Several days ago I was having dinner with a new friend from New York who’d never had a conversation with a conservative about poverty and economics (don’t be shocked — it’s hardly unusual to run into urban liberals who’ve never had meaningful conversations with conservatives.) As I explained the reasons for my opposition to our current welfare structure — including its contribution to multi-generational poverty and the breakdown of the family — he suggested that I partner with a progressive Christian to launch an informed point/counterpoint series on Christianity, poverty, and inequality.
Inwardly, I groaned. I’d been a part of enough of these “conversations” to know exactly how they tend to go. First, I have to prove that I care. Because, you see, the default position is that only liberals truly care about the poor. Then, once I’ve proven to at least a marginal degree of satisfaction that I have sufficient compassion, then I have to prove that I know enough to be a part of the conversation. Then, finally, I have to show that I’m civil. Because, you know, wingnuts like me are liable to spew hate.
At a surface level this seems reasonable. After all, if there’s going to be a substantive policy debate, then one would hope that it would be conducted between people who care about the subject, know something about it, and can speak without spittle flying from their mouths. But the burden of proof tends to run one way — only the conservative has to prove his compassion, knowledge, and civility. I have to prove I’m worthy of the conversation. For the leftist, all the relevant virtues are presumed.
It seems that at least some liberals realize that this smugness is a problem — that it’s not a good look for the movement, and it’s doing long-term cultural harm. Writing in Vox, Emmett Rensin condemns the “smug style of American liberalism,” and his extended essay is worth your time. Rensin argues that the core of liberal smugness is a condescending concept of knowing:
Elites, real elites, might recognize one another by their superior knowledge. The smug recognize one another by their mutual knowing.
Knowing, for example, that the Founding Fathers were all secular deists. Knowing that you’re actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder. Knowing that those fools out in Kansas are voting against their own self-interest and that the trouble is Kansas doesn’t know any better. Knowing all the jokes that signal this knowledge.
The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing. It is the smug style’s first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from “imposing their morals” like the bad guys do.
Knowing is the shibboleth into the smug style’s culture, a cultural that celebrates hip commitments and valorizes hip taste, that loves nothing more than hate-reading anyone who doesn’t get them. A culture that has come to replace politics itself. (Italics in original.)
This is a key insight and absolutely consistent with my experiences living in places like Manhattan, Boston, and Philadelphia. Yet this knowing doesn’t reflect actual knowledge — just the presumption. I’ll never forget a dinner conversation with new liberal friends a few years ago — people who knew nothing about my military background and education — and to hear them discuss the Middle East with absolute moral and intellectual certainty was astounding. They knew almost nothing, but they also knew everything.
Rensin lays much of the blame on the culture of hip liberal political comedy:
We have long passed the point where blithe ridicule of the American right can be credibly cast as private stress relief and not, for instance, the animating public strategy of an entire wing of the liberal culture apparatus. The Daily Show, as it happens, is not the private entertainment of elites blowing off some steam. It is broadcast on national television.
Twitter isn’t private. Not that anybody with the sickest burn to accompany the smartest chart would want it to be. Otherwise, how would everyone know how in-the-know you are?
The rubes have seen your videos. You posted it on their wall.
Still don’t get why liberal opinion is correct? This video settles the debate for good.
I have been wondering for a long time how it is that so many entries to the op-ed pages take it as their justifying premise that they are arguing for a truth that has never been advanced before. (Italics in original.)
Rensin ends with a warning for his fellow leftists:
This is not a call for civility. Manners are not enough. The smug style did not arise by accident, and it cannot be abolished with a little self-reproach. So long as liberals cannot find common cause with the larger section of the American working class, they will search for reasons to justify that failure. They will resent them. They will find, over and over, how easy it is to justify abandoning them further. They will choose the smug style.
Maybe the cycle is too deeply set already. Perhaps the divide, the disdain, the whole crack-up are inevitable. But if liberal good intentions are to make a play for a better future, they cannot merely recognize the ways they’ve come to hate their former allies. They must begin to mend the ways they lost them in the first place.
I pass along his essay not to proclaim that conservative-world is culturally superior (Indeed, this entire election cycle has served as a heaping helping of humble pie for conservatives who believed our tribe was developing a healthy, thoughtful political culture), but rather to note that thoughtful liberals may be starting to wake up. So are thoughtful conservatives. Mutual loathing and contempt are spiraling out of control, and if each side can’t check their own worst impulses, then I agree with Rensin — “the divide, the disdain, the whole crackup are inevitable.”