Barack Obama and the politicisation of lifestyle

The most striking thing about the 2008 race for the White House is the ‘blue’ elite’s unrestrained disdain for its ‘bitter’ moral inferiors.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics USA

Now that Barack Obama has become the Democratic nominee in the presidential election, what has been the key lesson of the primary race? For me, one of the most interesting things is the extent to which lifestyle has been politicised in contemporary America.

To date, the most memorable moment of the presidential campaign was ‘Bittergate’. This is the name given to the controversy caused by Obama’s speech at a fundraising event in San Francisco on 6 April. Obama was talking about his difficulty in winning over white working-class voters in the Pennsylvania primary, when he said: ‘[It’s] not surprising 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.’

His casual and knowing putdown of small-town folk sent a very clear message about the cultural fault-line that divides America today. He is blue (Democrat and liberal), they are red (Republican and traditionalist); he is enlightened, they are bitter.

During my travels in America, I often encounter people who unthinkingly and moralistically condemn their fellow citizens’ values, emotions or faith. Indeed, the politicisation of people’s personal values, even their lifestyle, strikes me as one of the most distinctive features of public life in contemporary America. Some seem to take their lifestyles so seriously that they do not simply disagree with people who have a different outlook to them – rather they heap contempt and loathing on those ‘other’ individuals’ manners, habits and values.

I am always struck by the hectoring language used by otherwise educated and sensitive, sophisticated people when they are denouncing ‘ordinary folk’. Frequently, those who are associated with the so-called religious right are described as ‘simpletons’ and ‘idiots’. What is most striking is the passion and force with which certain individuals are attacked if they take a different position on, say, the right to abortion or the right to bear arms. These passionate denunciations suggest that some people, most notably those in the liberal elite, feel that their very identity – as expressed through their lifestyles – is being called into question by those who dare to disagree on the environment, abortion, immigration or any other issue. Sadly, all too often debates about issues and values can become very personal indeed in America.

The language used by Obama to describe the smalltown folk of the Rust Belt implied that these people inhabit a different moral universe to the one inhabited by the individuals he was addressing in San Francisco. In his words, when ‘they’ get ‘bitter’, they ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them’. From this standpoint, insecurity, religion, guns and xenophobia all come to be associated with ‘the other’, defining the way of life of what we in Europe refer to as the ‘little people’. Significant sections of America’s cultural elite have bought into this caricatured representation of their smalltown citizens. They have adopted a sneering sense of moral superiority towards the outdated and dysfunctional attitudes of the ‘little people’.

Obama’s statement on 6 April, and the various reactions to it, is testimony to the intense polarisation of public life in the US. And as the outcome of the Pennsylvania primary indicated (Hillary won with 51 per cent over Obama’s 41 per cent), a significant section of the electorate regards such statements as personally insulting.

Historically, some big differences and clashes of interest have divided American society. Many of these old divisions, such as between North and South, black and white, Protestant and Catholic, have either diminished in importance, or they have become entangled with the contemporary polarisation between red and blue states. Consequently, the deep division between North and South that once shaped the contours of American political life has lost its salience. Today, reports indicate that there are growing value gaps amongst African-Americans. A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that both blacks and whites believe that in recent years ‘values held by blacks and whites have converged’.

The differences that matter now are cultural – but it’s not culture with a capital C. Instead, what distinguishes liberal/cosmopolitan blue values from the more traditional red values are different orientations towards lifestyle. This is not simply a new version of the politics of identity that were promoted by the upwardly mobile baby-boomers in the 1970s. No, the emergence of the blue-and-red divide is underpinned by an inexorable tendency to politicise lifestyle. The labels ‘bitter’, ‘frustrated’ and ‘antipathetic’ speak to personal attitudes and emotions.

In the 2000 presidential election won by George W Bush, the significance of red-and-blue divisions amongst the electorate became clear. And in the eight years since then, polarised attitudes towards cultural values have become more and more consolidated. Outwardly, categories such as ethnicity, race and gender still seem to dominate political discourse. Some commentators claim that class or economic status can explain the differences between the more prosperous blue states and poorer red states, such as those in the Mid-West. However, class and economics cannot account for the super-emotional attacks on people who are seen as the bitter moral inferiors of the blue elite. Increasingly, the American electorate has become more and more fragmented along lifestyle lines.

People who live in the ‘blue pockets’ of generally red states have a very different life and outlook to their neighbours. An academic colleague of mine who lives in a college town in Wisconsin told me that ‘they’ – it is always ‘they’ – even eat differently to us. Likewise, Adolph Reed Jr of New School University in New York told of a colleague who, after the 2004 election that was won by Bush, complained that there are millions of people out there who are ‘just not like us’. This act of moral distancing – creating a gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – is one of the most disturbing aspects of the politicisation of lifestyle.

Contempt for ‘them’ is usually expressed in code, through nods and winks. Terms like ‘NASCAR dads’, ‘Rednecks’, ‘Valley Girls’ or ‘Soccer Moms’ are used to refer to ‘them’. However, more recently the condemnation of other people’s lifestyles has become unrestrained. This was most clear during and after the 2004 presidential election, when numerous media commentators took it upon themselves to question the mental capacity of their fellow citizens – the ‘red’ ones.

A columnist for The Village Voice wrote of the ‘monumental apathy and programmed ignorance of at least half the American public’. A leading liberal writer argued that Americans were voting in a ‘fog of fear’, and thus they could not be trusted to think about ‘real politics’ in a serious manner. Apparently, thanks to President Bush’s ‘unremitting fearmongering’, ‘millions of voters are reacting not with their linear and logical left brain, but with their lizard brain and their more emotional right brain… It’s not about left wing vs right wing; it’s about left brain vs right brain.’

