There’s a narrative that has long been a staple theme on the American right, but has won increasing credence recently on the left as well.   The narrative is about liberal smugness, condescension, and elitism. Liberals, it is said, look down their noses at ordinary Americans. They think they know it all, and see conservatives and their supporters as ignorant, bigoted rubes. According to one pundit, liberal smugness/condescension was a significant factor in the 2016 presidential election result: “Conservative voters—including many former working-class Democrats who made the difference in key states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—sent the message that they’d had enough not only of losing economically, but also of being sneered at.”

Liberal smugness and condescension are widely linked to Democrats’ increasingly poor electoral showing among working class white people. Since the emergence of “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, only one Democratic presidential candidate—Bill Clinton—has managed to win a (bare) plurality of white working class votes. Barack Obama in 2012 got only 36%; Hillary Clinton, only 28%. I plan to discuss the causes and possible solutions to the Democrats’ working class problem in an upcoming post, but for now I want to look specifically at the claim that liberal smugness and condescension are a large part of the problem. I strongly suspect that this is mostly (maybe not entirely) a myth propagated relentlessly by the right-wing media, propagated so successfully that a lot of liberals have started believing it themselves.

I’ll start by recounting a personal experience. It was January 2011, when, you will recall, an otherwise obscure Republican congressman, Joe Wilson, shouted out “You lie!” during President Obama’s State of the Union address. This was an egregious breach of decorum that embarrassed Wilson’s party, but shortly after the incident one of my Facebook “friends”–I’ll call her GG–posted her strong approval of Wilson’s outburst. A couple of her FB friends replied expressing their agreement. I had seen some of GG’s previous FB comments in which she had made clear her right-wing sympathies, but had never commented myself. This time, I thought I would say something. I posted a reply pointing out that, in fact, Obama had been telling the truth at the moment Wilson hurled the “lie” accusation. I even cited the specific relevant language in the Affordable Care Act as evidence. So, I concluded, it was actually Wilson, not Obama, who was the liar, as well as a misbehaving jerk. When I checked FB a couple of hours later, I saw that my reply had disappeared. I re-wrote it, thinking there had been some kind of fluke, but again my comment was gone. I now realized that I had been censored. When I objected to GG, she replied that it was her practice to delete all comments that were condescending or patronizing. Now, I can assure you that there had been nothing in my comment that could reasonably have been interpreted as patronizing or condescending. So I realized that her assertion was a pre-learned, canned response—something that she had undoubtedly gotten from right-wing media. Watch out for liberals who think they’re smarter than you; they’ll condescend to you. It’s a handy shield against unwelcome, evidence-based arguments.

The fact is, Facebook aside, I don’t interact much with people with sharply conservative views. Most of my friends are well-educated and fairly sophisticated, politically speaking, and at least moderately liberal. I wouldn’t have much opportunity to condescend to conservatives even if I were so inclined. I would guess that this is true of most well-educated lefties. I’m not saying that this isn’t a problem for the left—the lack of interaction may well be reflected in a lack of understanding and empathy. But you can’t condescend to somebody you’re not interacting with. My hypothesis is that most of the “interaction” is via the right-wing media, who tell their audiences that they are being condescended to. I’m curious: have readers had experiences that would suggest something different?

Let’s look at another example of alleged liberal condescension. Remember 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama’s notorious, private but leaked assertion about small-town rust belt voters?

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.”

His primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, decried Obama’s assertion as demeaning, elitist and out of touch, and Obama’s statement became a prime exhibit of liberal condescension. But was that fair? Obama was offering an explanation for the political behavior of a large population group. This is something that social scientists do all the time. They don’t use words like “clinging” (and neither would have Obama, had he known his remarks would leak out) but, like Obama, they often try to explain behavior in relation to factors that might not be conscious to the people under observation. It would, indeed, be presumptuous and condescending to tell an individual, in so many words, “I know the real reason you cling to guns—you’re frustrated about economic insecurity.” But to offer a similar, impersonal hypothesis about a large population group isn’t condescending; it’s simply an attempt to understand and explain.

So, why are some left/liberal commentators over-ready to buy into the claims of liberal condescension? I think it has to do with a kind of liberal guilt. Most Americans, like most other peoples, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics; “mass publics” tend to be relatively unsophisticated and uninformed about current affairs. But a fairly small portion of the population—pundits, scholars, political activists and politicians, and people who read blogs like this one—are relatively knowledgeable and sophisticated. Liberals and leftists tend to view the lack of sophistication of ordinary folk as a problem, something that advantages the right. And I think that view is correct. But there is something inherently elitist–isn’t there?—about relatively well-informed and sophisticated people trying to explain and “deal with” the behavior of people who are much less so. Elitist in that it does assume (correctly) a kind of superiority. “Elitist” is a nasty word, so as  overcompensation, some liberals are open to the view that, well yes, we are sort of elitist, and therefore we need very carefully to avoid being condescending.  But I seriously doubt that in their actual behavior, liberals and leftists are more condescending than anybody else.  Am I wrong?





  1. Jeremy Graham July 8, 2017 at 6:57 am

    Orwell was correct when he said the middle class must either ally with the upper class or the lower class. Allying with the upper class means accepting the hierarchy, and according to one’s ambitions and abilities, climbing the ladder. Allying with the lower class is not a matter of empathy, but a matter of long-term self interest. Hence with have Hilary and Bernie. Trump acknowledged the lower class. He was not about to say that the world is changing due to automation and that there should be a guaranteed minimum income. But he promised to expel the illegal aliens and build a wall. He acknowledged their existence and their perceived class interests. Hilary ignored the existence of the lower class. She also refused a post-primary alliance with Bernie, reaffirming her investment in the status quo.

