Monday, May 19, 2008

The ignorance of poverty and the poverty of ignorance

Hillary Clinton was very proud of her big primary win in West Virginia, especially her very high support among what she called "hard working Americans, white Americans" (and no, I don't think this was some sort of slip of the tongue, I think she was just revealing her true thinking to us--more below.) Hillary is expected to win big in Kentucky on Tuesday, and I am sure that once again she will tell us how "proud" she is of that victory.

Frankly, I don't think she should be so proud of winning big in two states with the highest levels of ignorance in the nation. Now, when I say ignorance, I don't mean that the white working people of West Virginia and Kentucky lack knowledge and wisdom about what it is to be poor and to struggle to make a living all one's life. In those departments, working class people of all colors generally know more and have a better understanding than middle and upper class folks, and maybe even have fewer illusions about government and the capitalist system (these are all generalizations, of course, and even stereotypes, but they serve a purpose in making the point.)

Yet when it comes to understanding what is going on in the world outside and beyond one's own limited circumstances, I think there is a good argument that having a college education is a good indicator. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, West Virginia ranks 51st in percentage of people 25 years and older who have a college degree, with only about 16%; Kentucky ranks 48th with about 19%. New York and California have 29% and 28%, respectively, and Massachusetts has 35.5% (all states that Clinton has won, agreed, but in which she also kept the pandering level down and campaigned intelligently--more on that below.)

To many, even to raise these issues smacks of elitism, and much has been made of the fact that Barack Obama seems to have greater appeal to young, college educated people and of course African-Americans. Yet are we not at a point in history where a little bit of knowledge might be preferable to the kind of cluelessness and ignorance demonstrated by the presidency of George W. Bush? Now, Bush has two college degrees, and while he was not a very good student, he certainly is not stupid in the sense of being uneducated--rather, his is the kind of willful stupidity that I suspect results from a conscious choice to remain ignorant, indeed to make ignorance a virtue. This is the kind of stupidity one sees in people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, as well as their avid followers.

Indeed, stupidity can be seen as an existential issue: Bush's election and re-election over 8 years could be understood as roughly 50% of the American people wanting a president who is at least as stupid as they are, and roughly 50% wanting a president at least as smart as they are. It all comes down to whether we want to intelligently solve our problems or bury our heads in the sand.

Although Bush's stupidity represents a choice, the situation in places like West Virginia and Kentucky is probably much more complicated. The kind of ignorance that stems from lack of educational opportunities can seem like stupidity, and perhaps sometimes is, but it is not necessary willful and intractable--even if some politicians might try to exploit it for their advantage.

As I have said in previous posts, there is a big difference between Clinton and Obama in one key aspect: The degree to which they pandered to ignorance and stupidity. As Obama increasingly threatened her chances, Clinton increasingly pandered to the worst in Americans, exploiting their racism and (unsuccessfully as it turns out) their desire for quick fixes like a summer gas tax holiday. Amazingly, she has by and large failed, even though her opportunism and pandering began long before the campaign.

Take Iraq: It was clear to millions of us on the eve of the 2003 invasion that the Bush administration was determined to invade the country no matter what the facts, and we were skeptical about the justifications given (including whether Iraq really had weapons of mass destruction, for which there was no smoking gun evidence at the time.) When Clinton voted to authorize the war in Iraq, she failed to join the nearly two dozen fellow Democrats who were clearly skeptical and voted against the amendment. This was certainly not because she had better information than they did (in fact we now know that she did not even bother to read the entire intelligence estimate on which the argument for war was based); she voted for the amendment because she had already decided to run for president by then and figured she would do better among the very white working class voters whose ignorance of the facts about the Iraqi situation Bush himself was already counting on. Had she realized that voting for the war would be a serious liability later on, she certainly would have found the "courage" that opponents like Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, and even the Republican Lincoln Chafee managed to muster in that time of hysteria and flag waving.

(I guess I don't need to say that one is only courageous when taking a principled stand entails real risks? In Lincoln Chafee's case, the Democrats thanked him in 2006 by putting up a mediocre candidate and kicking him out of office.)

Several years have now gone by, and Clinton is still depending on the ignorance and gullibility of the white working class folks of states like West Virginia and Kentucky who have also disproportionately sent their sons and daughters to fight and die in Iraq--depending on them to help her make her last gasp arguments for why she should be given the Democratic nomination in the face of the victory of Barack Obama, who has refrained admirably from pandering to the lingering ignorance and stupidity of the American people. In doing so, Obama has judged correctly that Americans are not as stupid and ignorant as they once were: Eight years of George Bush have been a true education.

And this is the real point: The Democratic Party always has a choice about what kind of politics it wants to pursue. There is the politics of opportunism, pandering, and triangulation, which takes people "where they are at" and tries to propel politicians into office by appealing to the worst in the electorate; and then there is the politics of education, persuasion, and appealing to Americans' better nature. Clintonism represents the former strategy, and Obamism, so far at least, has relied mostly on the latter strategy. What happens next depends not so much on what Obama does or does not do, but whether political activists and others who care deeply about the future of their country take advantage of the opportunities this rare moment in history can offer.

