Associate Professor of Politics, University of Virginia
Monday, February 8, 2010; 11:00 AM
Gerard Alexander, associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia, was online Monday, Feb. 8, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "Why are liberals so condescending to conservatives?"
Gerard Alexander: Thank you for joining the online chat. I welcome any questions. My article stirred more of a response than I ever expected, and along the way today I might work in my thoughts about issues raised by people who emailed me over the weekend. Above all, I wanted to improve our national dialog over important issues, by pointing out something that I (and apparently a lot of other conservatives) feel is an obstacle to that: it feels like many liberals dismiss what conservatives have to offer, from the start. Judging from emails I got, it's also important to re-state that I acknowledge ample condescension to go around. My point is that many liberals have developed entire theories that question that validity of what conservatives have to say, and those theories are voiced by media personalities, magazines, serious book writers, academics, and not just one or two but many politicians, up to and including Barack Obama. I'm unaware of a full-scale parallel to that among conservatives. I don't think it's a helpful posture, and would love to see it changed. So I welcome your thoughts.
Ashburn, Va.: As an Volvo driving, NPR listening person, I would like to know why conservative candidates tend to look at moderates and liberals (generally birds of a feather in their eyes), as not being "real Americans" or not embodying American "values." Palin certainly differentiated who were "real Americans" and I definitely recall the condescending tone of the "values" voters who belittled my driving and listening choices. I guess the point that I would like to have you respond to is that there is plenty of judgment and condescension to go around. Your article suggests that this is a one-way street.
Gerard Alexander: You're right: there is plenty of condescension and derision to go around, and I acknowledged it in my article. My point is that liberals have developed detailed critiques of conservatives, critiques which (1) claim that effectively all conservatives at all times operate on the basis of flawed thinking about how the world works, and (2) are voiced by liberals from TV personalities through magazines, best-selling book writers, and leading elected officials, including the president. I'm unaware of, say, George W. Bush, John McCain, or Palin -- or William F. Buckley or the National Review or the Weekly Standard -- voicing theories which argue that effectively all liberals are wrong all the time. That's the one-way street.
Florida Chick: My head is exploding with how crazy good this piece is. You hit it exactly -- we voters who disagree with Obama are either misinformed (at best) or racist and obstructionist. Meh. I just got a new voter card in the mail, having switched from lifelong Democrat to independent. My mind is open now to all comers, and my checkbook is slammed shut to Obamanauts.
Gerard Alexander: Thanks for the generous words. The dynamic you identify -- that people who disagree with liberals are made to feel under-informed, stupid, or worse -- is something liberals should care about no matter whether they feel it's justified or not. It's potentially politically costly to them, separate from the costs to the policy process if it happens to be true.
Arlington, Va.: Are liberals equally condescending to those on the far left, or do they save their scorn for conservatives? Where do libertarians fit into the picture?
Gerard Alexander: That's a very interesting question. I think the narratives matter here: some liberals feel that people to their left don't operate on the basis of invalid knowledge the way conservatives do. That would fit the stereotype of the 1960s and '70s, when many establishment liberals were dismissive of conservatives but unsure how to respond to New Left critics to their left. The original neoconservatives were born in part out of a felt need to stand up to the New Left more than that.
Philadelphia, Pa.: How is Glenn Beck an "media gadfly," who doesn't represent conservative thought, but Jon Stewart is a "liberal commentator" who should be seen as representative of liberal condescension?
Gerard Alexander: They're both media gadflies, which I don't mean at all critically. The difference is that I'm not aware that any theory that Glenn Beck may hold, suggesting that effectively all liberals are wrong all the time, is shared and has been voiced sooner or later by all the leading conservative magazines and leading officials like Bush, McCain, etc.
Helena, Mont.: Saw a clip of Tom Tancredo at the Tea Party confab. In the clip, he said that the people who voted for Obama could not spell the word "vote" and could not say the word "vote" in English. Tom Tancredo is a conservative, very conservative, Republican. Who is being condescending here?
