News flash: Presidential candidate Barack Obama says Iâ€™m not going to take your guns away in front of a hand-picked crowd of Democratic supporters in Duryea, Pennsylvania — and they don’t believe him.
No, that was not a hook for an anti-Obama rant. Obama’s unbelievability on this issue is only partly his own individual fault. The infamous clanger he dropped last April in San Francisco (“And 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.”) didn’t help, but it wouldn’t have become one of the defining memes of the 2008 campaign without a broader context that is what I’m more interested in exploring.
After the 2004 elections I proposed that “[The Democrats] have serious problems. Ronald Reagan peeled away the (private-sector) union vote after 1980; today theyâ€™re losing the blacks over gay marriage and the Jews over Israel and the Terror War. Their voter base is increasingly limited to public-employee unions and brie-nibbling urban elites — theyâ€™re no longer the party of the common man but of the DMV, Hollywood and the Upper West Side.” On this model I made a prediction about county-by-county polling numbers which proved correct.
Four years later, one of the underreported facts about Obama’s campaign is how thin and lukewarm his support is among blacks. He’s got Reverend Wright’s angry, hating minority of a minority behind him, but suffers from the double whammy that his domestic-policy positions are too far left for most blacks and many perceive him as “too white”, an inauthentic mixed-race carpetbagger who knows too much about arugula and nothing about collard greens. The take-away is that the Democrats have been having unexpected difficulty delivering the black vote for a black candidate. This is right in line with my 2004 prediction that blacks might be the next group to wander out of the Democratic coalition.
That, in isolation, might not matter much for the Democrats; the black share of the U.S. electorate is only 12% and declining. But the steady erosion of Democratic credibility among blue-collar and rural whites since the Reagan years has hit them in the other 88%, and the effect is magnified in Presidential elections because the Electoral College over-weights rural and small-state voters. And Obama’s debacle in Duryea is a perfect paradigm for their troubles. A Democratic presidential candidate tells a picked crowd of small-town Democrats that he’s safe on firearms rights, and they disbelieve him to his face. How did this happen? What’s the matter with Duryea?
I live in Pennsylvania and I’ve got family roots in a little central-PA town not far from Duryea, and I think I know the answer to that question. Those folks looked at Obama on stage, equipped with his sharp suit and his Harvard Law polish, and saw yet another member of those brie-nibbling urban elites. And that, my friends, gave Obama exactly the credibility problem with them that his skin color hadn’t.
Blue-collar and small-town America believes, with considerable justification, that urban elites despise them. Firearms rights are emotively loaded for these people for many reasons, and not least among them is because they see “gun control” as a form of class and culture warfare waged against them by urban sophisticates. Obama’s “bitter, clinging to their guns” description six months ago hit about every wrong note possible to aggravate this feeling — elitism, smarmy condescension, and belittling ignorance in one neat brie-flavored package.
Note: these aren’t my reasons for being a firearms-rights advocate. I’m not a rural prole, I’m a city boy with an upper-middle-class background and an Ivy League education and a lot of childhood experience living overseas — rather like Obama, in fact. Even so, it would be difficult for me not to notice that the rural proles who read anti-firearms activism in that hostile class-loaded way have a point — gun-control boosters are very prone to caricaturing all gun owners as baccy-chewing hee-hawing rednecks in the obvious belief that each category discredits the other.
But let’s put Obama as an individual aside for the moment, because this rant isn’t about Obama. It’s about the political culture and the political party that produced him. The truth is that in 2008 that could have been just about any Democrat on stage in Duryea, white or black or polka-dotted, and if he’d said the same thing he’d have gotten the exact same reaction: We don’t believe you.
This comes as no surprise to me. As far back as 2003 I noted that the Democrats had developed negative credibility on gun rights. That is, when a Democratic politician says he supports gun rights — or even merely does not oppose them — firearms owners simply assume as a matter of course that he is lying to conceal a gun-grabbing agenda. Even if they’re Democrats themselves — and that’s what happened to Barack Obama in Duryea.
The larger context is that the Democrats are losing, or have already lost, their claim to represent a populist national coalition that includes blue-collar and rural whites as a matter of course. Gun rights are the canary in this coal mine. Bill Clinton understands this, and has repeatedly told the Democrats straight up that their kulturkampf against guns has been losing them national elections since 1994. The folks in Duryea — and Thomas Frank’s what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas — understand the larger disconnect at gut level. And the Democrats just confirmed it by rejecting Hillary Clinton, who at least faked her heartlander populism well enough to fool anyone who really wanted to be fooled by it, in favor of a candidate who is above even being bothered to pretend.
And that’s why, even with the media establishment shamelessly worshiping at the shrine of Obama, the McCain/Palin ticket is showing a four-point-lead in current polls. Sarah Palin successfully presents herself as everything to the folks in Duryea that Obama is not. But the deeper and longer-term problem for the Democrats has little to do with individuals like Obama or Palin and everything to do with the fact that, while the Democrats of forty years ago could find politicians with Palin’s star appeal to people outside the urban elites and the media, today’s can’t do it. Their politico-cultural base has become too narrow.
That, I think, is the real message from Duryea. And if the McCain/Palin ticket wins this election, that will be why.
UPDATE: Over at the Financial Times, Clive Crook makes essentially the same point.
UPDATE: 24 hours after I wrote this, the McCain/Palin ticket’s lead is increasing, with new polls finding large swings among independent voters and women. The Obama campaign is beginning to sound panicked.