Sunday, February 7, 2010 The Washington Post ran an editorial wondering aloud, “Why are Liberals so condescending?” Gerard Alexander: Why are liberals so condescending? – washingtonpost.com.
My modestly ironic proposal to Mr. Gerard Alexander is this: I will prove the failure of your point through your own editorial, by simply changing your words (such as “condescension” to “narrative”) and inserting a few sentences here and there, but with no significant change. Your very own article will be shown to prove the truth behind Liberal’s criticism of conservative thought, that conservatives do not use reasoned and researched arguments and offer up merely ideological bromides meaning very little of substance. I can make the Liberal point through your article with simple word changes that took no research or evidence; you make statements with no proof thusly proving Liberal criticism accurate. There is no “there” there! in your argument, Mr. Alexander… Let the games begin! (Cue trumpets)
Faustian urGe: Why Are Liberals So Altruistic?
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, are committed to the proposition that their views should be and most often are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are usually not just wrong but fallacious, ideological (i.e., visionary speculation of an unrealistic, intractable, or idealistic nature) and deserving of critical consideration. Indeed, appeals to bipartisanship notwithstanding, President Obama and other leading Liberal voices have no choice but to continue to join in a chorus of intellectual condescension so long as conservatives remain enamored of unthinking lightweights such as .W “The-Decider” Bush and Sarah “What-Does-My-Palm-Say” Palin.
It appears to be an odd time for Liberals to feel smug, though – especially given the loss of Ted Kennedy’s senate seat to a conservative. Yet, even though Democratic fortunes seem on the wane as the electorate refuses to see past its perpetual fears and desires for immediate gratification, leading Liberals know that they really do have almost nothing to learn from conservative ideologues, though moderate and thoughtful Republicans who would like to facilitate change to benefit the entire citizenry have been well courted. Democrats’ troubles are, indeed, mostly a PR challenge (as the electorate satisfies its hunger for solutions through delicious soundbites), accompanied by conservative misinformation (as critics of health-care reform peddle false fears of a “Bolshevik plot”), and the country’s failure to appreciate the great Liberal accomplishments of reasonably equitable wealth creation since Roosevelt. “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 discouraging truth is the benighted electorate is either uncomprehending (due to a pervasive lack of intellectual curiosity and a desire for spoon feed thought) or deliberately misinformed (by ultra-conservatives such as Rush “May-I-Have-Another-OxyContin” Limbaugh).
Thus what many perceive as condescension is actually part of a Liberal tradition that has sought to enrich American debates over the economy, society, and the functions of government with reasoned, science-based, and socially responsible thought.
Liberals have appropriately repudiated extreme conservative ideology for decades, a tendency suitably encapsulated by Lionel Trilling’s 1950 remark that conservative ideologues 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, though, Liberals underestimated the nascent conservative movement, even while prominent studies and journalistic accounts of right-wing politics at the time presciently stressed the ideologues’ psychological roots of paranoia, intolerance and insecurity — accurately diagnosing extreme conservative thought as more a psychiatric disorder than a rival political concept. In 1962, yet another foreboding warning went unheeded when 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.” That failure of Democrats to recognize a pervasive societal psychoses would prove politically fatal when soon confronted by a charismatic conservative leader evincing the essential American image and confidence.
The imprudent overconfidence of Liberal intellectual preeminence, in contrast, declined precipitously 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.) Currently, though, Liberal confidence and its companion disdain for regressive 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 narrative is identification of the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” a movement named and made famous by Hillary Rodham Clinton but hardly limited to her. This revelation maintains that conservatives win elections not because they triumph in the open battle of ideas but because they deploy brilliant and malicious campaign tactics. A dense network of professional political strategists such as Karl Rove, think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, plus powerful and extraordinarily funded industry groups manipulate information and mislead the public so as to serve ideological and powerful interests — all the while offering soothing bromide to assuage the psychoses of the American electorate, enrobed by fear and self-loathing. Democratic strategist Rob Stein designed a celebrated PowerPoint presentation during George W. Bush’s presidency that accurately traced conservative success to such organizational factors.
This Liberal depiction draws attention to the dissemination of ideologically driven conservative views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel. For example, Chris Mooney’s book, “The Republican War on Science,” pointedly illustrates that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who shun empirical evidence in favor of anecdotal observation or assumption, thus reflecting the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals fearfully shielding the world from modernity. In this understanding, core conservative arguments are found to be often false and usually deployed cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is criticized by the Liberal as corporate propaganda, since the conservative mind fails to appreciate the costs of inaction; arguments against health-care reform and universal insurance coverage are called out for what they are: intense marketing orchestrated by insurance companies and Big Pharma.
