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Get Real

When I fly from California to Ohio next week, one of my jobs will be to go into blue-collar neighborhoods and convince people that they should vote for Barack Obama. Most of them will be voters whom the demographers call “less educated” or “high school diploma or less.” It’s a category that Hillary Clinton carried solidly in the early primaries, that Obama didn’t win until Wisconsin. It’s one that Clinton still hopes will help push her to victory in Ohio and Texas and keep her candidacy alive. Senator Obama can win the nomination without carrying those voters, but if he’s to end the race soon and win it conclusively, if he’s to present himself as the choice of the whole Democratic party and not just the winning half, then he’ll have to keep expanding his support among them. By winning Texas and Ohio with support from a majority of the “less educated,” the Obama campaign can end the argument that’s dividing the Democrats and send them united against John McCain.

So what do I say in Ohio? For those whom the strategists call “more educated” it’s easy to be snide. To tell ourselves that Obama’s lead among the educated means that Clinton is supported by people who don’t know any better. That more brains and awareness inevitably leads us to an appreciation of the superiority of Obama. But to think that would be to misunderstand completely the reality of what being “more educated” and “less educated” in America means.

I identify with the “more educated” niche. Not that my formal education is anything to brag about—not quite two years of junior college—but because my parents made it possible for me to pursue my intellectual interests, and because I’ve been among writers and academics my whole life, so I’ve developed a skill set that makes me employable in a lot of ways and a lot of places. I’m in the business of communicating and managing information, which puts me in this country’s economic elite. I can afford to own a home in a ridiculously expensive city, but if I get tired of carrying that weight I can move anywhere I want: I have clients in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and thanks to the internet I don’t have to live near any of them. I’ve made money in the book business, the TV and movie business, the comic book business, the magazine and newspaper business, the web business. Even if this writing thing doesn’t work out, I can shift my skills over to teaching, coaching, consulting or editing. I’m used to inventing new projects all the time. As a freelancer I take a certain amount of insecurity for granted, but I also assume I’ll create new work when I need it.

For me it’s easy to embrace change. Easy to “turn the page.” It’s what I do several times a day when the work’s going well—turn pages.

But if I’m a union steel worker in Youngstown? Or a non-union supermarket cashier trying to live in a town where all the jobs are going away? How much change can I welcome? With the economy sliding, change is likely to mean getting laid off, having my house repossessed, having to pay medical bills I don’t have the money for. If my job dries up, what do I do with my skills? Build a web site to sell my expertise as a consultant to young sheet metal cutters throughout central Ohio? If Ohio is depressed, where do I go? To California, where there’s a lot more money—but also unaffordable prices and no jobs in the one field I’m trained for?

And if I’m retired, living on a pension, trying to hang onto my home while property taxes and mortgage rates rise? To hell with turning the page. If I’m making ends meet and keeping my head away water, I want to stay on this page. If I’m sinking, I may want to turn the page—but do I want to turn it ahead to some unknown tomorrow? A tomorrow very likely to contain higher taxes, higher rates, more lay-offs, fewer opportunities? If I have the choice, I’ll turn the page back—to a familiar chapter earlier in the story when there were more jobs and cheaper loans and a way better chance of keeping what little I have.

To be less educated does not mean to be more ignorant about your own needs. People know what they need. To be less educated means to have fewer options. To be more vulnerable to forces beyond your control. To distrust national change profoundly, because for the last ten years—or really, with some ups and downs, for the last forty years—change has meant getting screwed.

This is fixed-rate thinking. Safe-bet thinking. It’s about risk avoidance, about minimizing downsides even if that means severely limiting upsides. It’s about knowing that a union job is best because the retirement plan is better and it’s harder to get fired. It’s the thinking that makes the most sense when your marketability is limited, your mobility is restricted and you live close to the edge of real disaster.

In 1978, my father—though a lifelong Democrat, a public school teacher, a great believer in libraries and public services—voted yes on Proposition 13, the legendary measure that lowered property taxes but gutted county budgets. I, an airy young thing who scorned worries about security and property, was appalled. But my dad had grown up poor in the working class and until World War II had always imagined his best possible future was a steady job at the General Motors plant. The G.I. Bill enabled him to get a college degree and become a teacher, to raise his kids with the expectations of the “educated,” but he still knew where a man had to compromise to take care of himself. Squeezed by inflation and rising property taxes, looking ahead to retirement on a fixed pension, he couldn’t sustain his trust in educated liberalism. Not because he’d become a conservative but because, “For once I’m going to vote for myself.”