    • tonygreco July 8, 2017 at 2:57 pm

      I will be addressing some of these issues in a future post.

  2. Judy Robinson July 8, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Alas, Tony, it has been my experience that many liberals ARE condescending toward white working-class people with right-leaning beliefs. I hear this in many informal discussions with friends, whose tone is sarcastic and ridiculing as they refer to “ignorant” Trump supporters, their beliefs and behaviors.

    Of course, I agree with you that many of these beliefs (eg, blaming their troubles on immigrants, Muslims, and people of color)are not only incorrect, but dangerous to the nation. Others are maddeningly self-defeating (eg, supporting elected officials who defeat government spending on jobs or health care).

    Where I think we liberals fail to live up to our ideals is in a lack of consistent focus on the very real conditions of longterm, dead-end, multi-generational economic decline, which this group is experiencing. I see this inatttention both in daily discourse among ourselves, and in the positions — or lack of them — of our elected officials. It seems to be more comfortable for us to privately (we hope) focus on and denigrate the lack of formal education, the bad behavior, and the “wrong” solutions, which are too often a reaction to these conditions.

    I suppose it’s also human nature that, when somebody declares that you are their enemy (as this group often seems to view liberal intellectuals), you’re not drawn to a sympathetic examination of their needs and feelings. But for people who believe, as we do, that our political behavior is shaped by an intellectual analysis of the facts, it’s appalling to me that we have not made THIS set of facts a higher priority.

    Our failure to do so feeds the Trump mantra that we don’t care about “his people” or think they’re important.

    Hillary exemplified some of the worst of this condescension with her “basket of deplorables” comment. However, toward the end of the campaign she seemed to be articulating an intriguing major policy initiative (a big infrastructure/jobs program) which sounded like a serious attempt to address some of this group’s needs (while keeping old bridges from falling down nationwide.)

    I loved hearing that. Her message seemed to be “The people who claim to care about you are lying; a Democratic administration will give you something real.” Assuming she would be elected, I was looking forward to seeing Republicans squirm as they tried to defeat this measure, while still stringing their constituents along. (Sigh)

    [Incidentally: what is keeping the Democratic leadership from introducing such a bill NOW? Of course, it could not pass — but in all the soul-searching about the future of the parties, would it not be beneficial to have it on record that the Democrats proposed such a bill, and the Republicans defeated it? Painfully, I have to conclude that the concerns of this population are not on “our” front burner. And that’s what they continue to conclude, as well.]

    One more thing: as an African American woman, I’m aware that it’s not considered acceptable, among my liberal intellectual white friends, to ridicule Black people for drug abuse, dropping out of school, or other “self-defeating” behaviors, which are often understood to be reactive to conditions of poverty and racism. With regard to poor people of color, a lot of liberals now seem to understand that our superior education and knowledge do not entitle us to tell people whose life experience differs from ours, how they should think or feel. Instead, we try to use our intellect to understand how life has taught others to view the world, and to ameliorate the oppressive conditions that are in their way.

    Why don’t we give poor white people the same respect?

    [I have many speculative answers to my own question…. but this is enough for one post.]

    • tonygreco July 8, 2017 at 3:11 pm

      I agree with much of what you’ve written. I’m not sure if we disagree at all, but let me explore a bit. Re. your first paragraph, I would make the distinction between feeling superior to someone and actually condescending to them. The first of these is a psychological state (which may or may not be justifiable and/or commendable); the second is an action, or pattern of behavior. The first could lead to the second, but it need not. The core issue I’m trying to address is the idea that active condescension by (mostly upper-status) liberals has been a factor in turning off the white working class, influencing their political orientation. I’m open to counter-arguments, but I’m skeptical that it has, if only because I don’t think upper status liberals really have much significant contact with the working class.

      I do agree with you that the scornful attitudes you describe could well be a barrier to attempts at understanding and empathy, which are absolutely necessary. On the other hand, I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with characterizing some Trump voters as “ignorant,” which is a shorthand for lacking the information and insight that is more typically available to well-educated, higher status people. (A common euphemism today is “low information voters.”) The plain fact is that we’re not all epistemic equals. But that assessment shouldn’t lead to disrespect or dismissiveness.

      Hillary’s “deplorables” comment was a terrible misstep, but I always suspected that when she made that remark, she had in mind not the great mass of Trump supporters, but his inner circles. Those did and do contain a large number of genuinely creepy characters.

  3. Jeffrey Herrmann July 8, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    Is it only liberals who are condescending? How about the conservative intellectual elite? Here is an example from the time in 2016 when most people still doubted tRump would win the Repugnican nomination (with thanks to Thomas Edsall):

    In a March 13 [2016] essay, “The Father-Führer,” [Kevin Williamson, a columnist for National Review] portrays Trump’s struggling white supporters as relying on their imaginary victimhood when, in fact, he contends:
    They failed themselves. If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog— you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be.
    Less well-off white voters have only themselves to blame, Williamson continues:
    It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.
    Not satisfied to stop there, Williamson adds:
    The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs.
    Finally, determined to blow a hole in the Trump hot air balloon, the columnist hits hard:
    The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

    You might say that was a bit condescending, but you can’t say it was liberal condescension.

  4. tonygreco July 8, 2017 at 10:51 pm

    Touche. Williamson’s essay got a lot of attention, undoubtedly because the language is so unvarnished. I suspect that there are more than a few others of his political persuasion who see things more or less the way he does, but wouldn’t say so openly.

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