Gerard Alexander: If he said that, then Tancredo is being condescending, and ill-informed to boot. Fortunately, such a comment would be very unusual among leading conservative office-holders.
Woodbridge Va.: Professor Alexander,
Why did you use the term liberal instead of progressive?
Gerard Alexander: For no good reason. In the longer, lecture version of the article, I say that I use the terms interchangeably. There are surely distinctions to be made, and I bet you could suggest some. But I think for purposes of the claim I wanted to make, those are less important.
Oakton, Va.: Mr. Alexander, Thank you for your insightful article. Liberals also have a greater tendency than conservatives to stifle intellectual debate. I recall a 20/20 piece by libertarian John Stossel where he was shouted down by college students as he was attempting to challenge their assumptions on some liberal topic. Also, Ann Coulter is consistently shouted down whenever she appears on college campuses. The manifestation of the liberal condescending attitude is the stifling of public debate which could help to unite Americans of all persuasions.
Gerard Alexander: I'll say again that shouting down -- literal or metaphorical -- is unfortunately all too common, all around.
Washington, D.C.: I, like many, have grown up to view the Republican Party and conservatives to be "the tough guys" an image built well by Coulter, O'Riley and Limbaugh, to name a few. In an existential sense, don't you find it a bit hypocritical for the conservatives to grow feelings when they want to?
Gerard Alexander: My article wasn't about my being sensitive or having hurt feelings. If one side in the national debate dismisses the ideas of the other before they open their mouths, then the policy process is going to suffer for all of us.
Gaithersburg, Md: I disagree with your perspective on what forms a condescending tone -- that it is intrinsically internal to people who lean towards the left.
To counter this, I would mention George Lakoff who uses cognitive science to build a case that those who tend towards nurturing will gravitate towards the political left; those who align with a strict father authoritarian model will cluster to the right.
I fail to understand the basis for attributing a condescending attitude to a political ideology.
Gerard Alexander: I don't believe for a moment that condescension is intrinsic to liberals or originates in modern liberalism. That's why I insist on acknowledging non-condescending liberals and condescending conservatives. I think the four narratives I described, which many liberals tell about conservatives -are- condescending, and in that sense aren't helpful. But that's only a point about those narratives.
Woodbridge, Va.: "The longer, lecture version of the article." Wow, you mean there's a lecture version of this....lecture? That must be great!!
Gerard Alexander: I was supposed to give the lecture today at the American Enterprise Institute in downtown Washington, but it had to be postponed when something prevented people from getting there. What was it? Oh yeah, historic levels of snow...
Alexandria, Va.: To me, even the term "progressive" is demeaning to conservatives. It implies that they're moving forward, while everyone else is stuck in the past.
Gerard Alexander: I agree, and "conservative" is similarly loaded. But at another level, a name becomes just a name, which is why many people never think of "New England" meaning what it originally did; they may not even know there's an old York!
Boonsboro, Md.: Great article! Do you think this attitude has anything to do with the liberals' Ivy League fixation? It seems if you aren't Ivy League, you are a lesser human. Since the last four administrations all had an Ivy league connection, and none were great, you would think they would get over themselves.
Gerard Alexander: David Brooks often speaks of the "educated class," which in his hands overlaps substantially with "liberal upper-middle-class professionals." On the other hand, a lot of highly educated people also lean conservative. One trend that may be relevant is that the more high-ranked ("elite") the university, it would appear the more politically imbalanced the faculty.
Alexandria, Va.: What kind of responses do you get from your lectures, from your students as well as your colleagues?
Gerard Alexander: I started to voice more political views after I got tenure at UVA, and my colleagues have generally been welcoming. I wish I were confident that other conservatives academia all had that experience. My students generally don't react to my views because they don't know anything about them: I almost always teach courses in which these sorts of views make no appearance.
Staunton, Va.: I agree with what you write about the four types of liberal condescension, but you seem to hastily dismiss Richard Hofstadter's critique of the right-wing paranoid style. (He has become my touchstone for comprehending what ails today's GOP, in which I was formerly active.) Likewise, I think there is a kernel of truth in the leftist argument that modern (?) conservatives are impervious to reason. Do you not perceive a strong anti-intellectual current in the conservative movement of today?
