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.