"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."
To put it in context, he was talking about the impoverishment and decline of rural communities, and how the people who lived there were reacting to it. In the firestorm that followed, few seemed to notice that Obama was actually speaking sympathetically about their plight, but only felt that the reactions to it were misguided. (Note: for as much vitriol as conservatives spilled over that "clinging" comment, they feel just fine generalizing about "blah people," the "language of the ghetto," and blacks being on the Democratic "plantation." These statements show a lack of the attempt to understand and empathize underlying Obama's statements.)
As a child of the rural Midwest, I found a great deal of truth to candidate Obama's portrait when he said those words. As the years go by, the character of religion in my hometown has changed drastically. People were plenty pious before, certainly, but now their religion has become politicized. In former times, it was considered impolite to push one's religiosity in public, now it's expected. For example, my parents often wear large crosses around their necks and insist on praying before meals in restaurants, something they never did before. That growth in religiosity has also been matched with more bitter overtones in conversation, and an insistent narrative that the people of rural America are the last outpost of decency in a nation changing for the worse with each day. My trips home usually mean hearing all kinds of bitter words about lazy people getting handouts, government intrusion, taxes, immigration, and now, Planned Parenthood.
The latter issue was a jarring reminder of how much has really changed. On Sunday, I went to Catholic mass with my family, which I did not out of my own beliefs or piety, but as a gesture of goodwill to my parents, who like having us all together in church. As we walked in to the lobby, one of the parishioners had set up a table where he was taking donations for an ad to appear in the local paper calling for Planned Parenthood to be kept out of town. I actually do not know whether Planned Parenthood is planning on setting up a clinic there (which would be a boon to the substantial population of poor young women) or whether the movement to stop it is just a paranoid affirmation of the current attack on women's reproductive rights. In any case, I had never seen such an explicit intertwining of partisan politics (the movement to destroy Planned Parenthood is currently being carried forth by the Republican party) and religion inside of my home church. Yes, the abortion issue had been flogged to death from the pulpit over the years, but it never felt like anything was being coordinated with the national policy agenda of one of the nation's major parties, and parishioners were never asked to contribute money to political advertising.
That such coordination appears to be happening now reflects a general politicization of daily life, and how local politics carry a much more national flavor than ever. I think that talk radio and Fox News have a lot to do with that change. In my hometown, as in East Texas when I lived there, Fox is quite often the default background TV station of choice in restaurants, banks, bars, car dealerships, and even in my grandmother's nursing home. Businesses and construction sites emanate the stabbing vocal attacks of Rush Limbaugh and other right wing talkers. The propaganda is almost inescapable, and the distortion of the truth in a public and repeated way reminds me more of public life in an authoritarian state than the kind of public sphere necessary for a democracy. Many once reasonable people now see politics through the distorted lens of the right wing media, and it is impossible to have a real political discussion with them. Global warming is a hoax, The Government is an evil entity to be destroyed, president Obama is a socialist, and "our values" are being corrupted by a laundry list of "others." Their heroes are the heroes pushed by Fox, their villains, like George Soros and Planned Parenthood, have been conjured up by the same source. (Last year my mother went on an anti-Soros rant, calling him an "evil man," despite apparently not knowing who he actually was.)
One clue this time around that the right wing noise machine has nestled its way deep into the minds of my people was that so many of my friends and relatives were complimenting Chris Christie, despite the fact that my wife was standing right there, and she is a public school teacher in New Jersey! At one point, when I explained that Christie's bullying attacks on teachers and policies towards them made us feel personally targeted, and that his actions have harmed the livelihood of our family, the reaction was stunned disbelief, as if I had told them I was a Unitarian.
I despair at times of the ever-present but growing urban-rural divide in this country. The anger and bitterness described by Barack Obama four years ago has now been bottled up and harnessed by the forces of right wing extremism. Rural America's loyal foot soldiers for the Right will never question how big agribusiness rigs the farm economy in the favor of corporations, or how mega-retailers like Wal-Mart are destroying small business on Main Street. For me personally, the ideological nature of daily life has made my Nebraska homeland a much less pleasant place to visit than it used to be. More and more, I feel like a stranger in my own hometown.