Gerard Alexander: The key for this conversation is that I don't detect -more- anti-intellectualism among rank-and-file conservatives than among rank-and-file liberals. Modern economics and the law are probably the two areas of academic research and policymaking most influenced by conservatives. Do they seem less rational to you than, say, sociology or literature or movie-making as enterprises? And I wish paranoia existed only on the fringes of the right; I'm afraid we could all name enough conspiracy theories to go around.
Horseshoe Bay, Tex.: Okay, you have made a good case that liberals can be condescending, an attitude I see throughout the political spectrum, right or left. But I was looking for your article to tell me why they are so, and was unsatisfied.
Gerard Alexander: The optimistic take would be that the four narratives I talked about induce the condescension. So, improve our narratives and the problem may ease. People more cynical than me might say instead that the people were condescending already, and adopted the narratives because they found them congenial.
Crofton, Md.: I think your article is "Right On" and applaud you for it. I forwarded it to many friends. But, the partisanship is only going to get worse. The solution is for EVERYONE to re-register as an independent.
Gerard Alexander: I don't know if just re-registering would change anything, if we all keep acting, voting, and thinking the ways we do. But making parties work harder for our votes would surely be a good thing.
Insulting question: My reaction to this article was very negative, as I suppose the author would expect from many liberals. My question to him is, "Why are Conservatives so insulting?" According to conservative commentators, every aspect of my self and my life is un-American, elitist, and out of touch. My reward for the hard work and sacrifice I gave to earn a Ph.D. is to be dismissed as over-educated. As a working woman, I am pre-emptively judged to be a bad mother. Born on the east coast, I'm out of touch with "bedrock values" and the "heartland." I've saved money to travel, but my observations of what seems to work (or not) in other countries are evidence that I "hate America." I do try to be conscious of my carbon consumption and pollution habits, but I'll tell you, I do it because I'm 100 percent convinced that brown air and dirty water are bad for me and my family and my country, and not because I'm part of a global warming conspiracy trying to wreck the American economy.
So you tell me, why do conservatives assume that everything liberals say and do is some sort of fakery designed to condescend to conservatives and destroy the country? I get so sick of being insulted for every aspect of my life!
Gerard Alexander: If those are the feedback you've gotten from those around you, then that's awful and unfortunate. But I'm unaware of those critiques being leveled by conservative magazines, elected officials, etc. And they'd be run out of town if they did.
Gainesville, Va.: Why do you consider that you are not being equally condescending when you say: "A few conservative voices may say that all liberals are always wrong, but these tend to be relatively marginal figure or media gadflies such as Glenn Beck."?
Gerard Alexander: I say that because I think views that condescending are voiced by Paul Krugman but not by David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the same op-ed page; by Howard Dean but not by corresponding chairs of the RNC; by Dean and Obama and Harry Reid but not by McCain, Reagan, or Mitt Romney.
Anonymous: Your article was very interesting. My question is: You offered a laundry list of things liberals have said, but you offer little in the way of rebuttal. For instance, do you believe Sarah Palin would make a good president? Am I a liberal for thinking she wouldn't? You state that backlash to the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate campaign finance was from liberals, yet John McCain was the first to object. I agree with the court. Does that make me conservative?
Gerard Alexander: Your views sound interesting too. I absolutely don't think it makes a person liberal to oppose Palin for president. I know many conservatives who would agree with you. But I fear that many liberals think that their image of Palin -- that she's a hick and an idiot -- makes her the paradigmatic conservative. That's an unhealthy and unfortunate factor in our political system.
Chevy Chase, Md.: As a center-left liberal, I found your article very interesting and informative, and I agree with many of your insights. However, I believe an identical article could be written on the condescending nature of political arguments coming from the right. Particularly, you argue that conservatives only accuse liberals of being "systematically mistaken in their worldviews" when attacking a "narrow slice of the left" or when attacking "specific individuals". How does this fit with the conservative portrayal of wine-and-cheese New Englanders or with Sarah Palin's assertions regarding the "real America"? From my perspective, extremists on the right and left are equally guilty of the dismissive behavior you identify. I would be interested to hear you expand further on your views.
