Small Town Conservatives: Bitter or Better?

Ken Connor

4/20/2008 12:00:17 AM - Ken Connor

If you happen to be a conservative in a small town, you might be chafing at Senator Barack Obama's recent comments at a fundraiser in San Francisco. Obama described small town blue-collar workers as "bitter", saying that 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." In plain English, Obama was saying that small town folk (among whom he apparently wasn't polling too well) are red-necked, xenophobic, gun-toting, Bible-pounding bigots who don't have a clue about how markets work in the real world.

Sadly, Mr. Obama's views are not uncommon among the elites who walk the corridors of power in the Federal City. These are the people who think Washington knows best. They think they are smarter than everybody else. They believe they can spend your money better than you can. And they know more about raising their children than you do.

Rural folk are seen as uninformed and unrefined. Their values are antiquated and their beliefs are passé. If one worries that they are going to be displaced in their job by someone who doesn't speak English and who will work for a cheaper wage, they must necessarily harbor some form of animus against those who are foreign-born. The idea that guns would be used for recreation is a foreign notion to the elites. Why on earth would you need them for protection, when big government exists to take care of you?

Senator Obama's comments are indicative of the lack of understanding many politicians have about the middle and lower classes. Democrats and Republicans alike speak of promoting the values and livelihood of the middle class, but few of the candidates seem to know what really drives these people's lives. Mayhill Fowler, a Huffington Post blogger who first leaked Obama's comments, argued that Obama's approach emphasized stereotypes instead of providing his wealthy audience with a window into the lives of blue collar workers.

Obama's remarks show the increasing distance between small town conservatives and those who control our government, media and major businesses. Obama says that the simple ideas of small town people are merely a result of their under-privileged economic status. As David Paul Kuhn of Real Clear Politics explains, however, this misunderstanding of rural culture has undercut liberal efforts for decades. In reality, the middle and lower classes in middle America are not "clinging" to their beliefs because they're poor or struggling. Their beliefs are fundamental to how they live their lives, and until liberals begin to understand this, they will not attract middle-America voters.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have long appealed to the moral concerns of these middle-state voters prior to each election, but their failure to come through on their promises (because their real agenda seems to be to advance the interest of the moneyed elites) has undercut much of their previous support among the small town conservatives. These voters are truly conservative, believing in the importance of limited government, low spending, local control and public morality. Their understanding of faith, morality and liberty informs their daily lives and political beliefs. These ideas compose the core of small town conservative communities—they are not merely a result of lost jobs.

The view of the middle class presented by Obama is not new or unique to him—it traces back to the prominent American progressives of the early 20th century. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "Not only our future economic soundness but the very soundness of our democratic institutions depends on the determination of our government to give employment to idle men." Progressives have long thought that the fundamental factor determining cultural virtue was the economic stability of the American people.

Unfortunately, many Republicans have come to share this misunderstanding of rural conservatives. While they hold to different economic principles than Democrats (though increasingly less-so), Republicans today see culture in terms of dollars and cents. They believe culture will function smoothly and virtuously if everyone is allowed to participate freely in the market. While these economic principles are important, they still miss the true cultural foundation of America.

Wilhelm Röpke was a firm believer in the free market, but he also saw the vital importance of principles of morality in society. He said in A Humane Economy, "The free world will prevail only if it succeeds in filling the emptiness of the soul in its own manner and with its own values…. What we need is to bethink ourselves quietly and soberly of truth, freedom, justice, human dignity and respect of human life and the ultimate values." Röpke understood that economic standing is not the basis of a sound culture. Ultimate values are far more important to the well-being and success of a nation than the condition of its markets.

Sadly, neither Mr. Obama nor the elites of the dominant political parties grasp these traditional conservative truths. Obama lumps together religion, xenophobia, the right to bear arms and prejudice—thereby displaying his liberal view of culture. The political elites, on the other hand, ignore traditional small-town conservatives in favor of their big donors whose primary concern is their own personal economic gain. The real hope for America, however, lies in the deeply-held faith and moral principles of these "simple" small-town folks. That faith and those principles will enable them to remain steadfast in their ways despite the politicians and the media who treat them so dismissively.