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Angry White Men Have Real Grievances

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By E.J. Dionne
Monday, October 12, 2009

It is a sign of our weird political moment that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama will probably hurt him among some of his fellow citizens.

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His opponents are describing the award as premature. The deeper problem is that the Nobel will underscore the extent to which Obama is a cosmopolitan figure, much loved in European capitals because he is the change they have been looking for.

Most Americans will probably be happy to have a leader who wins acclaim around the globe. But, paradoxically, a decision made in Oslo to honor Obama's peaceable intentions may make it more difficult for him to reconcile a body politic roiled by years of cultural warfare, partisan animosity and ideological extremism.

The effort to understand where Obama hatred comes from has been one of the few growth areas in the American economy.

There is no doubt that some of the anger is fueled by racial feeling, which is not the same as saying that all opposition to Obama is explained by racism. Most Obama opponents are simply conservative Republicans who disagree with him. But there are too many racist signs at rallies and too many overtly racial pronouncements in the fever swamps of the right-wing media to deny that racism is part of the anti-Obama mix.

Obama can't do much about those who are against him because of his race. Even a 1 percent unemployment rate wouldn't change the minds most scarred by prejudice. But there is a second level of angry opposition to which Obama needs to pay more attention. It involves the genuine rage of those who felt displaced in our economy even before the great recession and who are now hurting even more.

These Americans are sometimes written off as "angry white men." In analyzing anti-Obama feeling, commentators have taken to rummaging around the work of historian Richard Hofstadter during the 1950s and '60s, focusing on his theory that "status anxiety" helps explain the rise of movements on the far right. The idea is that extremism takes hold in groups that feel their "status" is threatened by new groups on the rise in society.

The problem with status-anxiety theory is that it focuses on feelings and psychology, thus easily crossing into condescension. It implies that the victims of status anxiety should be doing a better job accepting their new situations and plays down the idea that they might have something real to be angry about.

In fact, many who now feel rage have legitimate reasons for it, even if neither Obama nor big government is the real culprit. September's unemployment numbers told the story in broad terms: Among men 20 and over, unemployment was 10.3 percent; among women, the rate was 7.8 percent.

Middle-income men, especially those who are not college graduates, have borne the brunt of economic change bred by globalization and technological transformation. Even before the recession, the decline in the number of well-paid jobs in manufacturing hit the incomes of this group of Americans hard. The trouble in the construction industry since the downturn began has compounded the problem.

This is not a uniquely American problem. Last week I caught up with Australia's deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, who was visiting Washington for a conference on education. Though Gillard diplomatically avoided direct comment on American politics, she said what's happening here reminded her of the rise of Pauline Hanson, a politician who caused a sensation in Australian politics in the 1990s by creating One Nation, a xenophobic and protectionist political party tinged with racism.

Gillard, a leader of Australia's center-left Labor Party, argues that high unemployment, particularly the displacement of men from previously well-paid jobs, helped unleash Hansonism and "the politics of the ordinary guy versus these elites, the opera-watching, latte-sipping elites." Hansonism collapsed, partly because the Australian economy boomed. Gillard argued that the key to battling the politics of rage is to acknowledge that it is driven by "real problems" and not simply raw feelings.

No doubt some who despise Obama will see the judges in Norway as part of that latte-sipping crowd and will hold their esteem for the president against him. He can't do much about this. What he can do -- and perhaps then deserve the domestic equivalent of a peace prize -- is reach out to the angry white men with policies that address their grievances, and do so with an understanding that what matters to them is not status but simply a chance to make a decent living again.

ejdionne@washpost.com

For more thoughts from E.J. Dionne on Obama's Nobel, read The Oslo-Copenhagen Contradiction.


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