Gerard Alexander: The "real America" meme properly matters to many people. Part of me hates to open this conversational can of worms, but I think the notion that conservatives routinely call liberals "un-American" is exaggerated. People have struggled to find occasions when Bush or Cheney may actually have used such words, and come up with almost nothing. Even the example of wine and cheese liberals is obviously far too broad a brush, but still better than all-of-them-all-the-time stereotypes. We can do better than this.
Counter question: Rather than ask why liberals are so condescending, which I had not noticed, let's ask the other side why they can't make their points without using perjorative words? I think the neo-cons and republican types are far more snide and nasty with their comments.
Gerard Alexander: I think there's enough snideness to go around. A number of the quotes I used seem pretty pejorative to me, but I guess not to you?
Alexandria, Va.: Thank you, thank you for writing this article. Loved it. You probably didn't have enough space to mention it, but would love to see an analysis of why so many liberals think that organizations they don't like -- for instance, ROTC -- basically shouldn't be allowed to exist or recruit on college campuses. If conservatives tried to boot off liberal-leaning groups, there would be a strong outcry of "censorship." So why are liberals okay with censoring groups they don't like or understand? Plus, how sad is it that defense of our country is now a "conservative" value that liberals scorn? That's subject for another thesis right there.
Gerard Alexander: I find the bad by some campuses on ROTC a fascinating act of intolerance. And don't attribute it to don't-ask-don't-tell: the bans were maintained for many years after Vietnam ended and before gay rights became the issue it did in the early 1990s. It's an anti-military policy, pure and simple.
Bethesda, Md.: I thought that "Why are Liberals So Condescending" was the most intelligent article I've read in the Post in some time.
Do you think that this is the result of a decision by your editors to be more fair and balanced?
Also, I would appreciate your comments on the "All serious scientists agree that Global Warming is an enormous problem." school of thought. This matter has been positioned in exactly the same condescending manner.
Gerard Alexander: I can only tell you that the Post editor I dealt with searched me out, and were as encouraging as any editor could conceivably be.
Baltimore, Md.: I, too, am a Volvo driver, although I'm a conservative. It's a great car, but primarily I drive it so maybe liberals won't notice that I'm a toothless, knuckle-dragging, drooling, grunting, illiterate oaf. Your column was absolutely dead-solid perfect and made my Sunday. I'm just amazed that the Post, which has an entire cadre of condescending liberal columnists, would print your wonderfully insightful opinion.
Gerard Alexander: Again, the Post was great with me. And I appreciate your vehicular camouflage!
Charlottesville, Va.: How do you feel about the predominance of liberal faculty members in higher education? Why do you think there is such a shortage of conservatives, and how could that be changed to help foster the intellectually diverse environment you hope for? I graduated from UVA last May, and while my political science classes exposed me to a lot of great thinkers and writers, conservative is not how I would describe any of them.
Gerard Alexander: Well, as a UVA professor myself, I hope you found some balance where you could! I worry about intellectual imbalance in higher education, because it is impoverishing to research as well as distorting of liberal education properly understood. Think-tank staffs show there's no shortage of people with scholarly personalities and aspirations who have conservative or libertarian leanings. A variety of programs exist to try to achieve better balance, but "incredibly successful" is not how I would describe any of them either.
Newton, Mass.: Which group -- liberals or conservatives -- are more likely to believe that evolution is false? That global warming is a hoax? That Obama was born outside the U.S?.
It seems to me that liberal condescension might be justified when the conservatives have such bizarre and unjustified views.
Gerard Alexander: In a way, this is the most serious response to my article: that the condescension is justified. But which group is more likely to believe that the Bush White House had advanced warning of al Qaeda's attack on the U.S.? That AIDS was developed in a U.S. military lab and used deliberately to infect people? That oil companies take as profit most of what we pay at the pump? My point isn't AT ALL that liberals are more wrong. It's that there's sufficient right-and-wrong on both sides to justify those liberals who use them, to question the usefulness of the four narratives in analyzing American politics.
