Beware of the campaign sound bite. Candidates live and die by clever one-liners. In Barack Obama's case, it is especially discouraging to see a candidate criticized for an off-the-cuff comment that hardly does justice to his own earlier and more careful reflections.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have repeatedly attacked Obama for a response to a question regarding why he was not attracting more support in some rural communities. He responded: "You go into 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," he said. "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."
Obama could be read as suggesting that social values and personal and social identity are merely a rationalization for the "real" economic story. They are not to be taken seriously in their own right. To treat group and individual values as merely products of forces beyond our control clearly is to demean those who hold those values and to deny them an opportunity to speak for themselves. Yet much of Obama's campaign suggests that he takes values seriously and has more interest in understanding the subtle interplay between social values and the quest for economic justice than either of his opponents.
Even in his ill-considered remarks at the fundraiser, Obama's suggestion that voters "cling" to guns or religion can be read as the contention that in troubled times citizens can often become more dogmatic about their fundamental values, more convinced that they have the one, true source of truth and that their truths are all-embracing. Looking at the history of such movements as the Ku Klux Klan or a variety of xenophobic movements in the 1930s, one would be hard-pressed to deny some historical grounding for such concerns.
In his earlier and widely praised speech on race, Obama took values seriously in the truest and most democratic way. He regarded them as necessary and serious quests for broader justice but as also not above criticism. And he clearly saw himself as having a role both as interrogator and listener in such conversations. Thus he suggested that African-Americans had and still have reasons to believe that the legacy of slavery is not fully dead and to see themselves as inhabiting a different and lesser world. Equal educational opportunity remains elusive, and racial profiling and discriminatory drug sentences land too many African-Americans in prison. He reminds whites that the sense of oppression many blacks feel is not all in their head.
But such oppression does not, he asserts, define their entire identity, and both personal advancement and political quests for justice are possible. Toward this end, the most fruitful step lies in understanding that for many working-class whites, similar narratives of injustice in the past 30 years are apt: "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience -- as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor."
Whites need to acknowledge that injustice remains pervasive in many minority communities. African-Americans should consider their goals are best achieved by seeing their struggle as part of a broader effort, in which many whites are also engaged, to achieve good schools, jobs for all, and a voice within the workplace.
Greater economic justice surely creates better conditions for people to be able to acknowledge the partial, often not provable foundations of -- and even the limits of -- those values. At the same time, taking values people hold in the here and now seriously and engaging people in conversation about their values and yours is the key to forming coalitions needed for the just economic conditions that lessen the temptation to demonization of opponents.
What remains unclear to me is how far Obama will go in acknowledging the role the Democratic Party, even many so-called liberals, have played in fostering the very inequalities that exacerbate identity politics. In his infamous remarks, the reference to anti-trade fundamentalism was troubling.
Is Obama suggesting that all opposition to corporate trade treaties was based on xenophobia? Many who opposed these deals care deeply about labor everywhere and wish merely to extend labor rights to all signatories to trade treaties. Ultimately, Obama's success as a political leader will depend on his willingness to make these concerns a broader part of the conversation, and it will require the insistence by labor, immigrant and social justice advocates that their voices be heard.