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Gerard Alexander: Why are liberals so condescending?

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By Gerard Alexander
Sunday, February 7, 2010

Every political community includes some members who insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots. But American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration. Indeed, all the appeals to bipartisanship notwithstanding, President Obama and other leading liberal voices have joined in a chorus of intellectual condescension.

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It's an odd time for liberals to feel smug. But even with Democratic fortunes on the wane, leading liberals insist that they have almost nothing to learn from conservatives. Many Democrats describe their troubles simply as a PR challenge, a combination of conservative misinformation -- as when Obama charges that critics of health-care reform are peddling fake fears of a "Bolshevik plot" -- and the country's failure to grasp great liberal accomplishments. "We were so busy just getting stuff done . . . that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are," the president told ABC's George Stephanopoulos in a recent interview. The benighted public is either uncomprehending or deliberately misinformed (by conservatives).

This condescension is part of a liberal tradition that for generations has impoverished American debates over the economy, society and the functions of government -- and threatens to do so again today, when dialogue would be more valuable than ever.

Liberals have dismissed conservative thinking for decades, a tendency encapsulated by Lionel Trilling's 1950 remark that conservatives do not "express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." During the 1950s and '60s, liberals trivialized the nascent conservative movement. Prominent studies and journalistic accounts of right-wing politics at the time stressed paranoia, intolerance and insecurity, rendering conservative thought more a psychiatric disorder than a rival. In 1962, Richard Hofstadter referred to "the Manichaean style of thought, the apocalyptic tendencies, the love of mystification, the intolerance of compromise that are observable in the right-wing mind."

This sense of liberal intellectual superiority dropped off during the economic woes of the 1970s and the Reagan boom of the 1980s. (Jimmy Carter's presidency, buffeted by economic and national security challenges, generated perhaps the clearest episode of liberal self-doubt.) But these days, liberal confidence and its companion disdain for conservative thinking are back with a vengeance, finding energetic expression in politicians' speeches, top-selling books, historical works and the blogosphere. This attitude comes in the form of four major narratives about who conservatives are and how they think and function.

The first is the "vast right-wing conspiracy," a narrative made famous by Hillary Rodham Clinton but hardly limited to her. This vision maintains that conservatives win elections and policy debates not because they triumph in the open battle of ideas but because they deploy brilliant and sinister campaign tactics. A dense network of professional political strategists such as Karl Rove, think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and industry groups allegedly manipulate information and mislead the public. Democratic strategist Rob Stein crafted a celebrated PowerPoint presentation during George W. Bush's presidency that traced conservative success to such organizational factors.

This liberal vision emphasizes the dissemination of ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel. For example, Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science" argues that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who disregard evidence and reflect the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals aimlessly shielding the world from modernity. In this interpretation, conservative arguments are invariably false and deployed only cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda; arguments against health-care reform are written off as hype orchestrated by insurance companies.

This worldview was on display in the popular liberal reaction to the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Rather than engage in a discussion about the complexities of free speech in politics, liberals have largely argued that the decision will "open the floodgates for special interests" to influence American elections, as the president warned in his State of the Union address. In other words, it was all part of the conspiracy to support conservative candidates for their nefarious, self-serving ends.

It follows that the thinkers, politicians and citizens who advance conservative ideas must be dupes, quacks or hired guns selling stories they know to be a sham. In this spirit, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman regularly dismisses conservative arguments not simply as incorrect, but as lies. Writing last summer, Krugman pondered the duplicity he found evident in 35 years' worth of Wall Street Journal editorial writers: "What do these people really believe? I mean, they're not stupid -- life would be a lot easier if they were. So they know they're not telling the truth. But they obviously believe that their dishonesty serves a higher truth. . . . The question is, what is that higher truth?"

In Krugman's world, there is no need to take seriously the arguments of "these people" -- only to plumb the depths of their errors and imagine hidden motives.

But, if conservative leaders are crass manipulators, then the rank-and-file Americans who support them must be manipulated at best, or stupid at worst. This is the second variety of liberal condescension, exemplified in Thomas Frank's best-selling 2004 book, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Frank argued that working-class voters were so distracted by issues such as abortion that they were induced into voting against their own economic interests. Then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, later chairman of the Democratic National Committee, echoed that theme in his 2004 presidential run, when he said Republicans had succeeded in getting Southern whites to focus on "guns, God and gays" instead of economic redistribution.

And speaking to a roomful of Democratic donors in 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama offered a similar (and infamous) analysis when he suggested that residents of Rust Belt towns "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" about job losses. When his comments became public, Obama backed away from their tenor but insisted that "I said something that everybody knows is true."


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