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Vox: Yeah, American Liberalism Is Smug

In April, Vox had a lengthy piece about the smug nature of American liberalism—and how it’s not a new phenomenon. Vox cited, as George Will has also done in past columns and media appearances, Adlai Stevenson, former Democratic Gov. of Illinois and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., who ran for president in 1952 and 1956, who ran into a supporter who said that the “thinking people” were on his side; Stevenson said, “Yes, but I need a majority.” Hence, the condescending tone of liberalism that has reached steroid-induced levels during this election cycle.


Emmett Rensin, who authored the piece, noted how the Democratic Party historically has always smug, but never was as overt as it is in its current incarnation. For starters, he aptly noted how the white working class, voters that veer more to the center, even right-of-center, formed the core of the party. That all changed after LBJ’s administration, and the left has become, as he puts it, educated, coastal, and professional. Oh, and almost entirely insufferable.

It’s a detailed history of how the left views people who aren’t like them. Folks who are not part of the “knowing,” a data-centric, college-educated sense of entitlement that manifests itself as having a moral superiority because you have the data point that prove it. Also, all other views are, and ought to be, subject to disdain and ridicule. Case in point, Gawker:

In November of last year, during the week when it became temporarily fashionable for American governors to declare that Syrian refugees would not be welcome in their state, Hamilton Nolan wrote an essay for Gawker called "Dumb Hicks Are America's Greatest Threat."

If there has ever been a tirade so dedicated to the smug style, to the proposition that it is neither malice, nor capital, nor ideological difference, but rather the backward stupidity of poor people that has ruined the state of American policy, then it is hidden beyond our view, in some uncool place, far from the front page of Gawker.


"To the dumb hick leaders of America, I say: (nothing). You wouldn't listen anyhow," Nolan writes. "My words would go in one ear and right out the other. Like talking to an old block of wood."

It's a shame. They might be receptive to his concerns about poverty.


Rensin also adds that the “dumb hick” mentality has cost liberals politically—they thought Reagan and Bush were too dumb to be elected. The two men ended up getting elected and re-elected in 1980, 1984, 2000, and 2004. Yet, if there’s anything that is true about the state of American politics, besides liberals being insufferable (at present) is that both sides have lost a sense of empathy. Oh, and Rensin also laid out that there’s no monopoly on studies showing that left wingers are intellectually superior. In fact, for every study showing that liberals are smarter, there’s one that suggests the opposite:

Nothing is more confounding to the smug style than the fact that the average Republican is better educated and has a higher IQ than the average Democrat. That for every overpowered study finding superior liberal open-mindedness and intellect and knowledge, there is one to suggest that Republicans have the better of these qualities.

Most damning, perhaps, to the fancy liberal self-conception: Republicans score higher in susceptibility to persuasion. They are willing to change their minds more often.

The Republican coalition tends toward the center: educated enough, smart enough, informed enough.

The Democratic coalition in the 21st century is bifurcated: It has the postgraduates, but it has the disenfranchised urban poor as well, a group better defined by race and immigration status than by class. There are more Americans without high school diplomas than in possession of doctoral degrees. The math proceeds from there.


The smug style, at bottom, is a failure of empathy. Further: It is a failure to believe that empathy has any value at all. It is the notion that anybody worthy of liberal time and attention and respect must capitulate, immediately, to the Good Facts.


I am suggesting that they instead wonder what it might be like to have little left but one's values; to wake up one day to find your whole moral order destroyed; to look around and see the representatives of a new order call you a stupid, hypocritical hick without bothering, even, to wonder how your corner of your poor state found itself so alienated from them in the first place. To work with people who do not share their values or their tastes, who do not live where they live or like what they like or know their Good Facts or their jokes.

This is not a call for civility. Manners are not enough. The smug style did not arise by accident, and it cannot be abolished with a little self-reproach. So long as liberals cannot find common cause with the larger section of the American working class, they will search for reasons to justify that failure. They will resent them. They will find, over and over, how easy it is to justify abandoning them further. They will choose the smug style.


On May 7, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote about the increasing anti-intellectual nature of American liberalism in academia. How students view conservative thought as having no real value, and how their current ethos might end with them being challenged with popular key figures in American history:

Some liberals think that right-wingers self-select away from academic paths in part because they are money-grubbers who prefer more lucrative professions. But that doesn’t explain why there are conservative math professors but not many right-wing anthropologists.

It’s also liberal poppycock that there aren’t smart conservatives or evangelicals. Richard Posner is a more-or-less conservative who is the most cited legal scholar of all time. With her experience and intellect, Condoleezza Rice would enhance any political science department. Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian and famed geneticist who has led the Human Genome Project and the National Institutes of Health. And if you’re saying that conservatives may be tolerable, but evangelical Christians aren’t — well, are you really saying you would have discriminated against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Now, we have trigger warnings, safe spaces, and threats of boycotts from the political left if we go against how they feel this country should be in every aspect of the socioeconomic realm. The boycott aspect is especially terrifying as the free market is now in the crosshairs. Yet, let’s close by looking at the right for a second—because were not holier than thou when it comes to a lack of empathy. Surely, liberal bias in the media, academia, and colleges is suffocating, but I’ve heard more than a few conservatives say that we should only give voting rights to people who have property in order to prevent a growing class of Americans, those who receive more in government benefits than pay in taxes, from destroying the country.


No doubt, this is a problem. Will likens it to a state of moral hazard, as these folks have zero interest in curtailing a government that they’re not paying for—but to disenfranchise those who don’t own property is a bit outrageous. This Jeffersonian take on voting might have worked when we we’re an agrarian society, but the industrial revolution has come and gone. Also, the federal government now owns most of the nation’s land, which is another issue entirely. So, what constitutes property now? I’m not quite sure this is the hill for us to die on.

Second, we all remember Romney’s 47 percent remarks as the 2012 election season was drawing to a close. Some could argue that they were accurate; some might say that a lot of people in the 47 percent don’t want to be there. No one wants to be poor. If there is a reason for the increase in government dependency and enrollment for food stamps, it’s the fact that Democrats have removed asset tests and work requirements from these assistance programs. In this context, we have both parties viewing work as a punishment—Democrats saying that work requirements punish the poor; Republicans saying they’re going to give it to these government welfare recipients by having them work for their benefits. That's not good.

What Arthur Brooks aptly noted at a poverty forum in South Carolina last January was that the “pursuit of happiness” and all that great proses in our founding documents were written with the poor in mind. We’re the “riff raff,” though liberals have a much easier time calling them hicks. For Republicans, the working class is steadily coming into the tent because they’re sick of the smugness of American liberalism. It’s time to try to pass programs to help them. Let’s not waste this opportunity, as we’re the best equipped–in terms of political infrastructure–to address it, as liberals have been relegated to the cities and the coasts. But let’s also not create our own separate condescending ethos by which we view the same people that liberals hold with such contempt.


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