me like she’s resurrecting his hapless 1968 slogan: “The Politics of Joy.”

And John McCain, tribune of the Rustbelt working-class? Steven Schmidt, McCain’s senior advisor, accuses Obama of “an elitism and condescension toward hard-working Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking.” That from the spokesman of a candidate who blames the home foreclosure crisis on personal irresponsibility rather than on predatory lenders. The very premise of G.O.P. social policy for the last forty years has been to blame poverty on the poor, unemployment on the unemployed, and hardship on the hard-hit.

My friend Liz, who, in her capacity as a policy advocate and organizer, has been to more small and mid-sized Pennsylvania towns than Obama, Clinton, and McCain combined, tells me that Obama's diagnosis of bitterness is "truthy," even if she concurs that it was not particularly artful.

Putting the issue more more artfully is Lancaster, Pennsylvania mayor Rick Gray. “I don’t think he’s demeaning religion or guns,” Mr. Gray said. “He’s saying the use of those issues as wedge issues plays on the bitterness that people have and diverts attention from the real economic issues, like the disparity between the wage earner and the rich.” Amen.

By nearly every measure, working-class Midwesterners and Pennsylvanians, black and white, have been left behind for the last thirty years. They were failed by Clinton and Bush administration policies that allowed major corporations tax breaks for sheltering their money in offshore havens. They were stiffed by a wild-West subprime mortgage market whose collapse has forced many blue-collar homeowners into foreclosure. They lived in places that have been ravaged by sixty years of systematic federal disinvestment. They were left behind by the Republican evisceration of labor laws that once protected the rights of workers to organize. They have watched their wages have stagnated, as their pensions and benefits have been cut, and as their once decent jobs have been replaced by McJobs.

And the hits are coming especially hard this year. Check out the three maps above from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economy is tanking everywhere, but has been hitting the Rustbelt particularly hard, as the first map shows. The second two maps, of Pennsylvania, give a good sense of the geography of bitterness. The second shows current unemployment rates by county in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia is the dark blue spot in the right hand corner. The dark blue arc passing through the left hand third of the state corresponds to Pennsylvania's real Rustbelt, the old mill towns, steel manufacturing centers, and coal mining communities that have been laid waste by decades of disinvestment, places like Johnstown and Altoona. To the far Northeast (the upper right) are the exurban counties about two hours west of New York City whose residents are catching pneumonia from New York's sneeze. And to the far left (geographically, not politically) are the counties that border down-and-out Ohio. The third map shows 12 month trends in unemployment rates. A few counties excepted, most of Pennsylvania has seen unemployment rise steadily in the last year.

An even more revealing indicator of economic distress is rising joblessness--not to be confused with unemployment. The unemployed are actively seeking work. The jobless are no longer attached to the formal labor market, as either workers or jobseekers. Unfortunately, I don't have maps of joblessness by state or county, but the aggregate trends are not heartening.

As the Times reports in an important article buried in Saturday's business section,:

In the latest report, for March, the Labor Department reported the jobless rate — also called the “not employed rate” by some — at 13.1 percent for men in the prime age group. Only once during a post-World War II recession did the rate ever get that high. It hit 13.3 percent in June 1982, the 12th month of the brutal 1981-82 recession, and continued to rise from there.

It is noteworthy that white men are particularly vulnerable to joblessness this year.

The government breaks down the figures by race, and those figures show that over the last year almost all the jobs lost by men in the 25 to 54 age group have been lost by whites, with most of those losses affecting men ages 35 to 44. There have been just a small number of losses by black men in the 25 to 54 age group, and employment for Hispanic men is still growing, albeit at a much slower pace than it was a few months ago.

Good reason to be bitter.


David said...

Great blog, but quit picking on Ohio. At least it isn't Michigan. SW Ohio is doing alright (Cincy and Columbus).

Tom S said...

Sorry, David. I'm actually quite fond of Ohio and spend a lot of time in the Buckeye State. A few of my faves: pierogies in Youngstown, the West Side Market in Cleveland, the National Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid, and the Weltzheimer/ Johnson House in Oberlin. Props to your state... Tom S

Emily said...

Don't forget Dayton in SW Ohio, David! We're not doing so well at the moment...

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