Campaigns and elections

Obama on rich liberal political donors

Andrew Gelman Jun 25 '08

Boris forwarded to me this passage from The Audacity of Hope which was noted by Jim Geraghty:

Increasingly, I [Obama] found myself spending time with people of means – law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart,interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class; the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social ill that could not be cured with a high SAT score. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by movements of global capital. Most were adamantly prochoice and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment…

I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population – that is, the people I’d entered public life to serve.

Geraghty follows up with:

Amen, senator! I think the donors Obama describes are a bunch of arrogant snobs. But what does that make Obama, who listens to them offer their opinion and concludes they have a hard time imaging “that there might be any social ill that could not be cured with a high SAT score”?

With Obama, it seems a $2,000 donation will get you his ear, but not his respect.

I don’t quite agree with Geraghty here: It seems like he’s putting Obama in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. If Obama says he agrees with his donors, he’s a liberal elitist. If he disagrees with them, then he’s being disrespectful to these innocent donors.

I think Geraghty would be on stronger ground to just take Obama at his word that he “became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray . . .” and make the point that this is an inherent contradiction within liberal politics, that there are templates for failure but not template for success (i.e., “selling out”). Or maybe not; I’m not familiar enough with Geraghty to really know where he’s coming from.

Perceptions of red and blue voters

More to the point, as Boris notes, “Obama’s quote directly relates to the themes of our Red State, Blue State book: the contradiction between economic and social views at the very top, the blue state lens he sees rich people through, etc. etc.” To spell this out in a bit more detail: in rich, Democratic-leaning states such as Illinois, upper-income voters tend to be more economically conservative but more socially liberal than lower-income voters. (In poor, Republican-leaning states, upper-income voters are much more economically conservative than lower-income voters but about the same, on average, on social issues.) So Obama was observing a tension that’s particularly relevant in rich, “blue” states.