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 fall prey to a diversion about the supposed complexities of free speech in politics, Liberals have asserted that the decision will “open the floodgates for special interests” to influence American elections, as the president warned in his 2010 State of the Union address. In other words, the Supreme Court’s radical decision should be considered for its part in the “conspiracy” — or concerted effort — to support conservative candidates for their stultifying, corporatist ends. As the nation wrongly accords a Corporation the rights of a single individual personae before the courts, so too must the lifeless, valueless entity be accorded an artificial right to free speech as if it were morality-bound flesh and blood.
It follows, then, that too many thinkers, politicians and citizens who advance conservative ideas must be dupes, charlatans, or corporate mercenaries peddling stories they know to be a sham. In this spirit, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman must dismisses conservative arguments not simply as incorrect, but as the lies they are. Writing summer 2009, 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?” And, there’s the rub!
In Krugman’s analysis, there is little need to take seriously the arguments of “these people” — only to plumb the depths of their errors and unearth hidden motives.
So, in the second variety of Liberal narrative, since the conservative leadership may accurately be characterized as adroit manipulators, the rank-and-file adherents who follow them may be held as unwittingly exploited at best, or complicit at worst. This understanding is exemplified in Thomas Frank’s best-selling 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Frank explored how working-class voters were so distracted by obfuscations such as abortion and homosexuality that they were induced into voting against their own economic interests. Then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, later chairman of the Democratic National Committee, reminded the nation of this harmful contradiction in his 2004 presidential run, when he pointed out that Republicans had succeeded in focusing Southern whites on diversionary “guns, God and gays,” instead of equitable economic growth and wealth participation that would actually be in the majority of citizens’ best interests.
Speaking to Democratic donors in 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama offered a similar reminder when he noted 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 remained steadfast that, “I said something that everybody knows is true.”
In this view, focusing on that which will enhance all citizens’ status and quality of life, the nation should pay close heed to conservative voters’ underlying problems but disregard the fear-based or discriminatory policy demands they voice — as these demands are illusory, devoid of empathy or evidence. This form of Liberal narrative implies that conservative masses unfortunately remain in the grip of myopic awareness. When these frenzied conservative citizens express their fears and bias at town hall meetings or “tea [bag] party” assemblies, it’s politically prudent for Liberals to “let them vent,” but there is no reason to actually validate the frenzy or contribute to its irrationality.
The third version of Liberal narrative points to something more prescient. In his 2008 book, “Nixonland,” progressive writer Rick Perlstein detailed how Richard Nixon created an enduring Republican strategy of mobilizing ethnic and other resentments of many Americans against other fellow citizens. Similarly, in their 1992 book, “Chain Reaction,” Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall discerned that Nixon and Reagan “talked up” crime control, low taxes, and welfare elimination to cloak racial animus while actually helping to establish it as mainstream. It is now clear to many Liberals that one major contributing factor to Republican election success is the tapping into white prejudice against blacks and immigrants — or fear of the “other.”
Race doubtless played a significant role in the shift of Deep South whites to the Republican Party during and after the 1960s. Conservatives would insist that such bigotry is no longer the motivation of modern Republicans as survey research has shown a dramatic decline in prejudiced attitudes among white Americans in the intervening decades. Of course, one might equally maintain that the survey merely reveals that it is no longer fashionable or even publicly acceptable to be identified with such discriminatory attitudes, but these surveys certainly do not prove such impulses or biases no longer functionally exist. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the candidates and agendas of both parties too often demonstrate an unfortunate willingness to play on prejudices, whether based on race, region, class, income, or other factors.
Finally, Liberals address the right-wing forthrightly when observing that conservatives most often do appear driven largely by instinct and anxiety — including fear of change — whereas Liberals have the more difficult task of appealing to evidence and logic. Former Vice-President Al Gore noted as much in his 2007 book, “The Assault on Reason,” in which he expressed deep concern that American politics suffered 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 observed.
Prominent Liberal academics also articulate these same conclusions. George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley and a consultant to Democratic candidates, says bluntly that Liberals, unlike conservatives, “still believe in Enlightenment reason,” while Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist and Democratic consultant, decried how the GOP has done a better job of mastering the emotional side of campaigns because Democrats, alas, remain more acquainted with appeals to intelligent thought and rational argument. “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 designed to identify how many rank-and-file Republicans hold unusual or conspiratorial beliefs — finding also that 23 percent of those surveyed believe 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 narrative is remarkable: 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?” Food for thought.
Of course, it wouldn’t take laborious effort to find strange, ill-informed, and paranoid beliefs among the fringes of Democrats — witness Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” interviews. The difference is the extent of such depravations within each group’s adherents and the extent of their representation in elected officials.
