Saturday, February 06, 2010

Liberal Condescension to the Right

University of Virginia professor has an essay in Sunday's Washington Post about how liberals tend to denigrate and disregard conservative ideas. He summarizes four approaches that liberals take to conservative ideas.

First, there is the "vast right-wing conspiracy" sort of accusation that portrays a few conservative organizations and leaders as engaged in a giant plot to obfuscate and confuse hoi polloi. Evil plotters such as Karl Rove manipulate the public and the press to achieve an ill-gotten victory.

Or perhaps the problems with conservatives is the second line approach that Alexander discusses: the "What's the Matter with Kansas" attitude. In this analysis, the common herd are being led by appeals to their social and cultural opinions to ignore what would be good for them economically. In this view, the dumb sheep in places like Kansas and Ohio will vote for a Republican because of their fear of gays or blacks and ignore all the good that the Democrat could do for them by enacting more economical redistributionist policies that would help those poor crackers. Holding such a view of the masses makes it easier for liberals to ignore them when they come out to townhalls or vote against Democrats.
And speaking to a roomful of Democratic donors in 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama offered a similar (and infamous) analysis when he suggested 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 backed away from their tenor but insisted that "I said something that everybody knows is true."

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.
The third view is stuck forever in the early 1970s and the glory days of hating Nixon. In this view, conservatives are even more despicably manipulating white public opinion by subtly appealing to their racial bigotry. It is the comfort of this view that leads liberals today to see all opposition to Obama's policies as deeply rooted in racism.

The fourth type of liberal condescension that Alexander identifies is the smug self-satisfaction that many liberals have for believing that they are the only ones who pay attention to actual science while conservatives are just anti-intellectual religious nuts. The reason that liberals might have trouble communicating their manifest superiority to the masses is because they're just too darn smart and intellectual and that doesn't translate well into political slogans.

As Alexander concludes, this liberal condescension can have dangerous ramifications if it allows liberals to ignore the actual conservative arguments and evidence of the failure of so many liberal policies.
Starting in the 1960s, the original neoconservative critics such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed distress about the breakdown of inner-city families, only to be maligned as racist and ignored for decades -- until appalling statistics forced critics to recognize their views as relevant. Long-standing conservative concerns over the perils of long-term welfare dependency were similarly villainized as insincere and mean-spirited -- until public opinion insisted they be addressed by a Democratic president and a Republican Congress in the 1996 welfare reform law. But in the meantime, welfare policies that discouraged work, marriage and the development of skills remained in place, with devastating effects.

Ignoring conservative cautions and insights is no less costly today. Some observers have decried an anti-intellectual strain in contemporary conservatism, detected in George W. Bush's aw-shucks style, Sarah Palin's college-hopping and the occasional conservative campaigns against egghead intellectuals. But 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 as they do today.

Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend. Democrats have been busy expanding, enacting or proposing major state interventions in financial markets, energy and health care. Supporters of such 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. But public-choice economists have long warned that when decisions are made in large, centralized government programs, political priorities almost always trump other goals.
Of course, if you regard your ideological opponents as manipulative, evil, racist yahoos, it's going to be hard to sit down and understand their research and policy proposals. Admitting that a conservative idea might be motivated by a serious study of what has succeeded and failed in the past would mean acknowledging that conservatives might be motivated by something other than despicable and ignorant emotionalism. President Obama claims that he wants to get beyond such partisan name-calling and engage with his Republican opponents. But to do so, he'll have to get beyond his own almost knee-jerk condescension towards conservatives.

Perhaps liberals reading their Washington Post this weekend will see a bit of themselves in Alexander's essay. The first step to healing is recognition of the problem.


Stan said...

As Krauthammer wrote years ago, the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Republicans think Democrats are wrong, and Democrats think Republicans are evil.

Why would anyone respect the opinions of those they see as hate-filled, mean-spirited, racist, sexist, homophobes bent on exploiting workers and trashing the environment? Until Democrats grow up and see the world as mature adults, things aren't going to change.

Old Retired Petty Officer said...

Obama get beyond this? I wouldn't bet on it. Not even for getting his socialized medicine legislation passed.

Skay said...

Obama says a lot of things publicly-depending on the day, the hour and the audience.
The next day the teleprompter says something quite different.

It is interesting that the various videos of him speaking-that point out this little problem-are beginning to get on his nerves. Now he suggests that he would much prefer that we just turn off the TV--especially cable(Fox).

Has he been reading the book that Hugo Chavez gave him?

Casey said...

You closed with "Perhaps liberals reading their Washington Post this weekend will see a bit of themselves in Alexander's essay."

My response to this is "not bloody likely", which is sad but true.

tfhr said...


If Hugo wants him to read his book, he'll have to put a picture of Obama on every page.

BB-Idaho said...

Yep; this liberal agrees. We tend to think of conservatives as mean,
coldhearted and tools of the super rich...and I'm quite sure they see us the same way! I always try to
avoid my political biases because,
well, you ever notice the more you denigrate someone, the more entrenched they become? Besides,
I have a lot of conservative friends..:)

tfhr said...


So you think of your conservative friends as " of the super rich". What do you base your friendship on or is that it?

Perhaps you don't know your friends any better than other conservatives or is it the other way around?

mark said...

If you really want to know why there is liberal condescension towards the right, look no further than Sarah Palin. Here is someone who is more of a fraud than John Edwards. While intelligent conservatives fear the damage she can do to the party and the country, they don't quite have the guts to call her on her bs.
A small but telling point: Rahm Emmanuela recently made a crude reference to retarded people to a small group. Playing politics, she broadcast the comment to millions (on facebook no less) while demanding his resignation. Yet asked about Rush intentionally broadcasting the word "retard" to millions, she gave him a pass. She didn't have the courage to call out Rush, and republicans don't have the guts to call her out.
I was hoping that thoughtful, intelligent repubs had learned the lesson with Bush 43: Intelligence matters.
You don't have to admit what we all know - he was a failure. But please, don't make the same mistake with Sarah Palin. Somebody in the party needs to have the strenght to tell her - to steal from tfhr - to STFU.
Until republicans can drum out idiots like her, there will always be well-deserved ridicule.
Oh yeah: I'm well aware that there are dems who deserve ridicule and scorn and the party stands behind them (Charlie Rangel quickly comes to mind). Save it: One reason I'm not a registered dem is that, in a two-way race for disgrace and cowardice, dems run a close second.

itsthewa said...

Mark said, "I was hoping that thoughtful, intelligent repubs had learned the lesson with Bush 43: Intelligence matters."

*sigh* Mark, you're not really showing off your own intelligence by repeating the old lefty "Bush is dumb" canard.

Here's the truth that journalists rarely print and liberals never let themselves hear, no matter how many times you repeat it to them: Bush got better grades in college than Gore (that supposed intellectual) did. Further, after undergrad, Gore flunked out of divinity school and dropped out of law school. On the other hand, after his undergrad career, Bush went on to get an MBA from Harvard.

Do you really think that's an easy thing to do? Ya think a big ol' dummy could complete a Harvard MBA?

Maybe you didn't agree with Bush's economic policies. Maybe you didn't care for his ideas concerning national security and the use of the military. Maybe you weren't impressed by his public speaking ability.

But when you (falsely) tell us conservatives how stupid Bush was, you actually (and amusingly) embody the very "liberal condescension" that Betsy's post was about: that liberals call conservatives and their ideas "dumb" so as to dismiss them out of hand without having to ponder their merits at all.

And by the way, Mark, Palin did not "give Rush a pass." Palin's spokesman did, in fact, chide Rush's "retard" rant by stating, “Governor Palin believes crude and demeaning name calling at the expense of others is disrespectful.”

However, you are correct that she did not call for Rush to step down the way she did Rahm Emmanuel. But most of us have figured out by now that as a rule, people usually just cut their friends more slack than they do their enemies. For example, in a town hall meeting in 2006, Pelosi praised Code Pink protesters as "democracy in action," whereas in a 2009 town hall meeting, Pelosi decried Tea Party protesters as "un-American."

And very recently President Obama scolded House and Senate Republicans for their cynical and partisan obstructionism, whereas when Republicans had the majority, then-Senator Obama was one of the Democrats who voted to filibuster President Bush's judicial appointments.

Mark, I eagerly await you to... how did you put it?-- "have the guts to call [them] on their bs." I mean, surely intelligent liberals are worried about the damage these two can do to the party and the country.

mark said...

Thanks for proving my point so quickly. As you said, Palin had a spokesman put out a generic statement. She had the perfect chance to slap down someone for using a term she apparently found offensive. She passed.
I'll grant you, it is an exaggeration to call Bush stupid. He's probably not. But he certainly never had the intellect or curiosity to be president. He himself bragged about acting from his gut (instead of his brain). I'd like my leaders to employ intellect instead of gaze into the eyes of leaders like Putin to determine if they are soul mates. Listening to many (intelligent) republicans, Palin doesn't have the desire to do the hard studying it would take to learn issues.

tfhr said...


Well said.

Unfortunately mark is in the throes of the terminal stage of BDS and can no longer engage in thoughtful debate. He seems to be unable to help himself.

It's almost as if he suffers from Tourette's and must compulsively grunt out "Bush" as a noun, verb, interjection, or any other random part of speech. It's sad because he once appeared to be capable of addressing issues by suggesting solutions to specific problems. I'm afraid those days are gone for him.

equitus said...

mark seems driven mostly by personal animus (Bush, Cheney, Rove, Palin, etc. etc. etc.), latching on to very narrow, specific actions or behaviors of Republican leaders and hammering on those beyond reason and logic. This has an added purpose of deflecting any real discussion of issues.

It also seems that mark is confused by the "liberal condescension" subject. To him, Palin is the SOURCE of this condescension. But who can deny this unfortunate attitude towards conservatives predates the rise of Palin by many years? I would argue that his attitude towards Palin is in fact a RESULT of this condescension.

Once again, hatred gets in the way of clear thinking.