I don't do politics on this blog, much, and I'm linking to this post and quoting from it less to make a point about Barack Obama or presidential election politics (though I guess a point is unavoidable) and more to make a point about what's authentic and what's manipulable in understanding this region and others like it. In both short and long run, communities and the people who serve them are better off acknowledging the complexities of culture, even while it's cheaper and easier to play off simplified abstractions.
The real problem with what Obama said is that it’s basically untrue. In southwestern Pennsylvania, religion, hunting, and insularity predate the post-industrial era. They’ve have become politically manipulable points in part because of economic decline, but to confuse wedge issues with traditional values is the mark of the high-minded reformer or the political junkie, or both. It’s the kind of mistake one could make only from a great distance, once those voters had become almost entirely abstract—and, again, no one wants to be an abstraction.
This is far from the only thing Obama believes about religion and small-town America, as his 2004 interview with Charlie Rose and much else in his career show. Conservative propagandists like Kristol are predictably and unfairly wrapping Obama’s disastrous sentence around his neck and garroting him with it. So is Hillary Clinton, and the spectacle of her swallowing a boilermaker in a Pennsylvania bar is crass opportunism that will antagonize more voters than it charms. These days the winner is always McCain.
But Obama’s devotees, who have an unattractively worshipful tendency to blame his mistakes on everyone but him, would do their candidate and the Democratic Party a favor by acknowledging the damage he’s done to both. It wasn’t accidental. Obama
betrayed his own and his Party’s essential weakness, and in the process handed the opposition a great gift. He won’t be able to turn this weakness into the kind of strength that ends eras and wins elections until he understands what happened over the past few days.
Local politics and development economics aren't immune to the problem; policies and positions here are regularly manufactured to suit an abstraction of the "true Pittsburgher" rather than the million-plus people with diverse interests and needs who inhabit Allegheny and its surrounding counties. Like me, George Packer is a suburban liberal raised in the shadow of San Francisco and educated at an Ivy League university (the same one that I attended, in fact). If he can figure out what's what while sitting in Brooklyn, and I think that he has, surely people closer to Pittsburgh can do the same.