These four Liberal narratives not only justify the suspicion toward conservative thinking as biased or malicious — they insist on it. By no means do all Liberals adhere to these narratives, but they do form a strong foundation for left-of-center thinking. Indeed, when the President met with House Republicans in Baltimore shortly after his 2010 State-of the-Union address, he assured them that he does consider their ideas. Yet obligated by deference to truth, President Obama openly questioned their motives.
“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, will we examine each of these issues based on what’s good for the country, what the evidence tells us, or will we position ourselves so that come November, we’re able to say, ‘The other party, it’s their fault’?” Good questions posited… crickets chirping in the background.
Of course, plenty of conservatives are hardly above feeling superior and posing rhetorical questions. They do so when portraying Liberals as systematically mistaken in their worldview, when they try to identify ideological dogmatism in a narrow slice of the left, in the health-care debate, or in specific individuals such as Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom some conservatives accuse of being stealth ideologues. A few conservative voices will say that all Liberals are always wrong, and these tend to be directed by larger-than-life figures or media gadflies such as Glenn “I-Can’t-Get-Any-Meaner” Beck and Rush “OxyContin” Limbaugh, et. al..
In contrast, an extraordinarily small range of Liberal writers, commentators and leaders — from Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” to Obama’s White House, with a slight few stops in between — have developed or articulated narratives that target conservatives’ proposals, ideas, and methods, yet not persons.
To many Liberals, their worldview is clearly appealing and expansive, and it dramatically opens our national conversation on critical policy issues that address the commonweal and benefit of the entire society, not just economic royalists and theological dictators. Perhaps most hopeful, Liberal narrative has expanded debates about American poverty for nearly two generations – a focus that would otherwise be ignored by the conservative agenda.
Starting in the 1960s, the original neoconservative critics such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed distress about the breakdown of inner-city families, and they were cautioned about perceived racial concerns of their proposals and questioned for decades — until exaggerated statistics coerced pundits to recognize the neoconservative views as relevant. Long-standing, feigned conservative concern over the perils of long-term welfare dependency were discredited rightly as insincere and mean-spirited — until public opinion (motivated by years of declining real income levels and the need for two-earners in a family unit) insisted they be addressed by a Democratic president and a Republican Congress in the 1996 welfare reform law. But in the meantime, welfare policies providing an economic floor – below which the least able and least educated would not fall – remained in place, thus offering a cushioning effect affect against the pitfalls of economic reality. That cushion eliminated thereafter, we may soon see how the desperate react against financial and personal depravation. A “person” may peacefully endure overwhelming stress; “People” will turn to survival-mode, whether through violence, theft, or disruption of the common peace.
Ignoring Liberal cautions and insights is still no less costly today. Some Liberal observers have decried the anti-intellectual strain in contemporary conservatism, detected in George W. Bush’s aw-shucks style, Sarah Palin’s college-hopping and the “Tea Party” conservative campaigns against “egghead” intellectuals. 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 designed to play toward general societal fears and an economic darwinism forced upon families by an economy no longer willing to provide a rising standard of living for succeeding generations.
Perhaps the most endearing conservative insight is the monotonous refrain from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend (forgetting: national highways, bridges, rural electrification, the space program creating real technologies applicable to contemporary life, scientific research programs with new treatments and cures,…). Democrats, meanwhile, have been busy expanding, enacting or proposing major state interventions in financial markets, energy and health care as countermeasures against the recent and historic failures of completely deregulated, greed-focused Capitalism. Supporters of such vital and progressive 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.
Still, ideologically conservative “public-choice” economists continue the refrain that when decisions are made in large, centralized government programs, political priorities almost always trump other goals – I guess forgetting what priorities trumped “other” goals within Enron; WorldCom; Tyco; Adelphia; Countrywide Financial; Ameriquest; AIG; Investment Banks and Hedge Funds; Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO); Credit Default Swaps (CDS); Bear Stearns; Lehman Brothers; Merrill Lynch; Fannie Mae; Freddie Mac; Washington Mutual; Wachovia; “Bernie” Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme; Lincoln Savings and Loan and the Charles Keating scandal; the S&L Crisis of the 1980’s… let me catch my breath…
Liberals also know that to advance the society requires consideration of decisions on innovative surgeries, light bulbs, and carbon quotas, etc.. Of course, thoughtful consideration would be easier without wasting time listening to conservatives’ blindly ideological bromides at all. Should conservatives offer up concepts based in empirical reality and not ideology, when they propose ideas to benefit the overall commonweal instead of protected elites, then conservatives will be worth listening to by Liberals.