The perils of looking down your nose at the rubes and hicks.

A column by David Zurawik that appeared in The Baltimore Sun a couple of weeks ago struck a responsive chord.  Zurawik is the Sun’s media critic, and the television coverage of president-elect Donald Trump’s recent stop in Zurawik’s hometown, West Allis, Wisconsin, caused Zurawik to launch into a tirade on the patronizing and demeaning manner in which the national media tend to cover places like West Allis.  His observations are worth a conversation about losing touch with the ordinary working people of this country and they also give me a chance to get something off of my chest about the campaign of Hillary Clinton.

Zurawik lambasted network executives in New York and Washington for thinking that “people in places like West Allis are rubes and hicks and somehow less entitled to being treated in a non-stereotypical manner than they and their fine, fine reporters and anchors are.”  The segment that sent Zurawik over the edge included a reporter commenting on the size of the stack of pancakes served at Johnny V’s, a local diner in West Allis.  Zurawik noted that he could not “recall one political report I saw in the last two years from a breakfast place in New York, Washington or Los Angeles with reporters dressed like they were auditioning for ‘Hee Haw,’ marveling at the locals’ capacity for pancakes.”

Zurawik said that except for funerals he hasn’t returned to West Allis since he was 18.  He has not, however, forgotten where he was from and how experiences there shaped his life; he described the job that his out-of-work father was given collecting garbage as the salvation of his family.  His father eventually became safety director for the city.  Zurawik suggested that had the national media not been so out of touch with people from places like West Allis they might have realized what an error Hillary Clinton committed by not making a single stop in Wisconsin during the final week of her campaign.

That brings bring me to Hillary, and to my own perceptions.  I know that Zurawik was restating the conventional wisdom that Hillary erred in neglecting the “core constituency” of her party by a lack of attention to Wisconsin.  I wonder, however, if a visit or two would have made any difference given her general inability to connect with working class voters from Wisconsin and elsewhere.  My moment of clarity on that issue came in August when Vice President Joe Biden accompanied Hillary on a campaign stop in Scranton in my home state of Pennsylvania.  As they spoke to a rally in Scranton the contrast between Hilary and Biden, who lived in Scranton until he was 13, could not have been more pronounced.

After listening to Biden speak I was convinced that he could still walk unannounced into any diner or barber shop in Scranton and strike up a friendly conversation with the locals.  Hillary, on the other hand, was like an alien from outer space.  Her father may have been from Scranton and she may have spent summers on Lake Winola northwest of Scranton but Hillary was no more at home in Scranton than she was in anywhere else in working class America during the campaign.  If she ever had any working class roots she had long since left them behind.

Zurawik has strong feelings because he still identifies with the people of West Allis, something that I can appreciate.  I grew up in Spring Township near the city of Reading.  My parents and I actually spent the first five years of my life my living with my mother’s parents in the borough of West Lawn until my parents got their own home a few miles to the west in Spring Township.  West Lawn no longer exists, however, having been merged into Spring Township, so now I can just say that I am from Spring Township; it makes it easier.

I earned my own spending money from delivering newspapers from the time I was eleven and later worked during the summers and on holidays in varying places including a brass foundry, a deep shaft iron ore mine, a state highway crew, and a cardboard box factory.  I even spent a few weekends helping out on my buddy Bruce’s family’s dairy farm.  I didn’t set out to sample the various kinds of unskilled manual labor performed in the Reading area but it did seem to turn out that way.

My stint in the brass foundry grinding the rough edges off of brass hose bibs was mercifully short and ended when I got a job as a laborer in Grace Mine, located south of Reading and owned and operated by Bethlehem Steel.  Compared to standing in front of a grinding wheel for eight hours a day in the brass foundry working in Grace Mine was a picnic, once you got used to the cramped spaces, the dampness, the darkness and the idea of being up to 3,000 feet underground.  The work was hard and dirty, but less monotonous than grinding hose bibs.