King of Prussia, Pa.: How can anyone, liberal or conservative, take seriously questions and statements that are based in demonstrably false premises? What conservatives take as condescension is a search for a logical or even reasonable place to begin a serious conversation.
Gerard Alexander: When a commentator says that free-marketeers have been lying for 35 years, I find it difficult to believe s/he's trying to start a rational conversation with the alleged liars. If you think they really have been lying, then you can see why a rational conversation is going to be hard to have.
Bethesda, Md.: May I suggest an exercise or challenge in open-mindedness: If you identify yourself as conservative, liberal or libertarian, make a list of interesting questions raised by or policies advocated by members of the other political groups that you recognize as either merited or containing the germ of a worthwhile idea.
Here's an example. I'm a conservative and oppose the Democrat's health-care initiative on many of the usual grounds. But I acknowledge that President Obama and the congressional leadership have raised an important issue when they argue that policies ought to promote broader access to health insurance. My approach to addressing this problem differs from theirs, but they have raised a potentially valid concern, and thereby deserve some credit.
What do you think about urging those who have sometimes practiced condescension to try this exercise? Let's put our prejudices and modes of discourse to the test as individuals, as well as in groups.
Gerard Alexander: That exercise is a great idea. Even better would be to identify something you think the other side wasn't just smart to ask but also substantially right in their answer. I'll offer one myself. 30 years ago, a lot of conservatives were worried that rising crime, illegitimacy, divorce, etc, would lead to the breakdown of society. If they'd been told that in 2010, half of couples would still be getting divorced, that some drugs would be operationally decriminalized, etc, they would have predicted the end of U.S. society. They would have been wrong: the culture proved far more resilient than they thought.
But I'm unaware of those critiques being leveled by conservative magazines, elected officials, etc. And they'd be run out of town if they did.: You expect me to take you seriously when you write something like that? If you don't already have one, I'd recommend getting Internet service, preferably high speed, and spend a few minutes browsing the major conservative magazine sites, blogs, news services, etc.
Your article was a joke. It stereotyped an entire group, accused "all of them" of behaving in a lock-step manner and ignored the parallel behavior of the opposing political viewpoint.
I'd love to have you as a professor, though, because if you find this kind of writing acceptable for yourself, I'd love to see what your students get away with.
Gerard Alexander: So you think Bush or McCain, or the National Review, argue that women in the workforce are destructive? When their campaign teams, leading advisors, and editors, include many women? OK...
Washington, D.C.: How do you square your thesis with an appellation like "tax and spend liberals"? How about arguments that the administration has a socialist agenda? They are broad and encompassing characterizations of the political left, and they are often coupled with an accusation of a hidden motive to invidiously socialize vast swathes of American society. People on the left, however, would describe the use of regulation and public control as efforts to solve market failures. Isn't it just as conspiratorial to argue that liberals want to socialize America instead of noting that liberals are trying to preserve market mechanisms while trying to solve market failures?
Gerard Alexander: You and I can disagree on whether regulation preserves market mechanisms or supersedes them. But you're right that our discourse does involve appellations or stereotypes such as "tax and spend liberals" and "conservatives in the pockets of big corporations." Insofar as those are stereotypes about policy agendas, they may be useful heuristics. My article was about something slightly different: interpretations of conservatives as a whole, which suggest that -all- their agendas are not based on rational thinking, which is to take the stereotypes a step further, and I'm afraid a very unhelpful step. But you make a good point.
Global warming hoax vs. AIDS in a lab: The difference here is that a large percentage of conservatives actually believe that global warming is a hoax. Even "moderate" conservatives. Very few liberals believe your AIDS theory... Let's get real here.