Update I: In an opinion piece in today's Los Angeles Times, columnist Gregory Rodriguez also explores the meaning of Clinton's appeal to white voters. Rodriguez suggests that Clinton's appeal to this group in part reflects its insecurities in the face of the demographic changes occurring in the United States (remember the old racist adage? "If you're white, you're right; if you're brown, stick around; if you're Black, stay back." Perhaps not so true nowadays.) I find his message a bit mixed, but agree with the ending:

"Like black or Latino activists who insist that a particular congressional district should be represented by one of their own, the disgruntled white working-class, non-college-educated voters might be demanding that their majority status still translate into something at least symbolically meaningful to them.
But that doesn't make it right. No matter who wins the presidency, there is one thing we ought to learn from this campaign. In our rapidly diversifying nation, where we are all becoming minorities, the idea that any given group has an inalienable claim on a particular political seat, appointment or office based on demographics has officially outlived its usefulness.
Romantic notions of ethnic self-determination and multiculturalism may have once served to dismantle empires and garner attention for forgotten minorities. But today they are more likely to nurture the kind of white nationalism on which Clinton has placed her last political hopes."

Update II: On his blog Andrew's Tiki Lounge, historian Andrew Hunt discusses Bush's "appeasement" speech and raises the interesting historical point that the senator who wished he had talked to Hitler was a Republican--albeit one with a reputation as a humanitarian reformer. Check it out.

Update III: I put the above points much more succinctly in a comment on Marc Cooper's blog post today about John McCain:

"The contest between Obama and McCain may end up being close, because traditionally about half of Americans vote for a president at least as stupid as they are and about half vote for a president at least as smart as they are. It’s an existential choice, really, because every American is capable of being stupid or smart. The one thing Obama has got going for him is that this time around a higher percentage seem to realize how stupid they have been the past 8 years."

Update IV: The May 31 International Herald Tribune has an opinion piece by Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason," about the false and dishonest use of the term "elitism" by Hillary Clinton as well as those on the political right. The title of Jacoby's piece is "Best is the new worst." Well worth reading.


Woody said...

Boston probably has one of the highest education levels in the country, yet they keep voting for Ted Kennedy.

Instead of applying your post to a state, do it to classes of voters--like blacks, union workers, welfare queens, kids just starting to vote, Mexicans--you know, the usual Democratic voters. Oh, yes, also the dead.

Anne Gilbert said...

This is partly in response to woody. First of all, just because one votes for Ted Kennedy, and you disagree with that, doesn't mean the aforementioned voter is ipso facto stupid. One could say the same about certain politicians and voters in my state of Washington. As for "applying your post to classes of workers", I pretty much smell a very bad smell when I see something like this. I don't know what it smacks of, but it smacks of something pretty "ignorant", IMO.
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...

Another, more general comment here. This is drawn pretty much from my own life experiences. I have worked in several places where I was in contact with a lot of "working class" people. One of these was a market research company where I had to make calls about "customer satisfaction" all over the country. And I often had to call places like West Virginai and Kentucky. I could always tell what their probable level of education was, by their vocabulary, which was frequently not very extensive. In another job I had(quite different), I was in constant contact with a lot of people who would be considered "working class": they were of all "races", and generally had somewhat better vocabularies and educations than their counterparts in West Virginia and Kentucky. But a high percentage of them also had "military" connections of one sort or another --- they had friends or relatives in the National Guard or actually serving in the Army, Navy, etc. They worried a lot about these folks, once the Iraq war began, and with good reason. I don't know how those people I called in West Virginia and Kentucky would have voted in the current election cycle, but I'm pretty sure they not only didn't have very good vocabularies, but they also didn't read much. They probably watched a lot of TV, and got whatever information they got about the world, from that. The people I worked with in the other job, read more, but their views were often limited too. Again, I have no idea how they would have felt about Hillary Clinton, or whether(at least among the female half), they think she "identifies with them".

But these people are, for the most part, not stupid. It's not that they are wilfully ignorant, and it's not that they don't struggle to make house payments or rent, feed the kids, keep themselves clothed, pay their taxes, etc. It's just that their educational opportunities and experiences were and are severely limited. They tend, therefore, to do the best with what they've got. And Hillary Clinton may get a few "warm feelings" from this class of people(the "white" ones, anyway), because she claims to "understand" them, but I suspect they know she's not really "one of them". I also suspect they view all politicians with considerable distrust, whether or not the aforementioned politicians claim to "speak for them" or not.
Anne G

Woody said...

Anne Gilbert, thank goodness I don't live in the state of Washington where I would be expected to use politically correct speech. Waving that requirement, is there anything that I said or implied that is factually incorrect--except that college educated people who vote for Ted Kennedy should demand a refund of their tuition?

Michael Balter said...

While I have no intention of censoring or moderating comments except in extreme cases, I think Woody will find that the kind of gratuitous drivel that he dispensees on some other blogs will not get much of a reaction from the people likely to comment here.

Woody said...

That either says something about your commenters or those at other sites.