Many of the miners at Grace Mine while I was there were former coal miners who had lost their coal-mining jobs when the demand for anthracite coal began declining in the 1950’s.  Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region stretches roughly from Schuylkill County north of Reading to the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area, and some of the miners drove almost two hours each way to work at Grace Mine.

After graduating from college I never again worked in a foundry, mine or factory or on a road crew or farm but I still tend to bristle when I detect a whiff of snobbery on the part of those who tend to look upon manual labor as less noble or worthy than whatever it is that they do; I know how wrong they are.  Zurawik described the issue in geographic terms, but it is of course also socioeconomic.  Network executives and other elitists long have tended to look down their noses at the working men and women who reside in what they regard as the vast cultural wasteland between the coasts.

It seems to me that Hillary is not much different from the network executives to whom Zurawik referred.  In my opinion, it was what Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editorial Page Editor of The Sun, described as Clinton’s haughty demeanor that doomed Clinton with the working class.  Yes, Clinton had plenty of other baggage, some deserved and some not, but I believe that the supervening cause of her defeat was the fact that many Americans, particularly members of the working class, simply did not like her – and in many cases despised her.

Some of her problem establishing a rapport with working class voters had to do with her tendency to come across as guarded and stiff in front of an audience.  Hillary had what Kasie Hunt of NBC described on the night of the election as an “authenticity” problem that made it impossible for her to connect with many voters, but it was more than that.  She could talk about working class voters but she had trouble talking to them.

If I recall anything about the ordinary working folk of Pennsylvania it was how little they cared for people who talked down their noses to them or talked to them as if they were children.  Being a snob was the cardinal sin; you could be rich – most of my friends and neighbors in Spring Township would have preferred to be rich – but putting on airs was unforgivable.

Hillary never appeared comfortable mixing with the hoi polloi.  There is sort of a rule of thumb, and it goes like this:  If the hoi polloi sense that you don’t like them, they won’t like you.  I think that is what happened to Hillary.

Trump, on the other hand, convinced the hoi polloi that he liked and cared about them.  He doesn’t actually give a rat’s ass about them, but that is a whole other story.  And he is anything but a snob in the conventional sense, at least when it comes to his behavior – no one I knew in Spring Township was as crass or vulgar as he is; the snobs acted better than you – not worse.  In the end I believe that his general coarseness worked to his advantage by sharpening the contrast with Hillary’s tendency to come off as holier-than-thou.

Your father did not have to be a garbage man or you did not have to work in a mine to relate to working class voters.  It is more a matter of attitude than experience.  I just don’t think Hillary has it in her, and she seems to feel genuinely ill at ease in places like Johnny V’s in West Allis.  In a revealing article that appeared in the New York Times in September the authors described Hillary as “especially relaxed, candid and even joyous” in the company of ultra-rich supporters in places like the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, Beverly Hills and Silicon Valley.

According to the authors of the Times article some of the closest relationships Hillary and her husband have are with their longstanding financial contributors.  “If she feels most at ease around millionaires, within the gilded bubble, it is in part because they are some of her most intimate friends.”  She needed to feel more at ease around non-millionaires, or at least be able to avoid giving the distinct impression that she’d rather be elsewhere when in the company of less-sophisticated people.

Let me say that I don’t hate Hillary for who she is; if she is only comfortable around her intellectual and socioeconomic peers, so be it.  That doesn’t make her a bad person and it only became a problem when she decided to run for the presidency as the candidate of the Democratic Party.

It was incumbent upon Hillary to be able to get down off of her pedestal to establish a rapport with working class voters, especially because her candidacy carried with it a sense of entitlement – another strike against her with the working class.  She was unable to do that and it doomed her campaign.  Failing to climb down from her pedestal was an invitation to voters to knock her off of that pedestal and that is exactly what they did.

I believe that more voters would have overlooked her other baggage had they simply liked her.  Far too many voters within the Democratic Party’s core constituency were left feeling ice cold toward the party’s nominee.

Finally, let’s try to accept that responsibility for the loss to Trump lies with the Democratic Party and its nominee.  The Democratic Party employed a flawed nominating process that resulted in the selection of a flawed candidate who ran a flawed campaign.

