The Difference Between Bitter Clingers and 47 Percent

I’m reading a lot of folks in the press comparing Mitt Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent to Barack Obama’s remarks about working class whites who get bitter and cling to guns and religion rather than voting for Democrats. This reflects, I think, an undue focus on gaffes qua gaffes rather than public statements as a source of insight into politicians views and agendas.

As gaffes, these are similar in that they involve candidates insulting large classes of voters through condescension. But most of the evidence we have is that gaffes don’t really impact election outcomes.

A separate question is what did we learn from these remarks about the candidates’ agenda. What Obama said was that he wasn’t going to compromise on the culture war issues that he thinks drives some voters into GOP arms (“guns and religion”) but that his hope is that better economic policies will lead to better outcomes for these voters which will cause them to become less bitter and clingy. In other words, Obama believes Obama’s agenda will be good for working class whites in West Virginia and Pennsylvania even though those people may not believe him now or be inclined to vote for him. Romney seems to be saying the reverse. Not that people in the bottom half of the income distribution won’t vote for him even though his agenda is better for them, but that people in the bottom half of the income distribution won’t vote for him precisely because his agenda is bad for them.

Obama is making a false consciousness argument. Romney is making a correct consciousness argument. The condescension is similar but the content of the statements is totally different.