by Sam Buntz
First of all, discussing a presidential election two years ahead of time is pretty distasteful. But, it’s happening, so you might as well go with it… Personally, I’ve been wrestling with my own political orientation: I understand what my ideals are, but I have trouble fitting them into concrete political realities or determining where they fit into party narratives. But, to my troubled mind, there is one particular, potential candidate in the tentative 2016 field who stands out: former Democratic Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. I like Webb not only because he’s written more books than many of his colleagues have read, but because he understands the working class; and by “the working class” I don’t just mean black people or white people or Hispanic people—I mean the whole working class. This is really important.
Liberals and conservatives have both been playing on racial and gender divisions at the expense of the actual economic fault lines: it’s easier to motivate people by playing off fears related to personal markers of identity, than by appealing to the real issues. This is mainly because it’s difficult to deliver on economic promises—especially when you don’t intend on keeping them. For instance, for supposedly liberal candidates, it’s easier to motivate young people by getting them stirred up about contraception coverage than by promising to stop imprisoning them in student debt—preying on the young in order fund cheap meds for the affluent elderly. The Obama Administration and Republican House have both totally failed to reduce student debt in an even slightly impactful manner, demonstrating that they’re completely concerned with padding special interests in the present moment, and not with protecting the future of America. I’ve seen too many liberal friends and acquaintances mock rednecks and Appalachian hill-billies for being gun-toting right-wing loons, when, in reality—and I say this as someone who’s spent a good amount of my life hanging out with working class people from the Rust Belt, where I’m from—rednecks and hill-billies frequently understand these basic, populist economic ideas far better than the Cambridge and Berkeley crowd ever will or can. The mockers and snark-meisters can sniff at “white trash” in disdain before returning to their Pinot Noir.
But a Vietnam War Vet from Missouri, like Webb, isn’t ashamed of where he comes from. He understands the “cultural journey” of people from places like Appalachia, Northeastern Pennsylvania (my birthplace), the Deep South, and urban Chicago and Detroit, in a way no other Democratic or Republican prospective presidential candidates really can. He gets that the working class, regardless of race, really wants one thing: work that matters (and pays fairly).
A decent amount of liberals—including, I think, President Obama—don’t really understand that meaningful work is the lever: you’ve got to press it. I recall Obama saying that it would be great if everyone in America could get a college education—indicating the bias of the San Franciscan-style mentality. We’re never going to have that sort of upper-middle-class pipe dream, nor should we. Liberals who imagine that we can ditch our manufacturing base, and completely abandon professions like coal mining (without damaging the working class in a starkly regressive way), while gradually transitioning the American economy into being focused on information technology and services, are kidding themselves. Fuel and force are still at the basis of everything—the power that moves. People like Hilary Clinton and Obama just don’t get this. Neither do fantasist op-ed writers and intellectuals like Thomas Friedman. But Webb clearly does (his well-received official response to Bush’s State of the Union in 2007 proves it.)
One other thing: I’m fairly sick of candidates who feel entitled to be President. I think that’s pretty obviously the way George W. felt, and it seems to be the way Hillary Clinton feels: It’s her turn… It’s time… Isn’t it? But it’s not up to a bunch of PACs to tell us that—and wouldn’t it be nice to throw a wrench in the whole complacent business? We have yet to see if Webb will actually run, of course, but I, for one, would welcome it as a refreshing change of pace: also it would help prove that America is a democracy and not a pseudo-hereditary province, meant to be passed on or inherited. The dude just gets it.