Michael Wolraich's picture

    Why Are Liberals So Condescending?

    Dear Mr. Alexander,

    Thank you for your important and original editorial, "Why are liberals so condescending?" I had no idea that I been guilty of employing tired and contemptuous stereotypes of my conservative brethren. I realize now that my partisan arrogance has limited "our national conservation on critical policy issues" and that if I and my fellow liberals had just been a little more charitable towards conservative sensibilities, the Republicans would be working with us to move the nation forward in harmony instead of being forced to filibuster every bill, nomination, and procedural motion on the Senate floor. All I can say is that I'm sorry, and I will try to be better.

    Since your essay explained the many ways in which liberals are condescending but didn't actually answer your own question, I'd like to help by explaining why we liberals are so arrogant.

    We're not really bad people, but our feelings have been hurt too. I wish that all conservatives were reasonable people like you who offer helpful constructive criticism. But I've been hearing so much lately about how evil I am and how I hate the Constitution, it's hard not to take it personally. I know that you said Glenn Beck is just "a marginal figure and a media gadfly," and I keep reminding myself of that, but he's sold millions and millions of books, which is way more than any of the liberal writers that you cited. I don't think many people have heard of Thomas Frank, the Edsalls, or even (no offense) Alexander Gerard, but Glenn Beck is everywhere.

    Still, I know that Beck doesn't speak for most conservatives. In your editorial, you mentioned a poll by Markos Moulitsas which shows that only 23% of Republicans believe that their states should secede from the Union. That doesn't seem like too many. But you know, I looked at the survey, and it also shows 63% of Republicans think that Obama is a socialist. They probably mean that in a good way, but it just seems like a lot. And it makes me wonder, with no disrespect, how well most Republicans understand socialism.

    But I'll try to forget about Glenn Beck. He's just one guy. There are probably many other bestselling conservative books that are far more positive about liberalism. Like Michelle Malkin's Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks & Cronies and Dick Morris's Catastrophe: How Obama, Congress, and the Special Interests are Transforming. . .A Downturn into a Crash, a Recession into a Depression, and a Disaster into a CATASTROPHE . . and How to Stop Them and Ann Coulter's  Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and their Assault on America and Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change.

    I'm sure that you're familiar with all these books. You probably also read Coulter's: Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right when it came out 8 years ago. She wrote that "the more Conservative the Republican, the more vicious and hysterical the attacks on his intelligence will be." That's sort of close to the point of your editorial, isn't it? She also wrote that "much of the left's hate speech bears greater similarity to a psychological disorder than to standard political discourse." I have to confess that these words sound a little condescending.

    But I'm sure that hardly anyone reads Ann Coulter and those other people. And anyway, Republican politicians are much more reasonable and open to liberal ideas. For instance, George W. Bush always consulted Democrats about their concerns. But it did bother me a little when Dick Cheney suggested that Democrats "are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States" and when Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) said that Obama "is obsessed with turning terrorists loose in America."

    I also thought that Tom DeLay was slightly disdainful when he wrote that "liberals have finally joined the ranks of scoundrels like Hitler." But most Republicans don't go that far. I believe Rep. Paul Brown (R-GA) when he said that he wasn't comparing Obama to Adolf Hitler, though it was weird when he added, "What I'm saying is there is the potential of going down that road." I wonder if he talked to Rep. Steve King (R-IA) because he suggested that we might "end up in a totalitarian dictatorship." Could that be why Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) called Obama "an enemy of humanity?"

    Anyway, shame on Thomas Frank for writing that working-class Republican Kansans care more about abortion than their own economic interests. Who does that guy think he is? I was so disgusted by his condescension that I re-read part of his book. I'm sure that you remember the bit about conservatives' propensity to "take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly" and how they complain that "the virtuous are persecuted by the 'sanctimonious,' by the arrogant, by the falsely pious, by the corrupt" and the part where he writes, "Everything seems to piss conservatives off, and they react by documenting and cataloging their disgust."

    Had Frank read your brilliant editorial, I'm sure that he would never have written such nonsense.



    Interesting reaction.  Of course, one thing about using sarcasm is that it's much more effective at undermining a thesis one opposes than making an affirmative case for what one believes.

    With good sarcasm, the affirmative case is often tucked subtly between the lines. In this instance, it's not that subtle.

    Snarky bastards.

    It's perfectly clear to me that you strongly disagree with his essay; you're likely offended.  You may think the author is a nincompoop.  What isn't clear to me is whether any of the things on which you "agreed" are actually things that you believe are reasonable and have merit.  The essay focuses on ways that DEMs have been at fault and doesn't address how the GOP has been as well (and in one graph ridiculously gives them almost a free pass).  I honestly don't know if you merely take issue with that, or if you actually take a much more extreme view and believe that the GOP is solely at fault.

    I think there are 3 ways to answer that:

    1. Both sides are at fault, or more precisely, people from both sides are guilty of being condescending (but not all people from either side). If you find condescension an unpardonable sin, this seems a reasonable position.
    2. Neither side is at fault. Condescension is a natural response when people say things mind-numbingly stupid and is at worst a pecadillo.
    3. The other side is at fault (I'm deliberately avoiding labeling the sides). As with #2, but no one from my side says anything mind-numbingly stupid, or my side is only condescending when people from the other side say something mind-numbingly stupid whereas the other side is condescending even in the face of extreme wisdom or is unable to grasp satire/sarcasm/etc.

