The CNN Compassion Forum

The background for tonight’s “Compassion Forum” (consecutive question-and-answer sessions with the Democratic candidates) was Obama’s shockingly ignorant remarks in San Francisco the other day. Not this:

“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,” Obama said. “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. And it’s not surprising then 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.”

which is no more notable than a white candidate, say, explaining the charismatic nature of many black churches as a result of the high unemployment rate. No, Obama’s troublesome and strange remarks were given later, as he tried to dig his way out of his slip:

People don’t vote on economic issues because they don’t expect anybody is going to help them,” Obama told a crowd at a Terre Haute, Ind., high school Friday evening. “So people end up voting on issues like guns and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. They take refuge in their faith and their community, and their family, and the things they can count on. But they don’t believe they can count on Washington.”

Obama increasingly strikes me as an institutional economic determinist as it comes to American policy, which is a dogmatic approach that attempts to explain all political behavior in terms of economic grievances and the institutions that mediate them. Doubtless Obama can explain a lot of what happens through that lens, but religion is not merely an consequence of institutions and markets, but also of culture, environment, and genetics. Obama’s hip marxism sounds smart, but it is as scientific as psychoanalysis.

So the Compassion Forum was an opportunity for Obama to try to dig out of his hole, or Clinton to push him further down. As it happened, both candidates played defense. Clinton’s session was very emotive, in which she dwelt on the emotional impact and meaningfulness of religion on a personal level. At one point she drew tears in many eyes, including my own. (Whether or not Hillary is a snake in the grass is besides the point: the story was moving and deep.) Obama’s time, however, was reflective, continuing his quiet theme of viewing religion as a legitimate form of political organization. His performance was generally good, though his last few minutes contained a few missteps.

Through their words, Clinton and Obama both attempted to strengthen their support among their bases (Hillary’s uneducated white and latinos, Obama’s educated whites and blacks). Both doubtless succeeded.

A humorous side-note: At one point, I said out-loud: “Hillary is doing good work.”

“No,” sister-of-tdaxp interjected, “Hillary’s doing God’s work!”

Victory in COIN does not always run through jobs

Harriman, P. (April 13, 2008). Dangerous close to having no law. Argus Leader. Available online:

The situation in South Dakota’s Lakota Indian Country is bad as always, if a bit worse this year than previous one. A crime rate ten times the national average, illegal armed militias (the Rosebud police force let its certification lapse, making its “arrests” perilously close to kidnapping and leading to the release of hundreds of criminals), and general misery. The situation among the Lakota brings about comments that could be said about Iraq:

“I come back to the basic premise if you don’t have security, it’s hard to have anything else,” he told the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council during a February visit. “It’s hard to have economic development without public safety. It’s hard for kids to learn if you don’t feel safe.”

And yet, the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) success of the US government is complete, in spite of minimal security and few jobs. How? Family liberation, the destruction of the social and cultural infrastructure of a people. Family liberation has been successfully applied against the Lakota Sioux, though obviously would not be appropriate everywhere: the destroyed culture better now be the local majority over a large area!

Still, not all COIN is touchy-feely jobs-based nation building. That’s something to keep in mind.