Barack Obama: Cultural Anthropologist

Dr. Warren Throckmorton | Grove City College | Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Barack Obama: Cultural Anthropologist

April 15, 2008
Barack Obama has a way with words. They trip lightly from his tongue, and some onlookers have swooned during his oratory. No one doubts his speechmaking ability. When opining off-the-cuff, however, he can get into trouble. Case in point: At a recent fundraiser among wealthy donors in San Francisco, some in the audience were preparing to join the Pennsylvania campaign and wondered aloud what questions Pennsylvanians might ask them. In taped remarks, Mr. Obama rightly noted that Pennsylvania is quite diverse and dismissed racism as a barrier to his campaign. However, he offered this preparation for his volunteers:

But the truth is ... our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Posted on the Huffington Post website, these comments brought quick criticism. Seeing an opening, opponents Hillary Clinton and John McCain pounced on Mr. Obama as elitist and “out of touch” with working folk in the heartland.

It is easy to see their point. Hovering around 4.5 percent, unemployment rates are relatively low in Pennsylvania. Thus, it is hard to sustain agreement that “nothing’s replaced” the departed jobs of 25 years ago. More telling, perhaps, is Mr. Obama’s analysis of the small-town psyche. Speaking to affluent San Franciscans, Mr. Obama endeavors to explain the traditions of the inhabitants of the “fly-over” territories, inscrutable to coastal elites. Mr. Obama takes on the role of an anthropologist, speaking about small-town Pennsylvanians as Margaret Mead did about Pacific Islanders.

I can see heads nodding as Professor Obama describes the odd and outdated native customs of church-going and gun-toting. No doubt the “aha!” moments were many: “Oh, so that’s why they go to church! The poor folks just have nothing else to cling to.”

Barack Obama, cultural anthropologist.

I live in one of those small towns in Pennsylvania. Are we small-town dwellers, with our small minds and small hopes, supposed to swoon with joy that someone has now properly diagnosed our plight? We have the bitters, and Mr. Obama will come and do what religion, guns and xenophobia have been unable to do. If Mr. Obama is elected president, will church attendance and gun sales plummet?

No doubt, Mr. Obama wishes he could take it all back. In fact, according to the Washington Post, he said "I didn't say it as well as I could have." The question remains: what didn’t he say as well as he could have?

Perhaps, he should have taken his cue from that great philosopher, John Cougar Mellencamp, who sung this about small towns:

Educated in a small town
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic that's me.

Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say
Look who’s in the big town
But my bed is in a small town
Oh, and that’s good enough for me.
Mellencamp’s 1985 hit evokes the highs and lows of small-town life. Far from a resignation to desperation, Mellencamp provides an anthem. McCain and Clinton should have this song playing at every campaign stop in a rural or small town.

When Mr. Obama’s California crew hits the pavement in small-town Pennsylvania, they might indeed find skepticism. However, I doubt they will find folks ready to trade their traditions and faith for a political salvation.

While there is always room for economic improvement, perhaps Pennsylvania voters are skeptical because they want to hear some concrete proposals or find Mr. Obama’s Senate voting too liberal and too partisan. When you vote 97 percent of the time with your party and have the most liberal voting record in the Senate, your claims to be able to unite the country should raise concerns. These are issues Mr. Obama’s volunteers should be prepared to address.

Warren Throckmorton, PhD is an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College and fellow for psychology and public policy with the Center for Vision & Values. He maintains an active blog at and Blogs.