No Respect

Once again it’s been a busy few days, with little time for brooding and writing. For now, then, here’s an essay that has been making the rounds for a week or so: Why Are Liberals So Condescending? It’s by one Gerard Alexander, who teaches politics at the University of Virginia. In it he identifies, and analyzes, four aspects of the withering contempt with which liberals regard conservatives.

First up is a belief that conservatives achieve their support, and their votes, not by being right, but through sheer manipulation:

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.

Next is the idea that not only are conservative leaders charlatans and mountebanks, but the peope who rally round them are witless dupes:

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.

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.

Third is the idea that conservatives rely on calculated exploitation of social inhomogeneities, especially racial divisions:

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.

Fourth is the notion that conservative types simply don’t really think at all:

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.”

[L]iberals 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.

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?

Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of conservative voters out there who really do belong in “Dumbfuckistan”, and I make no defense of them here. But intellectual incoherence, political sleaze, lack of critical thinking, and brute ignorance or willful denial of scientific and historical reality are hardly the exclusive province of the Right, despite what Keith Olbermann or Al Gore may tell you.

At any rate, this has lately been a much-discussed article. You can read it here.

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2 Comments

  1. the one eyed man says

    I won’t comment on the putative validity of these four aspects, or whether they fairly typify the thinking of the left, but I am reading Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, which takes place in 2004. The phrase which stood out was:

    “the despising without remission that constitutes being a conscientious citizen in the reign of George W. Bush”

    Doubtless there are those who would replace Bush’s name with Obama’s, and 2010 with 2004. Not taking a stand here. Just liked the phrase.

    Posted February 14, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    He writes well, that Philip Roth.

    Posted February 14, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink