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Barack’s Disconnect with Small Town PA

I was born and raised in a farming family in small-town, rural, southcentral Pennsylvania.  By any academic or stereotypical definition of “rural,” my family, friends and neighbors define the word.  They also debunk the definitions. 


Barack Obama’s recent remarks concerning the voting characteristics of “bitter” Pennsylvanians living in small towns displays a disconnect between how people might live in rural America and the ability of “outsiders” to understand that way of life.  Over the past several days, many have commented on this disconnect, often falling short in their analysis of why small-town, rural American peoples may vote in favor of candidates that are anti-immigration, socially conservative, and/or protective of gun ownership, despite being on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.


A 2007 report put out by the National Shooting Sports Foundation titled “Hunting and Fishing: Bright Stars of the American Economy,” found that the state of Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in the number of state residents who are hunters, coming in at just under a million people.  Moreover, it is estimated that PA hunters spend some $1.7 billion annually on hunting. 


Perhaps more telling, the PA section of the report states:  “The majority of all sportsmen consider themselves ‘likely voters’ and 8 in 10 say that a candidate’s position on sportsmen’s issues is important in determining for whom they will vote.”  Certainly, amongst hunters, gun rights is a sportsmen’s issue.   


Throughout many school districts in Pennsylvania, the first day of buck season is like a holiday.  Schools are closed so that administrators, teachers and students alike are able to take to Penn’s Woods in hopes of bagging an antlered deer.  No matter the economic situation of the country, state, or a family, this ritual is played out every first Monday after Thanksgiving, year after year.  For some lower-income people, a successful hunt means meat in the freezer, sustaining the family through the winter months.  I know of several families living this reality. 


Do rural Pennsylvanians vote for their guns because they are bitter about their economic situation?  Do they vote to stick to their guns because they believe they are protecting a way of life that has been passed down generation after generation?


Could there be a religious experience occurring while hunting?  Does a poor hunter sitting in the cold darkness of early morning waiting for the glorious sun to shine through the naked trees, waiting to see one of God’s creatures run through that light and killing it to feed his family, vote to protect that experience because it stirs him deeply, or does he vote out of bitterness?


For eight years I wrote a Sunday column in The Evening Sun, Hanover, PA, educating my hometown on the lives of immigrants living amongst us, among other things.  My column began when I was a Peace Corps volunteer living in Honduras (1997-99).  Over the years, we tackled many issues surrounding immigration, and what we found was that as people learned more about the way of life of Latinos living in our community, the more we recognized the similarities we all share and celebrated our differences.


More than a million tourists visit Gettysburg each year, just a 12 mile drive west of Hanover, but very few of those visitors make the drive a few miles north of Gettysburg to see the orchards of one of America’s top 5 apple growing regions.  Immigrant farm workers have been picking the fruit of Adams County for more than 3 decades, and over recent years many of the fruit growers have united and made trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby in favor of a guest worker program of some kind.


I have worked in migrant education in the Gettysburg area, and over the years have watched as community events that were once not friendly towards Latino participation have begun to open their arms.  Local celebrations now do include, for example, Mexican dance groups sharing their culture.  Food booths selling carnitas and belting out rancheros from speakers are there.


Do my local neighbors who are said to be “bitter” about their economic situation, but also express wonder in the beautiful dresses of the dancers, go into the voting booth and vote “anti-immigration?”  Do non-Latinos visiting the Mexican grocery stores scattered throughout the countryside in search of chipotles and poblanos vote to send the proprietors’ family members home?


And what about the notion of rural people clinging to their religion when they’re bitter?  Do poor, rural, small town Latinos, many of whom are documented, living in southcentral PA vote for the candidate that is anti-immigration?  Pro-choice?  Pro-life?  Does the poor white citizen vote to protect a woman’s right to choose?  For the unborn child?  Against the rights of homosexuals to marry?  How would a poor white Catholic woman married to a Mexican farm worker vote?


What kind of person do we think of when we hear “rural, small-town American?”  Is he brown-skinned with a cowboy hat on his head while speaking broken English at the checkout line? 


It seems that Senator Obama has done what many a politician has done before him, and many will do after him:  He has grouped a section of American society into stereotypes.  What’s unfortunate is that Mr. Obama has been running a campaign that is supposedly running counter to that view of America.  He is supposedly attempting to unite the country, ending the days of blue and red state America.  How does a man who speaks often of his faith, and its importance in his life, suggest that because someone in small town America is angry about being poor, they might then vote on their religious beliefs?  Do wealthy urban folks not ever cast a vote based on a belief system?


Saying that rural, small town Pennsylvanians vote against gun control, in favor of anti-immigration policies, or from their church pew because they are bitter about their economic situation is unfair, and his follow-up explanation still misses the point:  Poor, rural people are not such simpletons.