Paul Krugman wrote a column this week in the New York Times on the subject of Obamacare.  He couldn’t resist beginning with a gratuitous comment that bore no relationship to the rest of on the column:  “If James Comey, the F.B.I. director, hadn’t tipped the scales in the campaign’s final days with that grotesquely misleading letter, right now an incoming Clinton administration would be celebrating some very good news. Because health reform, President Obama’s signature achievement, is stabilizing after a bumpy year.”

Mr. Krugman, ask yourself this question:  What kind of candidate loses to an offensive, bombastic and crass narcissist who appears to have an attention deficit disorder and is temperamentally and morally unfit to be President?  Hopefully you will agree that the answer is a candidate who never should have been nominated by a major party.  You can torture yourself by wondering what would have happened had Comey kept his mouth shut but the bigger picture is that it never should have mattered because the election should not have been a close one.

Before the first Democratic primary took place national polls showed that 50% of the registered voters in the country viewed Hillary unfavorably.  For a candidate who had been in the public eye for over 24 years that hole was far too deep; minds had been made up.  When a Democratic candidate for president manages to lose Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan to a business magnate who has his brand-named goods manufactured overseas it tells you that there was a deeper problem than a letter from the FBI director.

I don’t mind agreeing with Zurawik but it bothers me to admit that Anthony Bourdain, who generally grates on my nerves, had a point when he said that working-class Americans were tired of “privileged eastern liberals.”  He overstated the point, but the hard truth is that many working class voters found little reason to trust Hillary with their future.

Some of the mistrust had to do with her general reputation for shading the truth and ignoring rules that apply to lesser folk.  A lot of it, however, had to do with the way that she and her husband had parlayed their public service into a fortune estimated at $111 million, most of which was earned in “speaking fees” paid to the Clintons by large corporations and foreign governments.  The Clintons were by no means the first politicians to capitalize on their public service but that does not mean that it endeared them to voters living pay check to pay check.

Even if you don’t believe that it was an implicit pay-to-play scheme for the Clinton Foundation to accept donations from foreign countries and multi-national corporations while Hillary was Secretary of State (even though that is what it was) the practice had an unseemly feel to it.  It confirmed an uncomfortable perception that for Hillary and her husband public service has become as much a means to an end as an end in itself.  To compound the problem the Clinton Global Initiative, a major focus of the Clinton Foundation conveyed the image of Hillary and her husband as more interested in hobnobbing with Nobel Laureates, world leaders, and other global elites than spending their time with ordinary Americans.

It is hard to think of any activity more removed from the experiences of everyday Americans than a group of intellectuals getting together to sip wine and share lofty ideas for solving the world’s problems.  Let’s just say that it doesn’t have the same down-to-earth feel as former President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn nailing up drywall for Habitat for Humanity.  Indeed, the concept oozes elitism.

Hillary is a Midwesterner by birth.  After they left the White House the Clintons moved to Chappaqua, a toney hamlet in Westchester County, so that Hillary could run for the United States Senate from New York.  The Clintons didn’t move back to his home state of Arkansas or her home state of Illinois.  They became “privileged eastern liberals” by choice.  Again, I don’t want to overemphasize the point but by the time of the presidential campaign in 2016 Hillary had made it very hard for working class voters in places like West Allis, Wisconsin and Spring Township, Pennsylvania to see her as their champion.

Van Jones, a CNN commentator that I do like, also saw the 2016 election as a rejection of a certain kind of “elitism” in the Democratic Party:  “You can’t run and hide. You’ve got to be an authentic person from the beginning,” he said. “You’re going to be judged based on your authentic commitment to the actual base of this party. And if you don’t do that, you can’t win.”

I think that is an accurate observation.  I am not suggesting that Hillary is not dedicated to public service and to making the lives of all Americans better.  I believe that she is.  Given her background and where she was in her life and the limitations of her personality and communications skills, however, there was no chance that she ever was going to persuade the working class base of the Democratic Party that she was the person best suited to advance their interests.  She became, instead, the perfect foil for the demagoguery of our president-elect.

January 1, 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s