Much blather on talk radio this week, and a long post at Montana Headlines, about Barack Obama's remarks about how "bitter" small-town folk "cling" to guns and religion because they are unhappy with the ways their lives are going in other respects.
Most of this strikes me as so nonsensical that it took me a few days to realize that it could actually even be a controversy. That's one problem with listening to talk radio: There is so much manufactured outrage built into every broadcast that it becomes hard to detect what real outrage might lie underneath.
It also seemed clear to me that when Obama said rural people "cling," he wasn't referring to a desperate attempt to give meaning to their lives. He was talking about guns and religion as political issues, as a way to influence public discourse.
Whether he's right about that is in my mind an open question. Others have noted that he makes the same argument Thomas Frank makes in "What's the Matter with Kansas?" I haven't read the book, but I've read a long excerpt, and Frank seemed to make a compelling, but incomplete, case.
I also can't claim to speak for small-town America, although I suspect I have better credentials to do so than any of the talking heads I have seen pontificating about the topic. I've lived most of my life in small towns (no, that does not include Billings) and was raised in a fundamentalist church in the South by parents who practically defined the middle class: a school teacher and a mailman.
I'm not sure why things have changed in that group, but I'm certain they have. When I was a boy, fundamentalist churches stayed out of politics. At best, it was considered a distraction from the church's real mission. At worst, it was downright tacky. The decision by conservative churches to embrace political activism is one of the biggest changes in American politics in my lifetime.
And the conservative obsession over gun rights has to be rooted in something other than genuine concern about threats to the Second Amendment. I'll bet you could search the entire ranks of political candidates in Montana this fall and not find a single one who is willing to take on the gun lobby. It just isn't done. Yet a large chunk of rural voters seem persuaded that we are just an election away from wholesale repeal of the right to bear arms.
Can these things be explained by economic insecurity? Perhaps in part, although other factors certainly are in play. The gun lobby didn't become powerful by minimizing threats to gun rights, so it obviously has a stake in keeping emotions at a high pitch. And the fundamentalist shift to politics owes its origins no doubt in part to fear that godlessness was taking over secular life.
Remember, when I was a kid, Texas still had blue laws limiting what goods could be sold on Sunday. Voters had to pay a poll tax. Kids were directed to pray in school. Homosexuals not only couldn't marry, but they'd better stay out of sight. Blacks had their own schools -- not good schools -- and couldn't play Southwest Conference sports. Casual marijuana users could get 99 years in prison.
I think the world is a better place without those restrictions, but lifting them scared the hell out of a lot of rural people. And that would have been true no matter what economic insecurities may have accompanied the changes.
Montana Headlines cites George Packer, who says that Republicans have dominated presidential politics for most of the last half of the century because Democrats are blind to rural concerns. Packer's contention is dubious on multiple grounds. For one thing, Republicans have held the presidency for 28 of the last 48 years. That's 58 percent of the time -- a nice margin but a bit short of dominant, especially when one considers that of the five Republicans who held the presidency during that period, one resigned in disgrace, two couldn't get re-elected and another not only lost the popular vote but may leave office as the most unpopular president in U.S. history. So when Packer says that Republicans dominated presidential politics, he basically means Ronald Reagan, and Reagan, despite his own elitist lifestyle, certainly did have broad appeal in rural areas.
Conservative Democrats (and there were a lot of them in those days) understood very well what was going on in small towns, and they weren't happy about it. Liberals understood, too, but they were willing to take political hits to erase old standards of bigotry and intolerance that had reigned for more than a century.
Obama represents, in important ways, the final triumph of the political price liberals paid to level the playing field. It would be troubling and ironic if he were to fail to complete that triumph because of a perception that he doesn't understand the struggle that got him there.
But it would be more troubling if he were to lose because it simply isn't possible in presidential politics today for candidates to think out loud, to pose thoughtful responses that may turn out to be wrong but that advance the level of political discussion in America.