11 comments on “Barack’s Disconnect with Small Town PA

  1. couldabeen

    This is a very thoughtful, informative article. I found your information about sportsmen very interesting. I learned how to shoot skeet in college (it was actually a Phys Ed option at Boise State University when I went there) and I enjoyed it. I don’t think Sen. Obama understands the difference between gun owners who are sports people and “whackos” who hoard guns so they can overthrow the US government. Mix guns and religion and you just have nutters, I suppose. I don’t want to live in Obamanation.

  2. Hello,
    The rest of the world cannot understand why small town Americans often vote Republican; it is rather like shooting oneself in the foot – hence Obama’s confusion as to the mentality of these folks. I am not only similarly confused as to their politics but fail to understand the glorification of guns, something which also befuddles the rest of the world. Isn’t it time the richest nation in the world started becoming a little less provincial and a tad bit more sophisticated? As to hunting, well, why don’t you all become vegetarians if you are forced to hunt due to economic circumstances? It is much cheaper and definitely more humane.

  3. R Gaylor the LG

    As a true-blue redneck, albeit with leftist tendencies, I find it passing strange that folks like my folks always vote against their own economic interests. But, the answer may be found in the idea that most, if not all of them, have never voted FOR anyone and only AGAINST the one they perceived as the lessor of two evils. Maybe the fact of the matter is that no one ever wins an election … but that someone always loses?

    Obama made a comment and then has tried to explain what he meant after everyone decided, their own agenda’s the #1 tool of their analysis, to parse the speech into what amounts to a blip, but one with teeth.

    No one has a clue what the man actually thinks, if for no other reason than the whole political system (certainly Stepanopolous and Gibson included) loves to play gotcha because no one in positions of power or influence really wants any change.

    We live in a sound-bite, consumerist, fascist (corporations running government) state and there is a lot for the elites to lose. So, I guess my question is … what would happen if we actually listened to each other … and honestly tried to work together for everyone’s benefit? That may be why so many seem so upset by the appeal of Obama … he might just be a person who can change things. So, we find pundits, even those on the fringes of the punditocracy such as the owner of this blog spot, worrying over things that don’t matter because it is safer for them in the long run.


  4. Defending rights that arent even under attack is bitter. The percentage of people who want to a ban on hunting exists only in the minds of religious freak gun nuts who ARE bitter.

  5. Dear Mr. Murren,

    It seems you missed th epoint Obama was making. He is not calling Pennsylvanians “rubes” or “simpletons” or anything of the sort. If you read his statement, especialy in larger context, he is talking about people’s growing distrust and disgust with governmental lies and manipulations of both parties–a sign of sophistication and insiight, not provincialism. Furthermore, the issue of hunting as a pasttime, right, generational rite of passage, or economic boost to such regions is fairly far afield form the point at hand. The point Obama was making, which is fairly obvious if you look at the entire episode, is that such splinter issues as gun control, religious fundamentalism and the erosions of separation between church and state, lopsided and hypocritical immigration reform (after all, it is largely the elite who benefit from the cheap labor made available through illegal immigration, which is why this has become the central most divisive issue between social and fiscal conservatives), etc., are used in a cynical way to sway voters in a way that does not serve their own interests.

    It has been recognized failry widely in the media that, to localize this in Pennsylvania and Ohio–probably because that region is the next to hold primaries–was an unfortunate use of words, as it seems to single out those folks when the reality is that large sectors of ALL Americans have been duped in similar fashion from Newark to Sacramento. And it is not hard to see why. The ways in which the masses are persuaded to support policies like “tax cuts” and draconian “national security” legislation that fly in the face of their own survival is that the media and the culture of politics in America ellides any serious debate of the complexities and convolutions of advanced economic theory or underlying historical causation. Who, besides a few Wall Street gurus and astute gold investors really understands the A,B,Cs of the voodoo economics that has intentially led to the current credit “crisis,” hyper-inflation, and unsustainable personal and public debt? Who, besides Middle East scholars can articulate the way the US and other western powers has essentially created the foundation for the blow-back from these regions, and the ways that current policies are essentially blueprints for doing the exact same thing in the future? Yet these policies that are damaging our country, which have apparently been supported by large sectors of the population now struggling under their onus, are all direct consequences of having put in power those with whom we’d like to have a beer because they clear brush on the weekends and go to church and shoot their hunting buddies in the face occasionally. Don’t you get it?

  6. Bitter (dictionary definition): Marked by resentment or cynicism

    Cling to (dictionary definition): To remain emotionally attached to

    Are many rural Americans resentful and cynical about the state of our economy and the political process in this country? I would venture that they are.

    Are many rural Americans emotionally attached to their guns and religion? Of course they are.

    Are others anti-immigrant and have latent prejudices? I’m sure many do.

    These are all objective statements. Is there a causal relationship between observation 1 and observations 2 and 3. In some ways yes in some ways no. Its a complicated dialectic. Obama’s mistake was trying to encapsulate the complexity of the relationship between these observations in a short, facile sound-bite that was bound to be misinterpreted and used against him. I’m sure he has a more subtle understanding of the dynamic and could pen a speech that would be as insightful as his one on race. So give the guy a break.