At times, the liberal-left’s denunciation of the ‘religious right’ reads like a critique of the electorate’s mental capacity. One Democratic Party activist claims that the American public has become a sort of ‘Fast Food Electorate’, and it is as if ‘Americans suffer collectively from a plague of Attention Deficit Disorder’. Reading such statements, it is difficult to disentangle political attitudes from an existential angst about who we are. In the blue-vs-red divide in America today – or should that be the human-vs-lizard divide? – everything from what you think to how you speak to what you eat can become politicised.

Of course, once an individual’s identity and political outlook become entwined, then debate becomes highly charged – and highly personal. Arguments come to represent a statement about the self. When public issues are taken so personally, political dialogue becomes deeply confusing. It is always difficult to respond in a cool and detached manner to what we perceive to be an insult. When people endow their lifestyles with moral meaning, even relatively minor differences with others can acquire monumental significance. Often, people use statements such as ‘they are not like us’ to affirm their own identity. Criticising other people’s consumption of junk food or adherence to religious values is a way of making a statement about the self; those who advocate different kinds of behaviour and different values come to be seen as a threat to one’s own identity.

So it is not political polarisation but disputes about different ‘ways of life’ that fuel the blue/red divide. Some even believe that the identities of the blues and the reds are frozen and unchangeable. A report titled The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters, produced by a group of researchers at the University of Maryland, argued that Bush supporters live in a make-believe world while their opponents inhabit the real world (1). Increasingly, people’s political attitudes are reduced to the level of personality. An individual’s upbringing, psychology and character are discussed as key factors in forming their political worldview. Politics becomes psychologised.

Such vulgar psychologising is best captured in the writings of George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley. Lakoff imagines he is being insightful when he writes about the differences between red and blue voters; in fact he is recycling a caricatured version of Theodor Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality. Lakoff divides the US electorate into two groups – those who are looking for a strict father figure, and those who would prefer a nurturing, parent-oriented family set-up. According to Lakoff, conservatives want a dominant father figure; it is their ‘strict authoritarian values’ that ‘motivate them to enter the voting booth’ (2). By contrast, liberals are imbued with the ‘nurturant parent worldview’ and are inspired by the values of ‘empathy and responsibility’ (3). Lakoff interprets people’s voting behaviour as a personality issue rather than a matter of political choice. Apparently, it is not ideas but styles of parenting that determine voting behaviour.

This sort of pop psychology suggests that people’s personality and emotions are immutable facts of life which determine how we vote. Authoritarian, strict-father types vote conservative, and nurturing, empathic individuals veer to the left. Lakoff and others reject the notion that people make reasoned calculations or vote according to their self-interests (otherwise, why would they have re-elected Bush?). Instead, ‘they vote their identity’ and ‘they vote their values’. In other words, ‘they vote on the basis of who they are, what values they have, and who and what they admire’ (4).

Of course, identity does play an important role in public life. But people’s identity is far from fixed; certainly the simplistic association of parenting style with political affiliation overlooks the fluid, unpredictable manner in which people engage with public issues. If identity has become an important factor in voting behaviour today, then it has less to do with people’s ‘father figures’ than with the politicisation of lifestyles. At a time when there is very little to separate the presidential candidates, politicians have sought to politicise people’s personal lives. Today, most of the wedge issues that divide the American electorate – guns, same-sex marriage, abortion, school prayer – directly impinge on individuals’ identities. When issues become personal, debate becomes polarised. This process looks likely to entrench the sense of social fragmentation rather than alleviate it.

In the US election campaign, the kind of ‘moral distancing’ undertaken by Obama and others reveals an unwillingness to engage in genuine public debate with ‘other’ people. Also, the elevation of identity suggests that it is impossible to influence or change people’s views through a rigorous and open conversation, since everything is already psychologically frozen. The idea of the ‘politics of choice’ has given way to the ‘politics of identity’. Voters are treated as if their lifestyles and values are as much part of their individuality as the colour of their skin or hair. This tendency to naturalise identity is encouraged by the political elites, who appeal to people’s narrow identities in order to consolidate their support base.

During the election campaign, elite attitudes towards ‘them’ have, if anything, hardened. Far from being apologetic about Bittergate, many of Obama’s supporters raised the ante when the controversy kicked off. ‘These people don’t turn to God and guns and mistrust of foreigners because of a downturn in the economy’, argued TV host Jon Stewart; rather ‘those are the very foundations those towns are built on’. In short, all is fixed in these red states; prejudice and backwardness is built into the very foundations.

Obama’s victory in the Democratic nomination process reveals that much has changed in America. The old-fashioned politics of race is far less important than it was in the past – but it is being replaced by a new, individuated, culture-based divide between different sections of American society.

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown has just been published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.


Brendan O’Neill writes: As part of our coverage of the 2008 race for the White House, spiked will be smashing some firmly held myths about America, American politics and American voters. You think American voters are stupid? That many are beholden to an all-powerful religious right? That issues of race remain unchanged? Think again. Our series of myth-busting articles will begin next week with ‘The Myth of Racist America’.

(1) See ‘The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters (The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll; The University of Maryland)’, Steven Kull, 21 October 2004. This point is further developed by John W. Dean, former counsel to the president, in ‘Understanding the 2004 Presidential Election’, Common Dreams News Center; 13 April 2003.

(2) So argues Don Hazen, editor of Alter Net, in his introduction to Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, George Lakoff, 2004

(3) Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, George Lakoff, 2004; pp.11-12.

(4) Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, George Lakoff, 2004; pp.19 & 39.

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Topics USA


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