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Pennism: Fallacious and Offensive

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Matt says that while Clinton’s assertions about the importance of her greater appeal to “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans” are “one part fallacy, two parts baseless speculation” they’re not “offensive.” Let’s assume that she misspoke and didn’t intend the fairly overt racism of her literal comments; they remain problematic, but it’s a fair assumption. But even given a more charitable interpretation, the fallacies in her argument are precisely what makes it offensive.

The baseless speculation, I assume, is the transparently illogical claim that because Clinton attracts more working-class whites against Obama that she would therefore attract more against McCain. But even if we assume that Clinton would perform better among this group in the general, we are left with the fallacy central to Mark Penn’s approach to politics. Particularly when you consider that turnout as well as margins are not static, there’s no reason why Obama’s lesser performance with respect to any particular demographic can be assumed to be problematic. If Obama does worse among working-class whites in Pennsylvania but compensates by getting a higher turnout among African-Americans and young professionals, so what? The fact that the latter two groups are more reliably Democratic doesn’t matter. If you get an extra 100,000 votes (whether by higher turnout or higher margins), the fact that the relevant demographic was already majority Democratic is wholly irrelevant.

This glaring logical fallacy leads us to what’s offensive. Precisely because which group such analysis chooses to focus on is entirely arbitrary, the choice always reflects political interests (in Penn’s case, inevitably with center-right results.) Clinton has outperformed Obama among a number of demographics, but surely it’s no a coincidence that Clinton — as is usually the case when people make this argument — identified white workers rather than, say, Latinos or older women. It reflects the Bill Schneider assumption that there’s something suspicious about a coalition that doesn’t rely enough on white voters. Jon Chait’s article about Clinton’s desperate embrace of reactionary populism correctly identifies the context in which Clinton’s comments should be evaluated:

Historically, the conservative populist’s social divide ran along racial and ethnic lines. In recent years, overt racism has all but disappeared from mainstream political life, and even racial hot button appeals like the 1988 Willie Horton ad have grown rare. What remains is a residue of nostalgia about small towns–whose residents are said to have stronger values and work harder than other Americans, and who also happen to be overwhelmingly white. In 2004, after John Kerry declared that some entertainers supporting him represented “the heart and soul of America,” George W. Bush embarked upon a national tour of small- and mid-sized cities, where he would say, “I believe the heart and soul of America is found in places like Duluth, Minnesota,” or other such places.

Likewise, Bill Clinton recently declared, “The people in small towns in rural America, who do the work for America, and represent the backbone and the values of this country, they are the people that are carrying her through in this nomination.” The corollary–that strong values and hard work is in shorter supply among ethnically heterogeneous urban residents–is left unstated. Hillary Clinton’s statement about “hard-working Americans, white Americans” simply made explicit a theme that conservative populists usually keep implicit.

The obsessive focus on Obama’s purported weakness among rural or small-town whites in particular clearly reflects the general framework that they are “Real Americans” while people who live in racially diverse urban centers are not. This is not only grossly offensive nonsense — the flipside of condescending, stereotyped portrayals of midwesterners — but offensive nonsense that is greatly beneficial to the Republican Party.

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