I agree with Rich entirely. I don’t mind him saying that small town blue collar workers are bitter over lost jobs. I think that’s objectively true in some cases and perfectly defensible as a general statement. The offending word here is “cling.” It’s a word drenched in haughtiness and condescension. We cling to rocks when we are caught in a current. Obama’s imagery suggests that because the economic tide is receding these people are clinging to God and guns, presumably to compensate for the undertow. But he also suggests that if the economic tide were rising these same people would let go of God and guns and ride the currents to happier and more progressive lands where everyone thinks like Obama. In his telling Pennsylvania was once Belgium on the Susquehanna — cheese parties, Sam Harris book clubs etc — and it can be again if only these people get good enough jobs to lay down their guns and bibles. As just about everyone has observed by now, this is a fundamentally Marxist way of looking at the world and Obama deserves to be called on it.
But it’s not elitist, not really. It clearly snobbish. It’s certainly myopic and arrogant. And it’s absolutely wrong. But I don’t think it’s elitist. Maybe I’m biased because I don’t have any pressing problem with elitism, rightly understood. Elite derives from the Latin for elect and in our elections we decide who will be our (political) elite. Jefferson believed in a democratic elite which rose up on merit. I do too. We’re all elitists in one way or another (Show of hands: Who wants an elite surgeon to perform their heart-lung transplant and who wants a really average surgeon to do it? If you answer that you want the surgeon from the really meaty part of the bell curve, I will concede you are no elitist).
What’s offensive about Obama’s comment isn’t its elitism per se, but the arrogance of assuming that those who see the world through a different prism or who are relatively immune to his charms are somehow embittered and confused and therefore less equipped to decide who should be our elected elite.
And yes, I understand that elitism has come to mean snobbish arrogance and all that, which is what most people mean when they say elitist. But I’m going to cling to my view of elitism regardless of which way the tide pulls me.