The liberal contempt for middle America is baked into the idea of identity politics.
At a Trump campaign rally in Selma, N.C., Nov. 3, 2016. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Nine years after Barack Obama accused small-towners of clinging to guns or religion, nearly three years after Jonathan Gruber was shown to have attributed ObamaCare’s passage to the stupidity of the American voter, and eight months after Hillary Clinton pronounced half of Donald Trump’s voters “irredeemable,” Democrats are now getting some sophisticated advice: You don’t win votes by showing contempt for voters.
In the last week or so a flurry of articles have appeared arguing for toning down the looking-down. In the New Republic Michael Tomasky writes under the heading “Elitism Is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem.” Over at the New York Times, Joan C. Williams weighs in with “The Dumb Politics of Elite Condescension.” Slate goes with a Q&A on “advice on how to talk to the white working class without insulting them.” Stanley Greenberg at the American Prospect writeson “The Democrats’ ‘Working-Class Problem,’ ” and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones asks for “Less Liberal Contempt, Please.”
None of these pieces are directed at Trump Nation. To the contrary, they are pitched to progressives still having a hard time coming to grips with The Donald’s victory last November. Much of what these authors write is sensible. But it can also be hilarious, particularly when the effort to explain ordinary Americans to progressive elites reads like a Margaret Mead entry on the exotic habits of the Samoans.
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Mr. Tomasky, for example, informs progressives that middle Americans—wait for it—“go to church.” They have friends (“and sometimes even spouses”) “who are Republicans.” “They don’t feel self-conscious saluting the flag.” Who knew?
Most of these writers allow that there is at least some fraction of Trump voters who are not deplorable. What they do not appreciate is how condescending they can be while advising their fellow Democrats to be less condescending. Exhibit A: Mr. Drum’s recommendation that Democrats can “broaden [their] appeal” because these are “persuadable, low information folks.”
Still, Mr. Drum comes across as Gandhi when set against the writer at Slate who interviews Ms. Williams. The following question conveys the tone: “What attitude should we be taking toward people who voted for a racist buffoon who is scamming them?”
Ms. Williams, a University of California law professor who has written a new book on the white working class, generously avoids telling her interviewer he is a perfect instance of the problem. But the larger progressive dilemma here is that contempt is baked into the identity politics that defines today’s Democratic Party.
When Mrs. Clinton labeled Trump voters deplorable (“racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it”) she was simply following identity politics to its logical conclusion. Because identity politics transforms those on the other side of the argument—i.e., Americans who are pro-life, who respect the military, who may work in the coal industry—from political opponents into oppressors.
Which is precisely how they are treated: as bigots whose retrograde views mean they have no rights. So when the Supreme Court unilaterally imposes gay marriage on the entire nation, a baker who doesn’t want to cater a gay reception must be financially ruined. Ditto for two Portland women who ran a burrito stand that they shut down after accusations of cultural appropriation regarding their recipes.
No small part of the attraction of identity politics is its usefulness in silencing those who do not hew to progressive orthodoxy. This dynamic is most visible on campuses, where identity politics is also most virulent. It’s no accident, in other words, that the mob at Middlebury resorted to violence to try to keep Charles Murray ; after all, he’s been called a “white nationalist.” In much the same way identity politics has led Democrats to regard themselves as the “resistance” rather than the loyal opposition.
The great irony here is that this has left Democrats increasingly choosing undemocratic means to get what they want. From President Obama’s boast that he would use his pen and phone to bypass Congress to the progressive use of the Supreme Court as its preferred legislature to the Iran and climate deals that made end runs around the Constitution, it all underscores one thing: The modern American progressive has no faith in the democratic process because he has no trust in the American people.
Here it helps to remember the tail end of Mr. Obama’s snipe about guns and religion: it was a crack about voters clinging to “antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” Sounds like a pretty accurate indictment of contemporary American liberalism, judging by all these articles begging progressives to be a little more broad-minded.
So good luck with the idea that the Democratic Party can restore its relationship with Middle America without addressing the identity politics that fuels it. Especially when it starts from the premise that the Americans they are condescending to will remain too stupid to figure it out.
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A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.