Gerard Alexander: I can extend the list if you really want: believe in New Age-y medical treatments, beliefs among educated professionals that vaccinations are dangerous to your children, belief that catastrophic global warming is imminent... How many left-of-center journals like the Nation ran articles during 2001-2009 warning that the Bush administration was literally in the process of creating an authoritarian regime in America? Again, there's enough paranoia to go around. Notice the asymmetry here: you're saying it's only one side; I'm saying it's both and that we need to be more even-handed.
Arlington, Va.: Mutual condescension is part of the culture of contemporary American politics. As a professional political scientist, what hard -- as opposed to impressionistic -- evidence do you have that liberals are more condescending to conservatives than vice versa?
Gerard Alexander: I agree that there's enough to go around. In this op-ed article, I identified a series of narratives that (1) make this core claim about conservatives and (2) are mainstream among liberals, including (some would say, especially) in academia. I'm unaware of counterparts among conservatives.
Vienna, Va.: Perhaps you weren't obligated to do so, but it didn't seem clear from your article that you successfully argued that conservatives aren't condescending to liberals. Aren't both sides becoming more and more arrogant and unable to see another's point of view? Why paint liberals as the only wrong party?
Gerard Alexander: I made the case that the two sides do not in fact speak about each other with perfect symmetry. But I'm very open to the proposition that there's -more- (that is, growing) condescension among conservatives than there used to be, which would be an unfortunate development and one I'd condemn.
Anonymous: Is it "condescending" to ask conservatives to face some hard facts -- such as the fact that everything they predicted about attacking Iraq -- from the length of our involvement, the monetary cost, the strength of the insurgency, the tragic toll in terms of human lives, the presence of weapons of mass destruction -- turned out to be wrong?
Gerard Alexander: Absolutely not. And similarly to ask liberals to do the same.
Vienna, Va.: Hi Gerard, interesting article but I think it's not so much that liberals are considered to be condescending but rather why is it that education beyond college level is looked at as a liability in American politics and our culture as a whole?. Unfortunately this is perhaps more prevalent in the Republican party and Tea Party movement. Let us not forget that Scott Brown has a J.D. but drives a pick-up truck. Your thoughts on this issue?
Gerard Alexander: I guess I don't find anything wrong with pickup trucks, even for JDs. Given the snow in DC, I wish I had one. And I don't agree that college education is looked down on. For one thing, it's well-rewarded economically, and everyone knows it, which is why for-profit schools focus so successfully on career development. What's resented is know-it-all postures, which is more what I was writing about.
Annandale, Va.: So I take it you would side with The Vatican against Galileo.
Gerard Alexander: I'm not even Catholic, so no. I even believe in evolution! I also suspect that not every empirical claim made by someone left-of-center is accurate, just as not every one made by someone right-of-center will be. And that's the point.
Washington, D.C.: So you are unaware of James Inhoffe (an elected official) arguing that global warming is a hoax? Really? You are unaware of this?
Gerard Alexander: No, I'm aware of it. He's one Senator, making a claim in an area in which it turns out... the science is more complicated that Inhofe's angriest detractors made it out to be.
Vallejo, Calif.: "So you think Bush or McCain, or the National Review, argue that women in the workforce are destructive?" This is parody, right? Everyone in the Post newsroom is having a good laugh right now, correct? Dear God in heaven, don't tell me you're serious!
Gerard Alexander: I'm not sure what you're arguing here. I read National Review regularly, including Kathryn Lopez, Kate O'Beirne, and other female writers. If you see something I don't, you're going to have to be more specific.
Washington, D.C.: As a gay man, it's hard to listen to liberals being called condescending without thinking about how conservatives (and some people who call themselves liberal) speak about us. The use of the term "family values" constantly implies that we're against families, as if we don't have any. That's just a mild case in a long line of things said about us.
Gerard Alexander: I agree completely.
Chula Vista, Calif.: What you have described is actually applicable to both ends of the political spectrum. Both partisan liberals and partisan conservatives think in the same way. This is explained very clearly by an Emory study that shows the brain processes with both partisan Democrats and partisan Republicans. So, you are viewing liberals from the opposite end of the spectrum and you are not aware of what you are doing.
