Bil Browning

Barack Obama, bitterness, and classism personalized

Filed By Bil Browning | April 15, 2008 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, class warfare, Indiana, poverty

I'm going to break my strike.

I have some insights into what Obama was saying with his remarks about the rural poor as a Midwesterner who was born in a small town. Since I regularly deal with anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-trade, pro-gun fundamentalist Christians, I applaud him for his words. They ring with the sound of truth.

small-n-bitter.gifI was born in Winchester, Indiana. The town's 2000 per capita income was $17,753. 10.9% of families and 15% of the general population were below the poverty line. In 2006 the population was 4,738 with a 42% unemployment rate.

I've mentioned before that I'm on disability. I take consulting jobs, but if I make more than $1000 a month, I lose my benefits. Between working and my disability payments, I made less than $16k in 2007. I'm stuck on disability though since it gives me health insurance. If I start a new job that pays a living wage, I lose my insurance. My medication currently costs about $400/month; add in doctor visit costs or a non-disability illness or accident and I'd be screwed. Obama's statement rings true for me because he is telling my story of bitterness and classism.

So, it depends on where you are, but I think it's fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people feel most cynical about government. The people are mis-appre...I think they're misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this contest have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to 'white working-class don't wanna work -- don't wanna vote for the black guy.' That's...there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today - kind of implies that it's sort of a race thing.

Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter).
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they 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.

--Barack Obama's comments about the rural poor. Most quotes only use part of the last paragraph.

My Dad was a hard working man

My father worked for a mould-making factory that supplied parts for Anchor Glass - the town's largest employer at the time. Anchor started moving jobs out of town in the late 80's. By the time I graduated high school in '91, the factory was at about 30% of its production. When Anchor started bleeding jobs to other states and countries, the other businesses that surrounded the glass industry started to go under right and left. My father's employer was sold and then shut down in the mid-90's.

Dad was in his late 50's. This close to retirement his chances of finding similar work were slim. He floated from job to job until retirement age, but never made the same amount of money. I watched him sink into depression and make untold bad decisions. Our already shaky relationship crumbled under the onslaught of alcoholism, outsourcing and poverty.

He became a Pentecostal - one of the most fundamentalist sects of Christianity. My friends and I would joke that there were three industries in town - glass, bars and churches. Once Anchor started to hemorrhage jobs, it only left the other two. Dad combined the last two together once he couldn't pay his bills.

Small town Indiana

Winchester's population has continued to shrink census after census. I fled the week after graduating high school and haven't looked back. My mom moved to a different town looking for work where she could be close to my sister. Only one of my high school friends still lives in Winchester; he is desperately unhappy but stays to take care of his family. After all, he's one of the lucky ones. He has a job.

I came out in high school and made the town gossips talk for weeks. Different was frowned upon in Winchester and so was I. The census data shows that Winchester is 98.2% white. I'm not surprised.

I grew up with a rifle, shotgun and two handguns in the house. Jerame's father used to have a gun collection that would rival a small arsenal. His parents go hunting to supplement their food supply. They also denigrate Arabs, Mexicans, African-Americans and any other ethnic group that catches their ire by having more money than they do.

Bitter is a part of my life

The media feeding frenzy over Barack Obama's remarks about the poor and the resultant faux outrage from the Republican Party incenses me. Hillary Clinton's willingness to jump on the bandwagon infuriates me to no end. Why? I am bitter.

I'm bitter that so much of my childhood and adult life has been determined by figuring out how to keep food on the table. I'm angry that during the Bush/Clinton/Bush decades, I've been homeless, unemployed, disabled, hungry and cold at various and sometimes concurrent times. I'm upset that the current idiots in Congress think I can be bought off for $300 when that wouldn't even pay my Indiana property taxes.

I'm angry that gas costs $3.50 a gallon and we can't afford to get our second car fixed since our fuel costs have shot sky high along with our groceries, household goods and utilities. After all, the car is trashed because it was stolen. The crime rate shoots up when the economy sinks and I'm caught in the crossfire.

How it relates to Obama

One of my biggest complaints about Hillary Clinton is that I just don't trust her to always lead the Democratic Party with a progressive stance. Hillary is a moderate; her husband was the King of riding the middle. I don't trust McCain to lead the Republican Party with a moderate stance instead of a conservative one. He's a no brainer just because there's absolutely no chance that he'll govern the way our country needs.

I keep my eye on Barack Obama just because he keeps promising change and progressive leadership. He offers Americans something that the public hasn't had in a while - the truth. Notice I didn't say the unvarnished truth. Why? I doubt that he'll be any different from any other damn politician that has come before. Promising miracles is vastly different from walking on water yourself.

I'm one of those people cynical about politicians. I expect them to promise us the sky and produce clumps of dirt. I feel betrayed by the government and when I hear "a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government," I have to take a fourth or fifth look.