  7. All beside the point. The speech I read, which was given in Terre Haute, IN, commented that when working class people had nothing to gain economically by voting for the Republicans and Democrats of the last two generations, they still voted, but voted on special issues like guns, gays, god, and good looks. What’s to fault in that analysis?

  8. Boy, you gun nuts are all the same. Tell me what Democratic candidate has ever talked about taking your guns away? Just one. Putting trigger locks on pistols to protect children and requiring you pass a background check is not limiting your rights – they are sane and sensible laws.

    All this crap about conservatives being the guardians of gun owners’ rights is nothing but Washington think tank bs. Over the last 30 years Republicans had to figure out a way to bamboozle middle and low class wage earners to vote for the corporate and busisness class. Billions of dollars, and hundreds of brilliant ivy-league paid minds later, they succeeded: guns, god, gays and fake patriotism. And the simpletons fell for it.

    Yes, simpletons. You idiots didn’t get a tax cut. Whatever crumbs the Feds threw your way was reinstated by state, local, sales and gas taxes. It takes money to run a government; just depends who pays and how much. Have you noticed library hours cut, police forces undermanned, school levies rising, no money for infrastructure improvements? How much is your $500 or $1000 tax cut worth to you? A half million dead Iraqis and war bills your grandchildren will be paying for? Can you really be bought that cheap? We all knew in 2004 that Bush lied us into war, cut taxes for the rich and was deep in crony capitalism. His biggest supporters were from red state, rural America.

    So don’t give me any of this ‘we’re salt of the earth ’cause we’re country folk’ hooey. You stand or fall on your views and votes, not where you live.

  9. James, as a gun-toting liberal from another big hunting state who also grew up in a Republican family, I think I see both sides of the issue pretty well. I think your article was very perceptive, but I also think you missed Obama’s intended point (just re the guns, not the immmigrant part of it), even if he made it poorly: a lot of gun owners, especially “gun enthusiasts” as they call themselves, do two things: they make it the #1 priority in deciding on anything political, and #2 they think every Democrat wants to take away their guns so they interpret what they say from that starting point.

    So, they rail against Democrats, who they call elitists (i.e. well-educated) and vote for economic elitists, i.e. Republicans, because the latter have convinced them the Dems will take all their guns.

    Every time I read “machine gun” when the journalist means “assault rifle,” when I read “large caliber” when “hi powered” (i.e. rifle) is meant, and so on, and add to that the almost equally-misinformed things I hear at gun stores and gun shows by “gun people,” it reminds me that most people, regardless of their politics, don’t know much about guns at all, and regard them with some mixture of fear and fascination. It also shows, maybe more importantly, that the fascination side of it is what leads to all the emotional rather than rational judgements, and all the misinformation flying around.

    While Obama probably doesn’t know an extractor from an ejector, I don’t think Dick Cheney could disassemble and clean his rifles either because I’m sure he pays someone else to do that. Hell he doesn’t even obey the 3-4th rules of operating a firearm. Yet his party claims guns and gun rights as their own. So it’s just another false dichotomy that’s gotten ingrained in our political discourse. As a hunter I’d like you to try take one more step back and rethink this point, because a Republican could have made about the same gaffe as Obama–if he were foolish enough to bring the topic up.

  10. You’re a bitter man.

  11. All Obama supporters need to awake from their kool-aid stupor and realize he represents no “change” or “hope.” Obama is another DLC disciple who pledges allegiance to Wall Street first and Main Street last – way, way last.

    The reason Obama and Clinton keep having these “foot in mouth” moments is because they have NO plans to address the daily life issues affecting the redneck or any other color neck out here. If they did, they would be telling us their plans to increase jobs, revitalize rural and urban areas, TRULY end the Iraq war, improve crumbling infrastructure – and the list goes on. Since they have no real plans to address the needs of the average Joe/Jane, time is spent on rambling rhetoric and just plain bullshit that leads to condescending comments such as those made by the Great Black Hope (I’m black, this ain’t a racist rant).

    Word to Obama: white rural residents aren’t the only “angry” folks out here. Blacks, whites, urban dwellers, poor, working class, middle class – we all are fed up with:
    – the state of this nation and our inability to make a decent living as our jobs are outsourced and our wages stagnate;
    – having to send our family and friends to die and get maimed under the guise (lie) of spreading freedom when it’s really to enrich war profiteers;
    – watching corporations and their politician and media henchmen get richer at our expense.

    If anyone wants help in curing his/her “Obama is the new MLK/Moses/Jesus” hangover, please check out BAR journalists have been covering Obama since his early days in Chicago. This website is an excellent source of backstory and factual analysis on Obama – and many other politicians. Check out this week’s edition along with past editions available on the site.

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