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?