There's a Tim McGraw song from a few years back called "Drugs or Jesus." The song is about life in rural America, where opportunity is hard to find and hope is even more scarce. McGraw sings that in the end the choice is often "drugs or Jesus." I wasn't living in the rural midwest when the song came out. But I had lived there, for 8 years, and the song struck a nerve with me. I liked my years in small-town America, and there is much to be said for such places. But the reality is that for many people in rural communities, life is hard and the prospect of a change for the good isn't on the horizon.
When Barack Obama, speaking at a fund raiser in San Francisco, said of people in small town America, “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," I thought it was an interesting characterization of a world he honestly doesn't know very well. I thought of the Tim McGraw song, which was a much more accurate and sympathetic understanding of the world Obama was trying to describe. There was an immediate media furor about Obama's remarks, but I figured that it would go away. Wow, was I wrong. I think that the national news media has suddenly realized they might reasonably be accused of drinking the Obama Kool-aid. So the endless media loop in the last 10 days has been Obama's comment, and accusations that it was insensitive and elitist, and, and, and..... The media hasn't been alone, of course. Senator Clinton, who never received kid glove treatment by the media, is happy to pile on as well.
And that's a shame. Because while we can debate what Obama said and what Obama meant, we are ignoring the real issue that he was trying to address: anxiety and hopelessness amongst rural Americans, the folks who have been left behind by a global world.
Honestly, I think that Obama's remark was heavy-handed and a bit elitist. Well-educated, liberal, suburban Americans consider themselves tolerant and sophisticated and they enjoy looking down on rural America. They make bumpkin jokes and laugh at a world they don't understand. It's mean-spirited and it's inaccurate.
Sure, rural America is more religious than the rest of America. And, yes, those folks own guns, often for hunting. These are not new trends, they are practices as old as the towns that populate the rural world. Reality is that rural America, which has been on the decline for the last sixty years, has good cause to be bitter. While well-off suburbanites romanticize the life of small-town America, they don't actually go to small-town America, let alone live there. They have no idea what it's like to live in a place that has been left behind in virtually every economic surge in the second half of the 20th century. But that is the reality in rural America. Their populations are aging, their towns are shrinking, their job opportunities are getting slimmer and slimmer, poverty is wide-spread, many of their young people want out or have left, and the technological wave that the rest of us enjoy and take for granted (180 cable channels, cell phone reception; internet access) isn't a guarantee for them. They feel left out and left behind. If they are bitter, maybe it's because they should be.
Though I like him a great deal and will happily cast a ballot for him, I haven't drunk the Obama Kool-aid. I don't expect that a man raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, who has lived in New York City and Chicago, has any idea what life is like in rural America. Though his comments were heavy-handed and couldn't have sounded sympathetic to the people whom he described, the fact of the matter is that rural America does feel left out. In the end, I think that is exactly what Obama was trying to say. I commend him for bringing up the subject. And when the national media has finished with the blandishments and the hand-wringing about Obama's remarks, I hope that we can return to the real question: what happened to the American dream in rural America?