Barack Obama was caught saying something he believes.
At a San Francisco fundraiser, away from the prying eyes of the press, Obama reflected on why small-town voters in Pennsylvania and the Midwest seem resistant to his appeal. He said those areas had lost jobs for 25 years. Therefore, people "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."
Obama has apologized for his phrasing while defending the substance of his statement. And why not? He was retailing an article of left-wing orthodoxy going back centuries: that the working class is distracted by religion and other peripheral concerns from focusing on its economic interests and embracing socialism.
Versions of Obama's insight have been expounded by a world-famous 19th-century economist (Karl Marx), by a 1960s New Left philosopher (Herbert Marcuse) and by a best-selling contemporary liberal writer (Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?"), among many others. It's such a commonplace that Bubba-friendly Bill Clinton wrote in his memoir that Republicans wanted to undermine confidence in government so voters would be more receptive to "their strategy of waging campaigns on divisive social and cultural issues like abortion, gay rights, and guns."
At bottom, this is a profoundly insulting point of view. Consider Obama's formulation. He makes it sound like no one would be a hunter or a Christian absent economic distress, that economic circumstances drive people into such atavistic habits. Has he considered that some people simply enjoy hunting? And view the right to bear arms as a guarantor of American liberty? As they used to say, "God made men, but Sam Colt made them equal."
The assumption is that only liberal attitudes are normal and well-adjusted: If only these small-town people could earn more income, get an advanced degree and move to a major metropolitan area, they could shed their chrysalis of social conservatism.
Obama prides himself on his civility, but it has to go much deeper than dulcet rhetoric. A fundamental courtesy of political debate is to meet the other side on its own terms. If someone says he cares about gun rights, it's rude to insist: "No, you don't. It's the minimum wage that you really care about, and you'd know it if you were more self-aware." But Democrats have an uncontrollable reflex to do just that. Since the McGovernite takeover of their party, they have struggled to work up enthusiasm for Middle American mores. (Since 1980, only Bill Clinton managed it, which is why he was the only Democrat elected president in three decades.)
When the liberal reflex is coupled with a Ivy League-educated candidate who seems personally remote and uncomfortable with everyday American activities, it's electoral poison. After the likes of Al Gore and John Kerry, Republicans had to be wondering, "Could Democrats possibly nominate yet another candidate easily portrayed as an out-of-touch elitist?" With Obama, Democrats appear to be responding with a resounding "Yes, we can!"
Obama brings a special measure of arrogance to the standard liberal critique of Middle America. His candidacy has always been characterized by two paradoxes. How can he be so hopeful at the same time he and his wife, Michelle, portray America as a sink-pit of despair? And how can he claim to be a uniter when he's an orthodox liberal who has risked little or nothing for bipartisan outreach?
Now, we know. Obama defines hopefulness as liberalism, specifically liberalism as embodied by himself. Only with Obama's election will America be redeemed from its harrowing false consciousness. We will be unified, not by Obama reaching out to conservatives to hammer out compromises, but by conservatives shedding their bitterness and becoming Obama liberals.
This is the underside of hope: arrogance fading into a secular messianism based on the fallenness of everyone who disagrees with Barack Obama. And it's small-town voters who are deluded?