So when I hear millionaires calling other millionaires elitists and snobs, I can watch it flow down the economic chain gang. Other elitists repeated the claim. It seems the richer a person is, the more outraged they are on Clinton's behalf. Senator Evan Bayh, a Clintonista hoping to be her veep, issued his own statement that only succeeded in making the elitist millionaire politician seem like an even bigger hypocrite bleating on behalf of the common man he's never had to associate with.

Barack Obama has spoken the truth. He spoke the truth when he talked about race relations. For the second time he called it like it is and the opposition (within and without the Party) have gone nuts. While the pragmatist in me starts to prepare for the inevitable let down (now that I've picked him, he'll lose the primary or - worse yet - he'll win and run to the center and do absolutely nothing), one basic truth stands out in my mind...

Those who decry the truth usually have the most to gain from keeping the status quo.

And that angers me too.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.


Thanks for sharing this, Bil. I think many people can relate to your story. I know I can.

I completely agree that Obama has been attacked for simply dropping the spin and telling the truth. Americans ARE bitter and have good reason to be.

I wish our country was capable of having honest discussion about our flaws and faults...

'No matter how hard its adversary-falsehood-may try to overwhelm it, truth refuses to yield'

Nelson Mandela

Damn, Bil. You said a mouthful! Way to drop some truth yourself. Perhaps YOU could be Obama's running mate!

42% unemployment rate? That's nucking futs!

As for bitterness, I can totally relate to what you're saying. I, too, have spent the last 10 years homeless, on the brink of homelessness, and worrying about how to pay rent when I wasn't homeless. I grew up on welfare and worried that if I ate too much my parents would get upset because of how much money food cost.

My family is from a small town in northern AZ that has about 300 inhabitants (if you count the cows). The main source of employment is the coal-fired power plant that supplies electricity for the bulk of the state. The town has an unbelievably high rate of cancer as a result. Most people live paycheck to paycheck and grow their own food or hunt to feed their families. I'd say that 99% of them are Republicans, and 99.9% of them are Mormon.

I think that "people are looking for change," (to quote Obama), but no one (not even Obama) has articulated what that change will look like. I tend to take everything Obama says with a grain of salt, because I have a hard time believing that any politician is going to "make a change." They have too much invested in the Status Quo, as you so rightly point out, to really change anything that much.

That being said, I agree with you that people are taking Obama's comments way out of context. And I distrust McCain (and even Hillary these days) even more than I distrust Obama.

I said back in December that I'm sitting this one out, but Hillary's been, as Terrance put it last week, trying my patience.

This is a great post, Bil. Thanks for adding some more context to Obama's comments. When we have an establishment that'll lash out at anyone who dares to talk about class, we have to at least be willing to defend the ideas themselves even if the politician who articulates them isn't perfect himself.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | April 15, 2008 6:10 PM

Great post, Bil!!

This recent attack on Obama is just spin--otherwise known as propaganda--of the sort Republicans have used so successfully for the past 25+ years.

They paint Democrats and "Liberals" as elites, in opposition to "down-earth Conservatives," yet truthfully, me and my liberal friends--living on the coasts--are mostly working-class. Likewise, one would be hard-pressed to find a person more elite than GW Bush--son of a president, grandson of a senator, alumnus of Yale, member of Yale's elite Skull and Bones society, draft-dodger via fast-tracking with the Texas National Guard,and so on.

In a con as old as time, Republicans preoccupy socially conservative voters with a false dichotomy, get them riled up with emotion over, "God, guns and gays," then rob them blind.

The dance is beginning to lose its appeal, however. Obama's words were right on. That's exactly why the Republicans are going after him.

Ya know when I heard that it was like daa he realy gets it.Then Billary and gang jumped on him daa.They must not have ever lived in a one industry town and when its gone so goes the jobs.My dad was a Doctor more than once he was paid in veggies from a garden or in services done in kind.Doc ill paint your house if you count it on my bill etc yes Senator Obama got it right.Also there are many who think gee why vote as mine wont count because fill in the blank those folks are out there like it or not.

Very eye-opening post. Way to speak your truth, Bil.

You said more articulately what I attempted to say in a comment on a previous thread discussing this same quote: The wording doesn't sound nearly as bad as it is made to be when read in complete context. I do wish Obama might have said, instead of simply the word "religion", that he had said "their particular take on religion" ... I think that's what he meant, and that phrase would have explained, and thus isolated and protected him, that much more ... but the truth is that he said what he said.

I am not only cynical about government, I have, in just the last few weeks, become cynical about the media, too. The fact that a candidate can attempt to engage meaningfully, and inevitably get re-spun and attacked because of it, means that until the public wises up to this syndrome, the chances of a meaningful dialogue about race and class is virtually nonexistent. Even MLK had this problem 40 years ago --- yet Reagan was dubbed both "The Great Communicator" as well as "The Teflon President" because he was able to discuss difficult issues, the issues he wanted to discuss, and somehow deflect this type of damaging media spin. And to this day, I'm not sure how he did that --- except that the right-wing press, which usually sought to protect him, is much, much, much more powerful than they make themselves out to be.

