Reihan Salam writes that liberalism seems to have produced an American anticlerical politics that seeks to attack believers in the public square even when the attack doesn’t produce any public benefit as such things are conventionally measured. It does not matter if, at the end of the day, a Supreme Court decision does nothing to reduce access to, or increase the price of contraceptives. It is outrage enough that opponents of potential abortifacient were allowed to escape the personal experience of providing the abortifacient. Attacking the objectors personally is the point. I think what Salam calls “weaponized secularism” is actually an example of a much broader phenomenon on the left that does simply target religious traditionalists.
Look at the early media reporting on Sarah Palin. She was actually a pretty moderate (and tax-raising!) goo-goo reformist governor. The instant reaction was to paint her as the embodiment of white, trailer park, hillbilly radicalism. Mitt Romney’s cultural profile could hardly be different from Palin’s and he was painted as part of the social-Darwinist and racist white rich.
You can argue that tying Romney and Palin to kinds of cultural conservatism were some of what the attacks on Romney and Palin had in common, but I think the most important factor is the speed and unanswered cultural reach of a combination of liberal media outlets and developments in social media. An argument (often disingenuous) spreads among liberal writers and then takes off in social media. Since large segments of the country’s population occupy media streams that are conservative-free, the disingenuous arguments are not rebutted. The arguments might not even be fully digested by many of the targets of the dishonesty. It is the impression that matters. There are going to be millions of people thinking something along the lines of “Supreme Court, something, something, employer can deny you contraception.” Does that mean they think that your employer will fire you if they learn you are using the pill? Maybe. Maybe it is a little less bad than all that. Anyway, it is bad whatever it is.
This method can and will work just as well with targets that are not social conservatives. That was the subtext of Michael Bloomberg’s Harvard address. Bloomberg knows that he can be targeted just as easily as Rick Santorum. If libertarians ever look like a serious threat, they should expect to be identified as Bull Connor, anarchist, patriarchal, gay bash-abetting, hate crime accomplices. Outraged libertarians will then go to the comments sections of Reason.com and explain to each other that they were for gay marriage before Obama, and that Jim Crow was really statist, and blah, blah, blah. It won’t matter because the real audience for those smears doesn’t go to Reason.com. This is not a discussion. Not having a discussion is the whole point.
We should not be surprised that the more dishonest and intolerant on the left will continue to engage in this kind of behavior. Dahlia Lithwick is going to Dahlia Lithwick. Leftist activists are going to try to ideologically cleanse as many sectors of American society as possible. The younger anti-liberal left activists believe that time is on their side. Younger voters are actually pretty ideologically ambiguous as a group, but for most of them, politics is experienced as different kinds of liberal voices. The loudest voices for a genuinely tolerant liberalism are mostly much older than the loudest proponents of left anti-liberalism. The Sandra Korns will be around when the William Bowens are in the ground.
Conservatives should also not be surprised that the people we are not talking to have a distorted idea of who we are and what we want. The conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s eventually developed a pretty good idea of how to use paid media and the conventions of the major television network news divisions to get their message across to most people. We now have tens of millions of new (either by birth or immigration) Americans who get their political information in different ways. Until we reach them, any smear will do.