Gerard Alexander: Drew Westen et. al.'s study -is- very interesting. And insofar as it suggests that these mental habits are shared all around, that seems to me very consistent with my argument.
Raleigh, N.C.: Until fairly recently, liberal views have dominated our news media, especially the major TV networks. It appears to me that liberal debating skills became weak due to disuse during the period from the 30s until recently. They had no skilled opponents. As more muscular conservative criticism has come forth, progressives would like to return to the past, when they had no skilled opponents. Liberals' tendencies toward pretending that people unlike them need not be taken seriously seems to be a way in which they yearn for the past because they have difficulty coping with the present.
Gerard Alexander: I've met a fair number of liberal intellectuals who have never had a vigorous discussion with someone who was, say, pro-life or against affirmative action. It is impossible to become a conservative or libertarian intellectual and not have spent a lot of time reading the New York Times, listening to conventionally-liberal university faculty, and being exposed to (often great) books by left-of-center authors. I suspect this disparity has some of the effects you're talking about.
Alexandria, Va.: Sorry, but I don't see what the liberals got wrong on the Iraq invasion that's any way comparable to what the conservatives got wrong about it. Please edify me.
Gerard Alexander: How about poverty policy? Or development economics, that's affected the lives of literally billions of people? It'd be easy to create symmetry of scale if we want. And again, my point is that there's ample blame to go around.
D.C.: As a liberal I can tell you that one reason I am frequently frustrated with conservatives in the public arena is that they tend to play 'experts' on topics they know little about. If I want information on climate change, I will ask a climate scientist. The conservatives 'experts' on this topic tend to be economists, politicians, and science fiction authors. No?
Gerard Alexander: Well, asking climate scientists turned out to be more difficult than it sounded. It turns out that scientists turned out to have much more diverse views on climate change than we'd been led to believe. I'm left exactly where I was a year or two ago: unsure what to make of this issue. You correctly identify a serious dilemma: what do we do when expertise doesn't provide all the answers, yet we have to make decisions? My first reaction: ensure that we have available a robust competition of views that we listen to.
Lima, Peru: What do you suggest liberals who are interested in a respectful exchange of ideas (and a desire to find working solutions) do to combat elitism and intellectual arrogance in their own ranks?
Gerard Alexander: Great question, but one I'm not sure how to answer. Just listening more open-mindedly as individuals is probably the most that any of us can do. Urging a friend to do the same might help too. This is deep in our discursive habits and unlikely to change anytime soon. I obviously appreciate the sentiment to get to work!
Bronx, N.Y.: I recently graduated from college, a place where political debates constantly were springing up amongst people who thought they were open minded when in reality people stuck to their guns and dismissed their opponents' opinions as ignorance. If political debates struggle to exist at an institution protected by academia and amongst young people thirsting for knowledge, where can it exist?
Gerard Alexander: Universities are in principle the perfect context for the sort of debate you suggest. But you're right that they don't always play that role very well. Diversifying academia intellectually would be a huge step forward.
Arlington, Va.: I wonder, Professor Alexander, if you could comment on the degree to which you think the phenomenon you describe is attributable to the education system in this country? Condescension is often a product of ignorance, and I think it's reasonable that most educators, even at the elementary or secondary school level are liberal in some sense, and conservatism is not portrayed in a sophisticated (or even legitimate) way unless the student explicitly seeks it out. It's a challenge to seek out politically adversarial material and I think the failure of liberals to do so breeds much of the intellectual superiority you describe. It's easier to demonize than to read and take seriously Hayek or Burke or Buckley or whatever.
Gerard Alexander: You grab onto some very complex issues here, above my pay-grade! I'm not sure if condescension comes from ignorance, and since psychological theories of political attitudes have been used so pejoratively against conservatives, I'm usually averse to invoking them myself to explain anyone else.
Washington, D.C.: As a matter of public policy, conservatives advocate for forced waiting periods on abortion. As in, if these women would only think about it they would change their mind. Condescending policy choice of the conservative movement, right? How offensive to women that they imply we haven't thought about this choice prior to the appointment or knew the facts. Maybe conservative only condescend to women and so then it doesn't count.
