Commentary Magazine


The Return of Bitter White Men

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s column today attempts to explain the “politics of rage” that has been inspired by President Obama. The first thing Dionne does is to helpfully explain to his readers that among the Right, “racism is part of the anti-Obama mix.” But there is a “second level of angry opposition” directed toward Obama and to which he needs to pay more attention. “It involves the genuine rage of those who felt displaced in our economy even before the great recession,” Dionne writes, “and are now hurting even more.” These folks are “angry white men,” according to Dionne, invoking the sophisticated demographic phrase used to explain the results of the 1994 midterm election (the anger of white men should not be confused with the two-year-old temper tantrum that Peter Jennings believed explained the GOP takeover of the House in 1994). Many who feel rage in 2009 “have legitimate reasons for it, even if neither Obama nor big government is the real culprit,” we learn. All this is said without condescension, of course.

I have several thoughts on Dionne’s meditation. The first is that during virtually the entire tenure of Obama’s predecessor, E.J. was part of a group, Angry White Men Inc., whose membership included the likes of Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Jonathan Alter, Jonathan Chait, Bill Maher, Michael Moore, and many others. This homogenous crew was, to a person, afflicted with a condition diagnosed as Bush Derangement Syndrome, one that has effects on its victims long after the cause of the condition has left the stage.

Second, the patronizing tone Dionne uses to explain the “rage” he detects out there — which is “legitimate” but, we learn, has nothing at all to do with either the president or big government — reminds me of the comments Barack Obama made at a fundraiser in San Francisco in April 2008. In outlining the challenges facing his presidential candidacy in the primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana — particularly persuading white working-class voters who, Obama said, had fallen through the cracks during the Bush and Clinton administrations — Mr. Obama said, “So it’s not surprising then that 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.”

This seems to be a popular line of argument for a certain strand of liberal opinion. They pretend to understand and sympathize with the rage and bitterness of the great unwashed masses. But they are so clumsy in their efforts to express their solidarity with hoi polloi that they give their little game away.

Very few columnists have a degree in psychology. E.J. Dionne is not one of them. He should therefore leave the psychological explanations to others who are better equipped to deal with such matters. When he engages in this kind of thing, he comes across as haughty and, at times, as angry and bitter toward the critics of Obama. Next thing you know, he’ll be clinging to guns and to God.