The Mandella quote that Monica supplied above is apt, and there is a similar quote by MLK which says that the arc of history always bends towards Truth. A moment like this is when some of us on the progressive side, in order to avoid the cancer of bitterness, may need to tap into our take on "religion" or faith: Obama was doing his best to forge a path toward the Truth, and for that I commend him. Obama may not prevail, but eventually Truth will prevail.

Obama opened up the scab over the abscess called "class" - the thing that isn't supposed to exist in America, according to the mythology taught in school and church-based home schooling and in the media. (White) People are more willing to believe that they are "like everyone else" than to admit that other people have had advantages and that no matter how hard they work, they will still be behind. The proletarian pride of the early 20th century has dissipated and been replaced by the Horatio Alger fantasy.

I do wish Dems would stop allowing themselves to be painted as "anti-gun". They'd do far better to promote themselves as "pro-gun-safety", "pro-responsible-hunter" types. Rural pro-gun people are mostly non-loons, they are hobbyists or kill for meat. It's the suburban power-fantasy, never-hunted-for-dinner, non-professional-gun-users (ie, not career military or urban police) that tend toward looniness - they want a penis enhancer.

Thank you so much for a quite moving, personal story.

Frankly, when Hillary claims that Americans in small towns are optimistic, resilient & enthusiastic I really question whether she has visited one. If she doesn't understand that so many voters are discontented, angry, frustrated & bitter over their powerlessness in a country where the politicians do not respond to our needs but are concerned only with preserving their own power and catering to their wealthy cronies, then clearly it is Hillary who is out of touch.

In many small rural towns where meaningful economic opportunities are non-existent the social problems are significant: just ask the local sheriff in many such places about the problem of crystal meth addiction -- perhaps replacing in part the bars about which you write -- that is destroying so many families and lives.

I support Obama, and no he is not my "ideal" candidate (I am way too far to the left for my ideals ever to be actualized) but I fundamentally believe that he has a good heart, wants to help the least fortunate among us, and restore accountability to the government as an institution that should listen to and serve the people.

And the Clintons? I never thought they cared about anyone but themselves.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 16, 2008 4:30 AM

Bil, about the time you left Winchester I visited it for the one and only time. Remember the glass museum there? It was somehow connected to something that had been an anchor factory. I could feel the fear of the people who worked there that it would close. There was no business reason for me to return as there was no money for people to buy anything I sold, so I did not go back.

That museum was a monument to pride of manufacturing that our country has chosen to export. We are changing from a country that could say: "Look what we can make!" to one that must now look at it's rusted factories and lament what it used to be able to make. When I began in the luxury gift sales trade it was easy for an independent to represent 50% American made products. (1976 was a hot year for American Made)
Now a similar sales agent would be lucky to carry any American made merchandise whatsoever. I am bitter about that too.

I am particularly bitter about politicians and AJ's media commentators who glibly fan the fires of hatred, class and gun owners for audience share.

You observations about Obama are perfectly on the mark, and he may well shortly have the nomination. My concern is execution of a populist agenda at which I believe Hillary would be superior. Finding the progressive center is not a vice. The status quo is bankrupt and pulling out the "class" card is just a sign of their present fear."

Thank you for this post

Thanks everyone for the kind words.

@Robert: The factory was Anchor Glass Company. That's where the anchor comes in. :) The museum is closed now - it shuttered for no attendance. Even the county historical museum closed down.

Wow, Bil, smokin' post. Thanks.
I, too, grew up in a small town, but one with a bit more economic diversity than Winchester. Still, every time the largest plant in town went through a slow period, the lives of neighbors and friends splintered into a thousand little pieces. Obama got it right and so did you. Generations of frustration, privation and fear cause us to be bitter and bitterness causes us to self-destruct and to blame. Would that our children's children be able to survive and thrive under a very different economic system, one that actually values workers first and profits much later.

Andrew Yu-Jen Wang | March 5, 2009 8:05 PM

Speaking of Barack Obama:

Barack Obama is a racial-minority individual, and in his heart and mind he inevitably does not endorse hate crimes committed by George W. Bush.

George W. Bush committed hate crimes of epic proportions and with the stench of terrorism (indicated in my blog).

George W. Bush did in fact commit innumerable hate crimes.

And I do solemnly swear by Almighty God that George W. Bush committed other hate crimes of epic proportions and with the stench of terrorism which I am not at liberty to mention.

Many people know what Bush did.

And many people will know what Bush did—even to the end of the world.

Bush was absolute evil.

Bush is now like a fugitive from justice.

Bush is a psychological prisoner.

Bush has a lot to worry about.

Bush can technically be prosecuted for hate crimes at any time.

In any case, Bush will go down in history in infamy.

Submitted by Andrew Yu-Jen Wang
B.S., Summa Cum Laude, 1996
Messiah College, Grantham, PA
Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA, 1993

I am not sure where I had read it before, but anyway, it is a linguistically excellent statement, and it goes kind of like this: “If only it were possible to ban invention that bottled up memories so they never got stale and faded.” Oh wait—off the top of my head—I think the quotation came from my Lower Merion High School yearbook.