Barack Obama and Southwest PA

A lot of foolish ink has been spilled in the last few days over Barack Obama's comments on guns and religion and their roles in small towns in Pennsylvania. Some of the wiser words that I've read recently, by contrast, are in this blog post by The New Yorker's George Packer:

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.

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.

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.


4 Responses to "Barack Obama and Southwest PA"

Unknown said... 4/16/2008 10:07 AM

Packer may know what's what, but he also could use a fact check, just to nitpick a bit: Hill downed the boilermaker in Indiana, not Pennsylvania. Get it? Indiana? Purdue? Boilermakers? She is so in touch with the common man!

Anonymous said... 4/17/2008 9:49 AM

I'm from a small town in the south, and Obama pretty much described how many people I grew up around think. They don't see much of a difference between parties, so *if* they vote, they vote on faith or on a single-issue like abortion or guns.

Since moving to greater PGH, I kinda feel the same way. One party pretty much runs everything, so why should I turn out for local elections? (I do, but I don't feel as motivated as I did in other states.)

EdHeath said... 4/18/2008 8:15 AM

I think part of what prompted Obama to make his remark was a sense of frustration at not making more progress in Pennsylvania. Obama supposedly had not expected to win the state, and has spent a fair amount of time outside the state. But he has also defied expectations and done well in many places where conventional wisdom would have said otherwise. So I think he was talking to some Californians about us backward Pennsylvanians, expressing *his* frustration at running into a brick wall with some voters here.

But who can blame him. It was just a few weeks ago the *democrat* controlled state house voted down the bill requiring gun owners to report stolen guns when they discover they are stolen. Because gun owners want to protect people who buy guns for criminals more than they want to be law abiding citizens.

Anonymous said... 4/18/2008 11:43 AM

What are your thoughts on this video from John Stewart? He directly calls out Western PA.

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