Gerard Alexander: That's a very interesting example. Of course, it's only example of how public policies have tried to recognize the importance of emotions (for example, as mitigating factors in some crimes) or incorporate them into events (for example, cooling-off periods in labor negotiations; allowing people to purchase out of property purchases within a short period). When you put it that way, those all sound a little patronizing. Then again, emotions do play a role in decision-making, and it would be a pity to try to ignore that. Very interesting.
State College, Pa.: Would Mr. Alexander care to explain whether an intelligent and discerning leader of the caliber of Dwight Eisenhower would be considered acceptable in today's conservative movement? It is interesting that there is scant discussion of Eisenhower as a model for contemporary conservatism? Could that be one reason that conservatives have difficulty being treated seriously?
Gerard Alexander: That's interesting. Of course, it's unlikely that a tax-cutting Cold Warrior like JFK would fit in today's Democratic Party very easily either -- and I wonder what Harry Truman would have thought of gay marriage? But each side's pantheon says something interesting about their values, it's true. Maybe the saddest thing about Eisenhower is that he's not so much banished as forgotten.
Washington, D.C.: The difficult point that your op-ed raises is the extent to which this condescending attitude is real, and the extent to which it is perceived. I don't believe it's a stretch to claim that the conservative movement, in the last four decades, has thrived on a feeling of persecution, of victimhood, of being looked down upon by the liberal and coastal elites. It has become, in other words, a shibboleth of conservative leaders.
Gerard Alexander: Your raise an important possibility. On the other hand, I didn't imagine all the books, speeches, and quotes I cited. I could drown in the academic literatures developing some of these narratives.
Boston, Mass.: What I see through your article and this discussion is the exact same thing I discovered while talking to one of my conservative friends when I asked her why did conservatives hate people like me so much? She replied that she has always thought that liberals have hated people like her. Given that the two of us like each other very much, neither case is probably true. The impression comes when politicians and pundits reduce all controversies to their most extreme theories. Thus, liberals think conservatives are dumb. And conservatives think liberals are weak-willed, naive and street-dumb. And we never move forward. And both sides have plenty of people doing this. Ann Coulter, referenced approvingly above, is definitely not shy about saying that everything liberal is wrong. And Fox News certainly doesn't spend much time examining the attributes of liberal policy thought. On the other hand, we have people like Michael Moore who do the same from the left side.
Gerard Alexander: You're calling for more acceptance and listening all around. Sign me up!
Fairfax, Va.: Isn't this just semantics? Conservatives are self-serving . . . or, they believe in encouraging individual responsibility. Liberals are condescending . . . or, they believe in fighting on behalf of the broader public. Can't we tell a similar story that's unproductive for either side -- conservatives questioning the patriotism of liberals, liberals questioning the validity of conservative philosophy? How does your polarizing stance help change this?
Gerard Alexander: I'm unaware of conservatism's top leaders and main establishment voices arguing that modern liberalism is structurally and systematically distorted and invalid. I want to help un-polarize things by pointing out that we'd have better policy debates if no-one engaged in questioning like that.
Washington, D.C.: I have to admit being stunned by your claim that you were trying to improve the tone of the debate with your op-ed. The least one can say is that you achieved precisely the opposite result. Moreover, you mustn't have been paying a lot of attention to the Bush years -- all criticism of national security policy by liberals was condemned as treason at worse, or weakness at best. Talk about being condescending...
Gerard Alexander: If you can find those treason accusations from leading conservative magazines, top elected officials, etc, I'd be very curious to see them. Please don't just "know" that they said it: show me where they did. Another reader just referred to some conservatives thriving on persecution, as surely some do. Maybe some of all of us do so as well.
New York, N.Y.: Is it true that most conservatives believe in UFOs while most liberals do not? What are your thoughts on the matter?
Gerard Alexander: I have to admit that that's data I haven't looked at, I'm afraid.
Gerard Alexander: This has been great -- mostly the exact sort of dialog that we need more of. Thank you all for joining in; I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
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