Emmett Rensin at Vox has posted a remarkably introspective piece about “The Smug Style in American Liberalism,” which is perhaps the most self-critical writing to emerge from a left-wing media organ this year.
Rensin views Smug Liberalism as an emotional response from an intellectual movement jilted by many of its voters: “By the 1990s the better part of the working class wanted nothing to do with the word liberal. What remained of the American progressive elite was left to puzzle: What happened to our coalition? Why did they abandon us? What’s the matter with Kansas?”
This last line is a reference to the title of a book by Thomas Frank, whose thesis, repeated as a cry of anguish from liberalism by Rensin, was that blue-collar Americans were inexplicably voting against their economic interests by trending Republican.
As Rensin puts it, Smug Liberalism “arose to answer those questions” by convincing elitist liberals that the “stupid hicks don’t know what’s good for them,” having been “conned by right-wingers and tent revivalists.”
The result is a Smug Liberal media culture, on TV and the Internet, devoted to validating that sense of elite superiority, with everything from polls to pseudo-scientific studies that purport to demonstrate that left-wingers are higher-order creatures, floating high above a mass of rubes and simpletons.
Rensin finds plenty of examples to back up the Smug Liberalism thesis, and concludes that the relationship between liberal elites and the Little People they claim to represent has degenerated into something approaching mutual disgust.
The disgust might even be deep enough to deliver Smug Liberalism a surprise on Election Day, after a race they assume will be a slam-dunk for super-smart Hillary Clinton versus dumbass Donald Trump and his hick supporters.
It’s a fascinating read, keeping in mind that Rensin came to bury Smug Liberalism, not praise conservatism. Respect is due for anyone who can write at such length about the importance of respecting people he profoundly disagrees with.
There are a few quibbles to be had, though, beginning with the status of Vox itself as a smokestack of Smug Liberal convictions. It has published some incredibly stupid pieces intended to “scientifically” validate left-wing convictions – which is practically its mission statement. It would be a lot to ask for Rensin to eviscerate his own publication. (He does mention it once, as part of an “information bubble” that includes the New York Times.)
More importantly, the history of Smug Liberalism goes back much further than the Fifties roots Rensin points out by quoting such declarations as Lionel Trilling’s claim that liberalism “is not only the dominant, but even the sole intellectual tradition.”
Smugness is worked into the very DNA of modern “liberalism,” because it’s a stylistic expression of the authoritarian spirit.
Modern liberals are authoritarians, collectivists, and totalitarians. They’re smug because they expect to be obeyed. They believe there is no intellectually or morally valid dissent from their beliefs, and that every area of life that should be politicized and controlled. The impulse to “scientifically” design and impose a “better society” gave us 1920s communism, 1930s fascism, 1950s socialism, and 1960s liberalism. That impulse is much more than half a century old.
That’s the ‘right to rule’ mindset Rensin describes. If the rubes are “voting against their interests,” then superior leaders of boundless compassion who care so damn much about the rubes have a duty to take away their freedom. Leaving people free to pursue harmful actions is morally wrong. Competing ambitions from different groups must be resolved by the wise elite, who seize and reallocate wealth to correct “injustice” and “inequality.”
Hubris is hardly unique to the Left, but humility is very difficult to find on that side of the aisle. The core convictions of liberalism is that mankind can be perfected with the proper guidance, and that liberals are the only ones who are smart and noble enough to do the job. Every social problem can – and must – be corrected with a compulsory government program. They believe lesser people are dangerous when left to their own devices.
It is a very short journey from that brand of elitist “compassion” to the smugness Rensin describes, the conviction that dissent can be explained only by evil, madness, or stupidity. The bubble of Smug Liberalism is a force field against information that could make dissent seem understandable, or even correct. They want the force field made even stronger — hence the left-wing mania for suppressing free speech. If they were justifiably confident instead of smug, they wouldn’t be so terrified of disagreement.
It is impossible to view either clients or enemies the way liberals do, without looking down on them.
To be liberal is to look across the fruited plain and see nothing but victims and villains. Tradition is dismissed as the dead hand of a past deserving of unbridled contempt.
The materialist fixations of the Left also demote people to soulless robots, judged to be defective if they don’t respond to material calculations properly. That’s the meaning of the “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” question, and also the reason liberals think religious faith, patriotism, and devotion to Constitutional principle are silly hobbies no intelligent person could take seriously.
There is more appreciation for humility among conservatives and libertarians, whose philosophy opposes one-size-fits-all solutions designed by elites and administered by centralized power, and whose religious traditions strongly emphasize the limits of authority. (To be sure, not everyone who sits through those lessons absorbs them properly.)
Smug judgmentalism is hardly unique to the Left, but at this point in American political and cultural history, it’s primarily the Left trying to enforce its moral and social judgments with government power.
Plenty of people on the Right talk about immoral behavior, but the Left is far more interested in stamping out “wrongness.” Listen to a campaign speech from Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, and keep track of how many platform items amount to moral judgments backed by coercive force — promises to “get even” with people who haven’t broken any laws. Count up how many of their “promises” are actually demands no one will be allowed to refuse.
Even our commercial culture is increasingly centralized, which makes it vulnerable to elite arrogance. The news/entertainment complex sees three great cities, with a country piled haphazardly around them. Political power has become concentrated in urban complexes that look down on rural voters and their values. The Left uses commercial culture aggressively to pursue its political ends, and it uses political power to shape the commercial culture. A body of shared prejudices and unchallengeable convictions helps to keep everyone on the same page.
Smug Liberalism may be turning a lot of people off, as Rensin suggests, but frankly it’s the practical failure of collectivist government that is driving many of those working-class voters away. They see Big Government as a failure, a ripoff, overpriced and under-performing. Regions of the country, and areas of life, most thoroughly dominated by liberalism are failing most conspicuously. The sense that time and resources are running short is palpable. Coercion is also a limited resource with diminishing returns, which is why left-wing culture has grown so shrill.
Judging by the latest polls, Americans aren’t quite out of patience with liberal sneering yet, but we’re getting close.