God, Guns, and Politics: The Power of Truth
by fogiv, Sat Apr 12, 2008 at 05:02:31 PM EDT
Crossposted at DailyKos
So this is what all the fuss is about:
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," Obama said. "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. And it's not surprising then 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.
-- Senator Barack Obama
This is the statement that democratic rival Senator Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee John McCain are using to paint Senator Barack Obama as "out of touch" with the American working class voter, or worse, as an effete "elitist" (the same line of attack successfully employed against Senator John Kerry in 2004).
I know that it is customary in some circles to play "Gotcha" politics, to pounce on snippets of out-of-context remarks, and to do battle with sound bytes. Already, we've seen a deluge of diaries at MyDD that parrot right wing talking points from the likes of Republican Ultra-Sleaze, Grover Norquist.
Putting that aside, let's briefly examine Obama's statement, and see if there is any validity to the notion that people in rural Pennsylvania, having faced decades of economic woe, have any tendency to express their frustrations via religious fundamentalism or spiritual devotion, assertive gun rights, and/or xenophobia.
Is there a correlation between economic adversity and religion? Clearly, common sense tells us there is. For those lacking, this study indicates that, both regionally and on grand scale, economic disparity and religiosity are strongly linked:
The survey finds a strong relationship between a country's religiosity and its economic status. In poorer nations, religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations. This relationship generally is consistent across regions and countries, although there are some exceptions, including most notably the United States, which is a much more religious country than its level of prosperity would indicate.
Despite her wealth, the United States is far more religious than other western industrialized nations, which tend to be more secular. Interestingly, the only other prosperous nations with such quantities of devout "believers" are Arab states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Some company.
The degree to which religion is widespread in the US, and its correlation to economic hardships is difficult to quantify. We do know from some social science research, namely Congregations in America by sociologist Mark Chaves, that approximately 20 percent of all religious congregations in the United States are located in poor neighborhoods, where an overwhelming majority of the congregations are Christian churches. Why? It's no surprise that what when people lose their job, and by extension their sense of control over their own lives and well-being, that they might seek shelter in the religious traditions of their forbearers, neighbors, and families.
In this 2003 study conducted by Katherine Meyer and Linda Lobao of the Department of Sociology, Rural Sociology Program, at Ohio State University, the differential effects of economic hardship and religion were examined by way of a sample of 800 Ohio farm men and women who reaped the bitter harvest associated with the Midwestern farm crisis in the 1980s. Arguably, this economic strife is analogous to other sectors in the Rust Belt where plant closings, job loss, and unemployment have ravaged the electorate, even during the much vaunted Clinton years. Here's what they determined:
Findings demonstrated that economic hardship was a consistent predictor of stress and depression for both genders. Membership in Fundamentalist denominations increased men's well-being. Affiliation with any religious group enhanced women's mental health. Physical health and social support were associated with lower stress and depression. Coping techniques had mixed effects on stress and depression with both avoidance/denial and support seeking associated with more adverse mental health outcomes. This study shows that macro-level structural changes can result in a context of economic hardship where factors assumed to buffer adverse mental health outcomes fail to do so and where previously neglected factors, such as religion, become important mediators of hardship.
Obviously, there are a diversity of impetuses for religion and spirituality. We won't delve into those outside of the economic spectrum as they are not germane to the topic. The aforementioned studies do suggest, in a nutshell, that some people do in fact cling to religion because it makes them feel better. Where else can they turn when government does little or nothing to improve their opportunity?
Do the economically downtrodden cling to the ideology surrounding the advocacy of gun rights?
According to Joan Burbick, author of Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy :
The symbolic meaning of owning a gun is to reclaim political power, demonize minorities, distort the issue of crime in America, express contempt for women gaining access to power, and distract Americans from the real issues of democracy.
Ironically, the first hints of gun control in America emerged from the Civil War era South. Such motivations, stoked by white fears of armed blacks, were anchored to the model of distrust for the South's class considered both different and inferior: Americans of African descent.
Joan Burbick (cited above) posits that the movement championing Second Amendment rights was born of the social unrest of the 1960s. She argues that conservatives responded to blacks' and women's demands for rights by deliberately co-opting the language of civil rights to appeal to a disaffected white electorate, thereby birthing a strong conservative response to liberal efforts aimed at achieving social, economic, and racial justice.
Later, we've seen the National Rifle Association (NRA) secure their claim to a "gun rights ideology" that uses gun issues as political weapons to attack virtually every progressive idea, especially on issues of poverty and race. It's a conservative wedge strategy that has successfully caused the rural people to vote against their own economic interests, and played a significant role in the creation of the bloc we now call "Reagan Democrats".
In addition to a move toward religion, it would seem that economic adversity may push people toward a gun rights ideology that, while cloaked in a mythic tradition and nostalgic "frontier" mentality, serves largely to ensure the political power of conservatives.
According to the American Psychological Association:
The causes of racism and related intolerance and the means for their perpetuation are complex, involving legal vulnerability and discrimination, economic and educational disadvantage, social and political marginalization, and psychological victimization.
Emphasis added, and that ought to be enough to link economic woe to racism and xenophobia. It's ugly, but it happens. The discourse is ill-served to pretend that it doesn't.
Obama has often said:
We can't just tell people what they want to hear, we need to tell people what they need to hear.
Despite the Republican (and sadly some Democratic) wailings and trumped up outrage over condescending elitism, I'm of the opinion that he's done just that. Catherine Crier notes:
Pulling the curtain back on a very effective political trick, the old bait and switch, is far from elitist. Americans are working harder than ever. Two job families are the norm. Yet the poor and middle class are falling further behind. What is breathtakingly condescending is watching two candidates stroke this group with platitudes about their being tough and resilient. What exactly has that gotten them? Nada. The real stereotype Clinton and McCain are playing on is that blue collar workers are easily manipulated and will 'stay down' if you just tell them they are hardworking, patriotic, value-driven Americans.
Has Senator Obama dealt himself a fatal blow with this "misstatement"? Time will tell, but I seriously doubt it. He's responded to the criticism aggressively, but has not altered his premise, saying only that he probably could've "said it better". We've seen both derision and support from media outlets.
Over at Huffington Post, Tom D'Antoni concludes that:
The misguided mainstream media may be right about one thing, this may be a turning point, the point at which Americans begin to listen to a politician who tells the truth and refuses to pander, to stoop as low as Senator Clinton and the rest of the Republicans.