Business Insider: Liberals Can Win Again If They Stop Being Moral Condescending Busybodies

Posted: Jul 18, 2017 7:00 PM

Condescension being a hallmark of liberalism is an age-old discussion. Yet, after Hillary Clinton’s stinging 2016 defeat to Donald Trump, some are wondering if their attitude to people who don’t think, act, or live like them might be an issue in terms of bridging the cultural divide we have (i.e. urban vs. rural). Business Insider’s Josh Barro, who also hosts Left, Right, and Center on KCRW, commented on this issue and offered ways in which his fellow Democrats can stop being so annoying. There are parts with which I disagree - namely that we’re a socially liberal country. I still think we’re right-of-center, but Barro is blunt and straightforward in his assessment that liberals have just become insufferable in their intolerance towards people who don’t live in the urban bastions of progressivism. As a result, they have become the “moral busybodies” that was often a criticism of conservatism. Barro calls this particularly problem within liberalism “the hamburger problem.” And by cultural disconnect, he’s not talking about policy stances either, which is often an excuse for liberals to think that they’re not out of touch.

Suppose you're a middle-income man with a full-time job, a wife who also works outside the home, and some children. Suppose it's a Sunday in the early fall, and your plan for today is to relax, have a burger, and watch a football game.

Conservatives will say, "Go ahead, that sounds like a nice Sunday." (In the Trump era, they're not going to bother you about not going to church.) But you may find that liberals have a few points of concern they want to raise about what you mistakenly thought was your fundamentally nonpolitical plan for the day.

Liberals want you to know that you should eat less meat so as to contribute less to global warming. They're concerned that your diet is too high in sodium and saturated fat. They're upset that the beef in your hamburger was factory-farmed.

They think the name of your favorite football team is racist. Or even if you hate the Washington Redskins, they have a long list of other reasons that football is problematic.

Beyond what you're doing this weekend, this movement has a long list of moral judgments about your ongoing personal behavior.

The SUV you bought because it was easier to install car seats in doesn't get good enough gas mileage. Why don't you have an electric car?

The gender-reveal party you held for your most recent child inaccurately conflated gender with biological sex. ("Cutting into a pink or blue cake seems innocent enough — but honestly, it's not," Marie Claire warned earlier this month.)

You don't ride the subway because you have that gas-guzzling car, but if you did, the way you would sit on it would be sexist.

No item in your life is too big or too small for this variety of liberal busybodying. On the one hand, the viral video you found amusing was actually a manifestation of the patriarchy. On the other hand, you actually have an irresponsibly large number of carbon-emitting children.


Liberals like to complain that working-class voters who back Republicans have voted "against their own self-interest," by which they implicitly mean economic self-interest. This idea could benefit from a little introspection.

Do liberals go into the voting booth and choose a candidate based on a narrow conception of economic self-interest? Of course not.


Objectively, you would think the groups most substantively exposed to risk from the Trump presidency are low-income people who face benefit cuts and members of minority groups against whom he whips up and indulges negative sentiment.

Yet, as the Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini has pointed out in his analyses of turnout in House special elections, the "resistance" surge in Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout is occurring almost entirely among college-educated whites. That is, the people most alarmed by Trump seem to be the ones who stand to lose the most cultural power, not those who stand to lose the most materially.

Barro later goes into how liberals can fix this perception that could hurt outreach initiatives since whether they like to admit it or not, Democrats need to win back white working class voters (i.e. Trump voters). One is working to diffuse the high tension on cultural issues and recognizing that this is not a sign of defeat or compromise. Actually, this can be applied to a whole host of issues that liberals will fight to the death on, like immigration. Here's the rest of his advice on what liberals should do to temper their cultural intolerance:

Don't tell people they should feel guilty. As I discussed at the top of this piece, Americans are broadly open to liberal positions on cultural policy issues. Over the last few decades, they have increasingly internalized the idea that the government should let people be free to do what they want in their lives. So embrace that ethos by emphasizing how liberal policy positions would let members of all sorts of groups live their best lives, protected from discrimination and harm. Don't tell people they should feel bad about living their own lives as they want.

Say when you think the liberal commentariat has gone overboard. While former President Barack Obama has urged people to eat less meat, usually the leading voices of the new liberal moralism are not politicians. Less-smug liberal commentators will usually protest that these voices are marginal, especially the college students who get so much attention on Fox News for protesting culturally insensitive sushi in the dining hall. If these voices are so marginal, it should be easy enough for Democratic politicians to distance themselves by saying, for example, that some college students have gotten a little nuts and should focus on their studies instead of the latest politically correct cause. Showing that you also think liberal cultural politics has gotten a little exhausting is a good way to relate to a lot of voters.

Offer an agenda that provides benefits people can see as mattering in their daily lives. If you want voters to refocus away from petty cultural fights and toward public policy, it's not enough to turn down the temperature on culture; you need a policy agenda they can relate to. I wrote in December about some ideas to do this — though of course, you could also make such an agenda in farther-left flavors.

Don't get distracted by shiny objects. If the government can't do anything about the problem you're discussing — if it's purely a matter of the cultural discourse — should you spend your time on it and risk alienating people on the opposite side of the issue? Probably not.

You can debate among yourselves if this will actually take hold with Democratic Party leaders and the elite that keep the war chests funded. Right now, let’s say it’s very possible that these could take hold. Democrats have no economic message for the 2018 midterms at present. They’re divided, leaderless, and searching for a route to political revival. You never know what could be added into the mix, if they ever get to it—for a winning political message. At the same time, there’s plenty to suggest this won’t happen. The number of rural Democrats on the Hill is slim. Overall, they’re pretty much a species on the verge of extinction. They were all but wiped out in 2010. In Appalachia, a once robust bastion of Democratic support among working class whites, Hillary Clinton only won 21 out of its 490 counties. That’s a total collapse and Democratic elites may not want to even bother with rebuilding the party apparatus out there, though it’s necessary if they want to expand the map, especially for state and local races which are key to keeping a talent pool well maintained for future national races. Also, these people don’t think white voters matter, which was crystal clear with the Clinton campaign.

Condescension seems to have its roots in American liberalism. Whenever it’s mentioned I always think back to the story between an aide and Adlai Stevenson, who, like Clinton, is also a two-time presidential loser; Stevenson ran and lost twice in 1952 and 1956. The tale goes that the aide was confident of a Stevenson win, saying to the Democratic candidate something along the lines of “Mr. Stevenson, you have the thinking people on your side” to which Stevenson replies, “ah, but I need a majority.” Snobbery and condescension may have always been ingrained in liberal politics, but social media made this virus airborne.

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