Liberals pay high price for smugness

Democrats sneered when a pollster found many Republicans support bombing Agrabah, the country in Aladdin. But Republicans weren’t the only ones duped.
Democrats sneered when a pollster found many Republicans support bombing Agrabah, the country in Aladdin. But Republicans weren’t the only ones duped. AP

Emmett Rensin wants his fellow liberals to stop being so condescending.

In an essay for Vox, he dissects what he calls “the smug style in American liberalism.” It is a strain of liberalism that attributes disagreement with its tenets to stupidity and ignorance, and responds to that disagreement with mockery. It delights in evidence, however dubious, that liberals are intellectually superior to conservatives.

He believes that this style has weakened liberalism. But while his analysis is commendably large-hearted, it misses more than it sees about liberalism’s flaws.

He presents some good evidence for his thesis. Remember how, a few months ago, a Democratic pollster found that 30 percent of Republican voters favored bombing Agrabah? It’s the kingdom in the movie “Aladdin.” Liberals sneered, as he notes. They largely missed that a Republican polling firm later found that 44 percent of Democrats favored taking in refugees from the same fictional country.

Rensin believes that this smugness has helped to alienate poor and working-class white voters from liberalism, and liberals from these voters. People won’t vote for a politics that considers them to be hicks and rubes. Thus, he argues, liberals have failed to win votes that would help them deliver an anti-poverty agenda.

More provocatively, he thinks they have grown less interested in fighting poverty as they have become more contemptuous of the poor. They have traded labor unions for Silicon Valley, coal country for finance. Liberalism has become both less persuasive and less idealistic as a result of its conceit.

The ridicule directed at Kim Davis, the Kentucky official who refused to issue wedding licenses under her name in order to avoid doing so for same-sex couples, is one of Rensin’s examples. Some liberals celebrated her imprisonment, attacked her appearance and made fun of her sexual history. Liberals, he writes, should “instead wonder what it might be like to have little left but one’s values; to wake up one day to find your whole moral order destroyed...”

Lacking humility

Every political tradition needs adherents who will warn against its vices. Contemporary liberalism may be especially prone to writing off its opponents. In a 2012 article, a trio of social psychologists found that liberals had a less accurate perception of the moral views of conservatives than conservatives had of liberals. One of the authors, Jonathan Haidt, suggests that liberals and conservatives increasingly view each other through the stereotypes that have traditionally divided city and country folk. The urban stereotype of the rural is that they’re mired in idiocy.

If liberals resist that stereotype, they may find themselves going further than Rensin does. Liberalism’s defensive sneer, he writes, is “dressed up as a monopoly on reason.” But if liberalism has no such monopoly, then perhaps liberals need to do more than “examine our own methods of persuasion” – which is what he suggests. Maybe they need to consider that some of their views are mistaken, and that the conservatives they disdain are sometimes right, even if they are working class and rural.

The great virtue that contemporary liberalism lacks and needs is neither civility nor solidarity. It’s humility – and sadly, even some of liberalism’s most thoughtful internal critics can’t see it.

Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review.