Senator Barack Obama’s recent remarks about the predicament of the “bitter” working-class, in many respects, provoked a political firestorm. Some accused him of “condescension,” while others called him “elitist.” In retrospect, as he admitted, his characterization of this demographic probably wasn’t the most incisive. But the reaction to his words speaks more about the nation’s state of fragility than about the candidate’s fallibilities.
Uncomfortably, this backlash epitomizes the state our national discourse has fallen to. The question that must be asked, thus, is why has the discourse become so philistine and juvenile?
The most obvious blame lies with the media. To increase viewership, conflict is sought. Reporting on productive – if mundane – community-empowerment efforts are forsaken for attention-grabbing headlines. In national politics, for instance, the competitive aspect of an election is emphasized, with the horserace casting the candidates and their supporters as part of a sporting bloodbath. Here, personalities, not policies or philosophies, confer electoral prospects. As a result, our national leaders have become constantly-scrutinized participants of a large-scale reality show.
But the media isn’t wholly responsible for this mess. They are conscripts feeding such news only because their users don’t denounce this lunacy. The focus of a candidate’s appearance or even cackle – and not one’s governing abilities – has thrived only because the culture has enabled it. The true fault lies in a society that consumes information without questioning its logic.
Societies’ acceptance of such trivialities is partly a function of modernity. Individuals’ fast-paced lifestyles, paradoxically, drain them into demanding immediacy. To provide this ease, news networks frame distinctions in absolutes and construct narratives in black-and-white. Furthermore, given societies’ dwindling attention-span, the media compresses entire chunks of information into sound bites. In turn, long, deliberative and substantive answers are dismissed as “wonkish” and “nerdy.”
Another reason is the elite-commoner dynamic. A leader’s electability is arbitrarily defined according to “likeability.” Appearance of intellectualism is scorned, branded as a pretext to being “out-of-touch.” Elitism, disdained, emerges as a barometer of detachment from reality. Swayed by such factors, the nation ended up reelecting George W. Bush – “Who would you rather have a beer with?” – to a second term in 2004.
As these dynamics converge, a culture that doesn’t celebrate intellectualism, as much as it rewards a visceral gratification, has emerged. Simplicity, not soundness, is exalted. Lost are complexity, context, perspective and nuance. Emotion takes precedence over thoughtful civic engagement. Partisanship is primed above reason. Gut-feeling pervades. Consequently, fear, anger and distrust permeate. This situation is indicative of a society that has grown so dependent, intent and intense on instant longings. It is illustrative of a nation where critical introspection has atrophied.
And certain parties, notably the Republican establishment, have exploited this vulnerability by employing distractive measures. Wedge issues, such as gun ownership, gay marriages and abortion are highlighted, divisions designed to appeal to certain classes. Moreover, when politicians distort the words of opponents, they are not questioned as much as the battle befits the horserace. This bickering obstructs progress.
In the end, critical challenges the nation faces are ignored in favor of triviality. Attempts to solve impending problems fail because the nation is too distracted by, as Senator Obama once characterized, “the smallness of our politics.”
And this situation is unsustainable. America’s international stature is at peril. Asia’s ascent symbolizes a new world order. The nation’s immediate and long-term future is at stake. The choice, then, is to acknowledge the problems that really matter. We can begin first by asking whether working-class Pennsylvanians are “bitter.”
ZACH HAN is bitter about the state of discourse. E-mail him your bitterness to email@example.com.