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Gerard Alexander: Why are liberals so condescending?
In this view, we should pay attention to conservative voters' underlying problems but disregard the policy demands they voice; these are illusory, devoid of reason or evidence. This form of liberal condescension implies that conservative masses are in the grip of false consciousness. When they express their views at town hall meetings or "tea party" gatherings, it might be politically prudent for liberals to hear them out, but there is no reason to actually listen.
The third version of liberal condescension points to something more sinister. In his 2008 book, "Nixonland," progressive writer Rick Perlstein argued that Richard Nixon created an enduring Republican strategy of mobilizing the ethnic and other resentments of some Americans against others. Similarly, in their 1992 book, "Chain Reaction," Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall argued that Nixon and Reagan talked up crime control, low taxes and welfare reform to cloak racial animus and help make it mainstream. It is now an article of faith among many liberals that Republicans win elections because they tap into white prejudice against blacks and immigrants.
Race doubtless played a significant role in the shift of Deep South whites to the Republican Party during and after the 1960s. But the liberal narrative has gone essentially unchanged since then -- recall former president Carter's recent assertion that opposition to Obama reflects racism -- even though survey research has shown a dramatic decline in prejudiced attitudes among white Americans in the intervening decades. Moreover, the candidates and agendas of both parties demonstrate an unfortunate willingness to play on prejudices, whether based on race, region, class, income, or other factors.
Finally, liberals condescend to the rest of us when they say conservatives are driven purely by emotion and anxiety -- including fear of change -- whereas liberals have the harder task of appealing to evidence and logic. Former vice president Al Gore made this case in his 2007 book, "The Assault on Reason," in which he expressed fear that American politics was under siege from a coalition of religious fundamentalists, foreign policy extremists and industry groups opposed to "any reasoning process that threatens their economic goals." This right-wing politics involves a gradual "abandonment of concern for reason or evidence" and relies on propaganda to maintain public support, he wrote.
Prominent liberal academics also propagate these beliefs. George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley and a consultant to Democratic candidates, says flatly that liberals, unlike conservatives, "still believe in Enlightenment reason," while Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist and Democratic consultant, argues that the GOP has done a better job of mastering the emotional side of campaigns because Democrats, alas, are just too intellectual. "They like to read and think," Westen wrote. "They thrive on policy debates, arguments, statistics, and getting the facts right."
Markos Moulitsas, publisher of the influential progressive Web site Daily Kos, commissioned a poll, which he released this month, designed to show how many rank-and-file Republicans hold odd or conspiratorial beliefs -- including 23 percent who purportedly believe that their states should secede from the Union. Moulitsas concluded that Republicans are "divorced from reality" and that the results show why "it is impossible for elected Republicans to work with Democrats to improve our country." His condescension is superlative: Of the respondents who favored secession, he wonders, "Can we cram them all into the Texas Panhandle, create the state of Dumb-[expletive]-istan, and build a wall around them to keep them from coming into America illegally?"
I doubt it would take long to design a survey questionnaire that revealed strange, ill-informed and paranoid beliefs among average Democrats. Or does Moulitsas think Jay Leno talked only to conservatives for his "Jaywalking" interviews?
These four liberal narratives not only justify the dismissal of conservative thinking as biased or irrelevant -- they insist on it. By no means do all liberals adhere to them, but they are mainstream in left-of-center thinking. Indeed, when the president met with House Republicans in Baltimore recently, he assured them that he considers their ideas, but he then rejected their motives in virtually the same breath.
"There may be other ideas that you guys have," Obama said. "I am happy to look at them, and I'm happy to embrace them. . . . But the question I think we're going to have to ask ourselves is, as we move forward, are we going to be examining each of these issues based on what's good for the country, what the evidence tells us, or are we going to be trying to position ourselves so that come November, we're able to say, 'The other party, it's their fault'?"
Of course, plenty of conservatives are hardly above feeling superior. But the closest they come to portraying liberals as systematically mistaken in their worldview is when they try to identify ideological dogmatism in a narrow slice of the left (say, among Ivy League faculty members), in a particular moment (during the health-care debate, for instance) or in specific individuals (such as Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom some conservatives accuse of being stealth ideologues). A few conservative voices may say that all liberals are always wrong, but these tend to be relatively marginal figures or media gadflies such as Glenn Beck.
In contrast, an extraordinary range of liberal writers, commentators and leaders -- from Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" to Obama's White House, with many stops in between -- have developed or articulated narratives that apply to virtually all conservatives at all times.
To many liberals, this worldview may be appealing, but it severely limits our national conversation on critical policy issues. Perhaps most painfully, liberal condescension has distorted debates over American poverty for nearly two generations.
Starting in the 1960s, the original neoconservative critics such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed distress about the breakdown of inner-city families, only to be maligned as racist and ignored for decades -- until appalling statistics forced critics to recognize their views as relevant. Long-standing conservative concerns over the perils of long-term welfare dependency were similarly villainized as insincere and mean-spirited -- until public opinion insisted they be addressed by a Democratic president and a Republican Congress in the 1996 welfare reform law. But in the meantime, welfare policies that discouraged work, marriage and the development of skills remained in place, with devastating effects.
Ignoring conservative cautions and insights is no less costly today. Some observers have decried an anti-intellectual strain in contemporary conservatism, detected in George W. Bush's aw-shucks style, Sarah Palin's college-hopping and the occasional conservative campaigns against egghead intellectuals. But alongside that, the fact is that conservative-leaning scholars, economists, jurists and legal theorists have never produced as much detailed analysis and commentary on American life and policy as they do today.
Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend. Democrats have been busy expanding, enacting or proposing major state interventions in financial markets, energy and health care. Supporters of such efforts want to ensure that key decisions will be made in the public interest and be informed, for example, by sound science, the best new medical research or prudent standards of private-sector competition. But public-choice economists have long warned that when decisions are made in large, centralized government programs, political priorities almost always trump other goals.
Even liberals should think twice about the prospect of decisions on innovative surgeries, light bulbs and carbon quotas being directed by legislators grandstanding for the cameras. Of course, thinking twice would be easier if more of them were listening to conservatives at all.
Gerard Alexander is an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia. He will be online to chat with readers on Monday, February 8, at 11 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion. On Monday, he will also deliver the American Enterprise Institute's Bradley Lecture, "Do Liberals Know Best? Intellectual Self-Confidence and the Claim to a Monopoly on Knowledge."