Is Liberal Smugness to Blame for Our Awful Political Climate?

"It's hard to tell who started it," Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote in a Sunday opinion column for the New York Times. She was referring to the political climate in 2018, and the cultural conversation surrounding it, especially online. Mangu-Ward, the editor in chief of the libertarian magazine Reason, believes that there are two groups responsible for this undeniably depressing state of affairs--liberals ("cozy in their elite enclaves on the coasts, who burrowed down into self-righteousness, lecturing working-class Republicans about how they misunderstand their own interests") and the modern right ("reared in the meme swamps of Reddit and 4chan, who emerged blinking into the daylight of politics and set about baiting anyone who disagreed with their chosen Republican king"). The smugness of the former group and the trollishness of the latter have fed off one another, she writes, creating the vicious cycle that is our politics today.You write in your piece that, "The problem isn't just filter bubbles, echo chambers or alternative facts. It's tone: When the loudest voices on the left talk about people on the right as either beyond the pale or dupes of their betters, it is with an air of barely concealed smugness. Right-wingers, for their part, increasingly respond with a churlish 'Oh, yeah? Hold my beer,' and then double down on whatever politically incorrect sentiment brought on the disdain in the first place." The way that's written implies that the right-wing attitude that we see online and from the president is a response to a smug leftism. Is the right is merely reacting to something?I think it is not a case of a single original sin that sent us cascading down into the rhetorical swamps where we now live. But I do find that, although I am demographically and in many ways even ideologically sympathetic to people on the left, in the story of smug versus trolls, I find myself sympathetic to the right, sympathetic to this response of, "Fine, if you're going to see me that way, I'll double down on it. I'll be as bad as you think I am."The idea, then, is that people are accused of being racist, or see other people being called racist, and as a response to that say, "You know what? I'm going to vote for a racist, or I'm going to be part of a political movement that looks the other way about racism." I guess I would challenge the way that you set that up. I think that when people feel that they've been accused of something horrible, like racism, or that their peers or friends have, that they respond negatively, and that they respond by maybe overstating their own case, or mocking the other side. I don't think that it's an accurate mental picture to say they responded by voting for a racist. I think they say, "You on the left are either overstating or overvaluing that particular aspect of Donald Trump. However, he has a lot of other attributes that you don't value at all, and you're wrong to not value those things."You say that smug people on the coasts, to speak broadly, look at people who vote for Republicans, white working-class people, and say, "You guys don't understand your own economic interests." That comes across as smug, and that makes people respond in a certain way. But if that's your objective analysis of what's going on, how do you think we should have that conversation? The sincere belief of many people on the left is that working-class people on the right are being taken advantage of, in this case by a con man.Liberals believe that essentially the liberal coalition has been hollowed out. While it used to be a coalition that spread more evenly across different socioeconomic classes and a broader geographical area, it's now rich, white people and then people of color, to oversimplify it dramatically. There's a certain amount of baffled resentment at the class of people that abandoned the left. I think the flip side of that is that if you talk to conservative intellectuals, they don't know what happened in their party. They are very confused about what happened. The sort of Never Trumpism among National Review types and others shows that they too are confused about what happened with that demographic.I want to say what I think. I still haven't quite figured out how to not smugly say that I think Donald Trump is a con man taking advantage of his voters. I don't think every Republican, or the entire Republican Party's platform, or libertarianism, or social conservatism, is just about conning voters. I do think Donald Trump is a con man, and he is essentially conning his voters to enrich his family. I don't know how to say that without sounding smug and without immediately telling essentially everyone who voted for him, "You got conned." Your response is very similar to a significant portion of the response to this piece. The vast majority of people who were "team smug" offered some variant of what you just said, like, "But we're right, and they're wrong, and so what do we do?" All due respect to you and all those people, that's precisely the problem. You are the problem. That is to say, just because you have an analysis of why someone voted the way they did and you think that it's wrong, you don't have to say it out loud. Having said it out loud lots of times, and it having not been effective as a rhetorical move to shift the political landscape in the direction that you want, why not try another tack?It just feels to me that as writers we have some responsibility to argue for what we think the truth is. You write in the piece, for example, about the DACA debate, "The left labeled the right racist. The right accused the left of hating America." There's just more truth to one of those things than the other. We should have some responsibility to say what's true.The assumption about motivations on both sides is equally an exercise in some amount of truth and some amount of bad faith. There are many, many people, even relatively close to libertarian circles, who are very clearly not racist and who are genuinely worried, instead, about keeping a distinctive and powerful American culture intact, who are worried about the bottom line of the federal and state governments, who are worried about overcrowding in schools. I don't think those are good reasons to keep these immigrants out, but none of that is about racism.Conversely, I think there are many liberals, of course, who don't "hate" America, but I think it is fair to say of many liberals that they don't particularly value national loyalty or patriotism very highly, and that also they think that whatever America is, it's OK if it changes, which to a person who very highly values America as it exists right now, is not a good outcome.Again, it's not exactly hating America, but it is a little, and it's not exactly racism, but it is a little, in many cases. I think it's a fair parallel. You say in the piece, "Liberals and people of the left underpin their politics with moral concerns about harm and fairness. They are driven by the imperative to help the vulnerable and see justice done. Conservatives and people on the right value these things as well but have several additional moral touchstones--loyalty, respect, and sanctity." How do you think Trump fits into that paradigm, specifically regarding respect and sanctity?I think that Trump fits into it uneasily, which is again why the intellectual right was taken by surprise by his election. That intellectual framework still strikes me as extremely true for a way to think about our deeper underlying political differences. At the same time, I think you have to work a little bit to understand how that gets interpreted on Trump. Donald Trump said a lot of times on the campaign trail, "I love America. America is the greatest country. We are better than the rest of the world. We need to get the best deals. It's our group that matters, not that group." This is absolutely speaking to a value that, to a person who doesn't share that value, it sounds like xenophobia. Sometimes it is xenophobia, but for lots of people, it's not. For lots of people, the power of in-group solidarity drives good things. This is how people feel loyalty to their church, which drives all kinds of excellent community institutions. In many ways, I don't share these values, but because I so often interact with people that don't seem to share mine, I am sensitive to, and I think other people would do well to be sensitive to, what the good side of that coin looks like. I think Donald Trump, he is not the best version of any of those things, but he is a version of some of them. Hillary Clinton only communicated in the care/harm and justice/fairness dimensions. She never said any words that appealed to any of those other values.This Q&A was conducted, edited and condensed by Isaac Chotiner, a writer for Slate.What's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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