Change Resistant

The New Yorker on the ground with the white working class

Journalism at this late stage of a presidential race usually doesn’t provide much more insight into the human condition than what can be dug out of campaign machinations, horse-race jockeying, and polls, polls, polls.

So it’s somewhat startling (in a good way) to read George Packer’s deeply reported piece “The Ohio Vote: The disaffection of Ohio’s working class” in this week’s New Yorker.

It’s a story at once relevant to understanding the possible outcome of the key state in this election but also the travails of the working class in America that result in a deep mistrust of, well, nearly everything, including “change”.

In calling Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” argument a little too neat, Packer points out a study that found the increasing irrelevancy of the Democratic Party’s economic arguments in a twenty-year period beginning in the seventies coincided with the erosion of its portion of the white working-class vote, which was increasingly swayed by social issues. He goes in search of why these voters aren’t overwhelmingly supporting Barack Obama this year, one which has seen what seems like a devastating aligning of political fortunes against the Republicans.

Barbie Snodgrass, a single guardian of two children, works two jobs but can barely keep up above water. She normally votes Democratic but can’t bring herself to support Obama, because he’s not connecting with her on the economy.

Bobbie Dunham, a retired teacher, is led astray by disinformation.

I’m not going to vote for a Republican—they’ve had their chance for the last eight years and they’ve screwed it up,” she said. “But I really just don’t trust Obama. He only says half-truths. He calls himself a Christian, but he only became one to run for office. He calls himself a black, but he’s two-thirds Arab.” I asked where she had learned that.

“On the Internet.”

And he finds a priceless anecdote one of the few that will vote for the Democrat:

At the door of a trailer, Price knocked, then knocked again. Finally, the screen door opened a few inches. A white-haired, white-skinned ghost of an old woman identified herself as Betty.

“If the election was held today, have you decided who you’ll vote for?”

“ ’bama.”

In leaving a lot of shoe leather on the gravel parking lots and trailer stoops of rural Ohio, Packer has given us a portrait of the presidential campaign at the gut level, showing an important and often-neglected segment of economic and, yes, class reality.

Would that more campaign journalism were like this.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.