When Bill Clinton described a vote for Obama as “a roll of the dice” he was speaking straight to that kind of safe-bet reasoning. The economy and the security of the American blue-collar worker were better when the Clintons were in the White House, which makes a return to the Clintons look like a lower-risk wager than a long-shot on an unknown.

When R. Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists union, called Obama “a poet, not a fighter” supported by “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies,” he was pushing back against the condescension of all of us who equate more education with higher thought and sounder values. I’m not going to romanticize his speech as any sort of working-class manifesto. It was a boneheaded rant that embarrassed his own candidate. But it sprang from some truths that the “less educated” know.

They know people like me will do okay no matter what happens to the mill jobs of Ohio. They know I can afford to care about America’s prestige on the world stage and get worked up about “hope” because I don’t have to worry about my job being shipped to Mexico and my house being stolen by inflation and losing my teeth because I can’t afford dental work. I can afford to be audacious because I can afford to lose.

When I go to Ohio, my job is not to enlighten the benighted. It’s not to make industrial workers adopt the values of some writer from San Francisco. The “less educated” know a lot of things that I’ll never know. I see why Clinton can look like the safer bet to a lot of people: the White House years, Bill’s help, her obvious determination to put universal health care at the top of her agenda. I see why her jeers at Obama’s “magic wand” and “celestial choirs” strike chords.

My job in Ohio is to reinforce the pragmatic wisdom that I’ve been hearing from blue-collar voters, the “get real” reasons that Obama is the safer bet:

Obama looks as though he can win the general election by a wider margin, with broader coattails in the congressional races, giving him a firmer mandate and bigger majorities on his side when he takes office.

Obama won’t enter office facing such entrenched hostility from conservatives, and his more pragmatic approaches to such issues as health care have a better chance of winning the consensus needed for approval. Clinton’s mandatory universal health care is a brighter light to her supporters, but it’s also a waving red flag to everyone invested in making sure that her next foray into the issue fails as surely as her efforts in 1993.

Obama's superbly organized campaign suggests that he's a better executive than Clinton, who's had so much trouble keeping her organization together and her message on track.

And only Obama can end the nomination fight and turn the party’s energies to the race against the Republicans in the next ten days.

This is the Obama campaign’s “get real” moment. Not a time to ask who's smarter or more educated or more experience in life. A time to learn from the wisdom of every life and move forward together.

3 Comment count
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Thank you,

for an interesting and informative piece.

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We have a tremendous desire to view all groups in absolutes. Obviously it is rarely as simple as that. The politically correct part of me wants to agree that it is unreasonable to expect small-town Ohioans to want the same things from government that I do, and to remember that being able to vote against my own self-interest is a luxury not afforded to everyone. Then there is the part of me that went to school in small-town Ohio for four years. The Ohio that I remember was a place where locals came to the college to proselytize viciously against homosexuality; a place where the sheriff followed my car whenever one of my black friends was behind the wheel; a place of clandestine Klan meetings. What is perhaps most frustrating about this segment of the population is its refusal to support legislation that is in its actual self-interest, so consumed is it by misguided, cartoonish images of foreigners, atheists and minorities. Of course I realize that this sort of pathetic behavior is not indicative of the attitudes of the vast majority of Ohioans (or other residents of Middle America), and that even those cretins who do act in this fashion are driven to do so in part by socioeconomic iniquities out of their control. However, it is difficult to maintain an even-handed view of that part of the country in the face of all this.

Ben Feldman, Red Room.

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...for the comment, Ben. Maybe I'm revealing my own stereotypes when I say this, but I'd guess that nearly all the people you describe vote Republican. In talking to Ohio Democrats I'm not encountering many whom I'd imagine to be Klan members or anti-gay zealots, and I'm mostly finding people who are determined to vote for their own economic interests. Although at the moment I'm mostly focused on persuading people that an Obama presidency will be better for them than a Clinton presidency, I'm also sensing a real determination among voters not to be tricked by the cretins who play on our xenophobia. I really don't think the hate-and-fear crowd is going to win it this year.