“I’m sorry but Hillary lost me with the hardworking white people thing,” says Steve, in the produce (pr(oh)DYEWSS) aisle of Trader Joe’s Supermarket. Tanned, leathered, in lycra bike shorts, with a Celtic tattoo around the arm attached to the hand which is squeezing organic avocadoes, Steve is not so much your average Oregonian, as the embodied essence of the blue state, a testament to the pomo pioneer spirit, amidst the aragula and free-range sasquatch.

There’s a gold-plated statue of Joan of Arc in a leafy roundabout here, which freaks me out everytime I see it, catching what little light gets through the omnipresent Pacific Northwest clouds, gleaming through the trees. By rights that statue should be of Steve, his unlatched bicycle wheel in one hand, macrobiotic knitted shopping bag over the other shoulder, designer eyewear looking boldly into a future. Portland, c’est lui.

“Not that she ever did have me,” he continues on the Hillary theme, as we pace the freezers looking for vegetables not grown under military dictatorships. “But man…”

Man indeed. The comment in question was made by Hillary last week, and lay on the table for a coupla days before people really clocked how noxious it was. Hills was coming off the phyrrhic victory in Indiana, and making the argument that Obama couldn’t capture the white working class vote. The argument is reasonable, the assumption that it is necessarily true – that working class Democrats will just gormlessly vote the colour — isn’t, but the argument can be had.

But US politics has become a sort of scholastic version of identity theory, with every noun phrase scrutinised for hidden content, and it was Clinton’s referencing of ”hard working white people” that took her well beyond the pale.

The phrase is Nixonian in both its implications and its getout clauses. For who is saying that non-white people aren’t hardworking? But of course the intent is obvious. The voter that the pundits call ‘Joe lunchpail’ (ie lunchbox) won’t go for the man from Illinois, whose base consists entirely of professional saladaholics and welfare deadbeats, or in the case of the high arts, both. Safe to say, it’s beyond anything that even Hillary’s resorted to in the campaign to date, and pretty much the end of the affair between the Clintons and black America for many of the latter.

With West Virginia and Kentucky primaries coming up on Tuesday, it’s clear who the remark was aimed at. Hillary will take West Virginia by a large margin, thus giving her campaign another jolt from the political defibrillator and prompt a round of discussions as to whether she’s back in the game. Kentucky is more of a toss-up, hence the remark. If she gets the quinella, it’s a good cushion against that fast approaching brick wall, the Oregon primary.

There are probably some mainstream suburbs in Portland, but I’m yet to find them. Every area seems to be some sort of transformed zone, with a couple of retro funky bars, chi-chi diners kept going through ironic patronage, and microbreweries with a sashimi degustation menu sharing space with a bookshop where the ‘staff picks’ section has been chosen by recourse to the I Ching.

And of course there is Trader Joe’s, a supermarket chain whose stores are usually housed in A-frame, if only because local regulations ban the construction of geodesic domes. Every evening, the aisles fill with the scarified, lycra-clad, goodwill store (op-shop), black-frame glasses clad denizens of thetr new economy and the new society. The staff wear casual clothes, work behind stalls reminiscent of the raft in the Kon-Tiki expedition and ring a bell when they need a price check. It’s like the goddam Barbary coast. The whole place is like a giant raft built to withstand the eight year redstate flood, now with a feeling of coming safely into harbour.

No secret about where all these people are coming from. Once Intel relocated here, and a whole bunch of companies followed to create what’s known as ‘silicon forest’, they created a moneyed-up population base that generated its own culture, and trasnformed the city. Five days I’ve been here, and I’ve seen three shops devoted to the supply of juggling paraphernalia. Forget not being in Kansas anywhere, I’m not sure we’re still orbiting the Sun.

This sort of shift has been happening for about a decade or more now – not merely the rise of the new economy, but it’s spread to cities like Portland, or Santa Fe, or Grand Rapids (silicon prairie). What looks strange is, as David Brooks noted in his hilarious and useful book Bobos, the way in which a new bourgeoisie has taken up the attributes of bohemian culture, by which the latter hitherto advertised its marginality. So even though it is becoming, if not the dominant cultural group, at least a major bloc of whom candidates must take cognizance, it always looks weird that it is. If the bohemianism now seems hackneyed, mass produced, it never loses the sense that it is somehow an alternative to a mainstream rapidly ceasing to be such.

Portland is not Oregon and Oregon is not the nation, but each of them is enough of it, to explain why Obama even got a look in for the nomination in 2008. If ‘we are the people we have been waiting for’ as he says, then these people are the people he has been waiting for, in all their fauxhemian glory.

And for them, Hillary was over as soon as the ‘white people’ remark came out of the side of her mouth. It’s in that context that Obama’s offer to her of the vice-presidency must be understood – not as an attempt to build bridges, but as one of those killer wrestling jumps from the ropes onto the hapless candidate, the full ritualised body slam.

Offered in the knowledge it would never be taken, it was made in light of the Oregon catastrophe up ahead, the last big state bodyslam. The wheels are coming away from the vehicle as quickly and easily as they snap off the mountain bikes in the lot at Trader Joe’s.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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