    I tend to go with #2, but when I'm feeling very tribal I'll admit to drifting towards #3 on occasion. It does seem to me that the other side says things far more stupid than people on our side say, but that might be because anyone profoundly stupid is automatically excluded from being on "my side", even if they're clearly not on the "other side", either.

    Fault for what? Legislative inaction? I don't think that there's any question who is responsible for that. Republicans are proudly boasting of their intransigence, even competing to see who can put the most holds on Obama's nominees. Alexander's hint that Democrats' condescension somehow forced Republican obstinacy is as absurd as blaming someone who called you a name for punching him in the nose. I assume Alexander knows that, which is why he left it as a hint and spent the whole essay whining about Democratic condescension.

    But whatever. My target was Alexander's unoriginality and intellectual inconsistency. Was he unaware that his charge was a worn out stereotype that has been hurled at liberals for decades--that one of the liberal writers he discussed had written an entire book about how Republicans have used the charge of elitism for political manipulation? And the problem with the way Alexander dismissed Beck was not that he gave Republicans a "free pass" but that he inconsistently generalized liberal attitudes based on a few writers and politicians while rejecting generalizations of conservative attitudes based on writers and politicians who are far more popular and influential than the liberals he mentioned.

    In short, I'm not offended. I'm disdainful. Is that condescending? I'm sure it is. Are most liberals condescending? I don't know and moreover, don't really care.

    I found it interesting that he could get through that whole discussion without one whit of acknowledgement of the real and obvious failures of actual conservative policies.  The GOP had six years of pretty much unadulterated single-party rule.  How did that work out for us?

    This is notable in his treatment of Krugman.  Krugman spent those years offering many criticisms of the Bush administration and the larger GOP agenda.  The trouble here is that he's been proven correct on the majority of the criticisms, not the least of which were his criticisms of Bush administration economic policies.  Those economic policies, largely emanating from the University of Chicago (as, during the stagflation of the 1970s, the influence of Keynes gave way to the rise of Friedman's monetarism), have been the dominant political economy in the United States since the Reagan administration.

    Well, how did those policies work out for us?  Amazingly, there's no mention in this editorial of the economic turmoil of the last several years and hardly any mention of the Bush administration whatsoever, save obliquely acknowledging that Bush was President as a consequence of wanting to point out that some guy did a PowerPoint about it.

    The other big stand-out here to me is when he discusses Lakoff and the issue of whether or not voters are bamboozled or under the spell of a "false consciousness" (Marxist buzzword alert!).  Here, Alexander asserts that the logical consequence of this liberal condescension is that liberals must believe that people are simply dupes or, at the very least, dupable.  Let's leave aside that this is not quite Lakoff's thesis, which is actually closer to encouraging liberals to inject more pathos and ethos into their arguments.  What's most astounding here is that it is, in fact, the neo-conservatives who believe that people must be lied to.

    Leo Strauss, again of the University of Chicago, advocated the Platonic notion of the "noble lie."  He was a mentor to the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and other significant figures in the Bush administration.  Theirs is the political philosophy that says that only the very smartest among us are really fit to govern and that those who meet this criteria are obligated to dupe everyone else into going along with the program for the greater good.  (To briefly re-visit Krugman here, this is precisely what Krugman is inquiring about in his quote about what noble purpose these men must be lying for.)

    Astonishingly, Mr. Alexander seems quite incensed at the notion that liberal criticisms would seem to imply that people are dupes or dupable, yet seems not at all concerned about those at the core of the Bush administration who espoused precisely this as a component of their political philosophy.  Is an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia simply unaware of the University of Chicago?  He seems to know precious little about the economic and political thought that has originated at that insitution and so influenced our politics in recent years.

    Back to Lakoff, his thesis is really an analysis of the success that conservatives have enjoyed under the assumption, which again they have advocated more or less openly (though never on television, which effectively keeps it a secret), that people are not only dupable, but need to be duped for their own good.  Lakoff's answer is that people don't make decisions strictly on the basis of a sober evaluation of the facts, but also as a function of subconsciously evaluating arguments based on their moral and emotional content.  It's almost like a modern cognitive science companion to Edward Bernays' Propaganda.

    But this idea, I as noted earlier, was not at all foreign to the Greeks (who, as I also noted, heavily influenced Strauss, who in turn influenced the modern neo-conservatives).  To them, good rhetoric needed all three of its legs.  Lakoff is more or less just bringing modern evidence to bear on 2500 year old insights.  And, if you read what he has to say about how he began down this particular road, the gathering of this evidence was a direct reaction to the observed success of the GOP in contemporary America.

    That success, again, is the success of people who start out with the assumption that people are not only dupable, but need to be duped for their own good.

    It must either be that Mr. Alexander is sweetly naive, as an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia, of all of this, or that he is quite cleverly playing the very same game that he says liberals are so off-base for accusing people of playing.  Try to wrap your head around that for a minute.

    Nice find and a great post, G.

    Great comment from a whole new direction.

    PS I can't claim credit for the find. Seashell sent it to me.

    Somewhat related to your post, today's Glenn Greenwald column explores further adventures in abject conservative hypocrisy.

    DF - Mr. Alexander seems to be a fan of public choice theory.* Public choice was born in Virginia and with only 326 societal members, may die there, also. But this association may help explain his dimness on the existence of the Chicago School of Economics. He is also a "scholar" at AEI, an institution that usually refuses to recognize the existence of reality, but loves the Straussian concept of super-secret code words in order identify the duped from the un-duped.


    *(Deduced from this statement: But public-choice economists have long warned that when decisions are made in blah, blah, blah)

    Interesting.  I didn't recognize his name, but I could smell him coming a mile away.

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