Home / General / Is Liberal “Smugness” A Meaningful Causal Factor In American Politics? (SPOILER: Still No.)

Is Liberal “Smugness” A Meaningful Causal Factor In American Politics? (SPOILER: Still No.)



Emmett Rensin has a follow-up to his argument that the white working class, especially in the South, doesn’t vote for liberals because smug liberals hate them. I will give him credit for this much: he sticks to the strong version of his argument. Based on some of his tweets, I fully expected the move in the “the two-step of terrific triviality” in which he backed off his transparently erroneous causal claims and historical assumptions and reduced his argument down to some unexceptionable banality like “liberals should take people who disagree with them seriously.” And we do got both steps here. But ultimately, for better or worse, he means it. This…does not go well:

On the first point, Bouie is correct. Racial animus that had threatened to destroy the liberal coalition as far back as the early twentieth century was a major driver of the realignment that culminated between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t something I deny in my own piece. In fact, I’d go further and say that the racial tantrum which drove realignment wasn’t limited to the working class. Among the most critical errors in the history of the American labor movement, the racially motivated defection of union leadership to Nixon in 1968 surely ranks near the top. Subsequently exploited and encouraged by the GOP, racism has continued to animate reactionary populism, from Reagan’s “young buck”, through the reaction to the Barack Obama presidency, and now in the Trump movement.

Resnsin still has no idea of the magnitude of this concession. Remember, his argument is that southern white workers not voting for Democrats is a recent development driven by factors such as Gawker posts and Jon Stewart monologues. If this realignment was not only driven largely by resentment towards the Democratic embrace of civil rights but was mostly complete several decades ago, his argument is reduced to virtually nothing right at the outset. (And when you add in the fact that even before the realignment these voters might have been voting for Democrats but generally weren’t voting for liberals — that this realignment was more about more coherent parties emerging than a change in voter ideology — any possible bite to his argument becomes even more threadbare.)

At this point, any sensible person would realize his argument was a dog and abandon ship. Rensin, instead, makes it even worse. Step one:

That I didn’t explicitly address this my piece is a fair critique by Bouie, but I don’t believe it fundamentally undermines my point. The fact that the white working class embraced and continues to embrace racial resentment does not actually constitute a good reason to deny them economic justice.

This is, of course, true. The problem is that virtually no liberal disagrees with this. Rensin has successfully wrestled a strawman to the ground. Consider Hamilton Nolan, one of the very few of the “smug liberals” who Rensin names and specifically addresses, because he wrote a half-serious post that makes him The Very Smug Face of Liberalism Today (TM). Does Nolan believe that the working class does not deserve economic justice? No, he does not; quite the opposite. Indeed, his half-serious contempt for “dumb hicks” is precisely based on the fact that their votes obstruct efforts to create more egalitarian economic conditions. I don’t think Nolan’s reaction is productive, but given how much weight explanatory weight Rensin piles onto this one post, his incompetent reading of it is an excellent illustration of the problems with his argument.

We have seen a nearly perfect case study to test Rensin’s point: John Roberts’s inept and constitutionally unwarranted re-writing of the Medicaid expansion. John Roberts’s version of Medicaid effectively granted the most important expansion of the welfare state in nearly 50 years to Democratic states and denied it to most of the states in which the white working class helped install Republican statehouses. My challenge: name me one single coastal urban liberal who was pleased with John Roberts’s version of Medicaid. If, as Rensin asserts, the dominant ethos of such liberals is “if they won’t vote for us, deny them economic justice,” they shouldn’t be hard to find! It’s also worth noting that the the large state role in Medicaid, both in 1965 and 2010, was not the preference of urban liberals but was a concession to more conservative Midwestern and rural Democrats. We smug effete liberals generally prefer national programs that provide uniform benefits and despise the neoconfderate ideology Sebelius represents, the fact that decentralization effectively punishes Southern workers notwithstanding.

It is true, in the 90s, that many Democrats — some reasonably described as liberals and some not — pursued policies, most notably welfare reform, that denied economic justice to elements of the working class. But these misguided policies were more a way to appeal to white working class voters rather than a sign of contempt for them, passed during a period in which Democratic elites were suffused with anxiety about their dwindling support in the South. Rensin is right about the policy merits but completely wrong about the politics of their passage.

That said, I don’t think liberal smugness—“These rubes are just ignorant backward hicks who deserve their fate”—is taking a nuanced view of history either.

Indeed it is not! The problem is that Rensin has only some anecdotal evidence for the “ignorant hicks” part of the argument and bupkis on the more crucial “deserve their fate” part. Strawmen you just made up and attribute to others do indeed tend to be lacking in nuance.

And, now, step two:

The second of Bouie’s arguments—that elite liberals in media, on twitter, etc. don’t really matter as much as I think—is a lot less defensible.


But not, evidently, in the case of the working class. You could argue that reactionary working class whites deserve to be shut out and scorned in a way that others do not. But that is not the same thing as saying that being shut out and disrespected doesn’t have much effect.

So Rensin isn’t backing off his causal claims here. And the problem is, as we discussed at the outset, that he has an implausible causal explanation that doesn’t even have causation going for it. Both smug liberals and reactionary whites voting for conservatives are evergreen elements of American politics that long predate The Daily Show and these effete liberals today with their Twitter and Facebook. And two of the less than dozen or so years of the last century in which liberals have been…well, not even dominant in Congress but influential enough to pass something resembling an ambitious if compromised progressive agenda, occurred during the height of liberal smugness. The argument just doesn’t make any sense.

Rensin also addresses the obvious meta-problem of the smugness that consistently characterizes his sweeping, contemptuous, lightly supported generalizations about “smug liberals”:

My essay defines “the smug style” very precisely. It does not mean “having an opinion” or “arguing forcefully” or even “believing your politics are right”. The smug style is about how a large segment of elite liberal culture has come to believe that political differences and political arguments are errors, in the strict sense. That they are ultimately reducible to differences in knowledge (and therefore differences in intelligence). It has accordingly developed an entire culture of tribal signals and jokes predicated on reinforcing this dogma.

The consequence is that elite liberal concerns have been blinded to a whole host of economic issues. It has made liberals worse at combatting reactionary forces. If you believe the main problem is that your opponents are dumb hicks, you do not understand them well enough to fight them, much less persuade them. For example: The smug style made it impossible for liberals to take Trump until very late in the game. It has made a large part of their response to him counter-productive. Even if Trump is defeated, this pattern will continue.

The problem here is that while there are certainly liberals who believe that any disagreement with them must be motivated by ignorance or false consciousness, Rensin provides no evidence that this self-flattery is any more common among liberals than left-of-liberals, moderates, or conservatives. And the weaknesses of his argument are perfectly illustrated by the last three sentences. I assume the third-last one meant to say “take Trump seriously,” but the problem here is that the failure to take Trump seriously was at least as common among conservatives as liberals. (And it’s not just about smugness, either: nobody like Trump had ever won a major party nomination before.) The move in the last two sentence, though, is even better. Liberal smugness has made responses to Trump counter-productive. Liberal smugness is a very bad and very important thing, then! Only liberal smugness notwithstanding, barring economic catastrophe Trump is overwhelmingly likely to be trounced about as badly as a contemporary major party candidate can be in November by a candidate whose campaigning skills are distinctly underwhelming. Does this suggest that perhaps liberal smugness just isn’t remotely the causal factor in determining electoral outcomes that Rensin keeps asserting? No, no, it’s central to his point!

Look, liberal smugness is a real thing. I’ll even give a tip for the next person writing something like this: The Newsroom. It’s a whole show premised on the idea that everyone would agree with liberals if only they heard liberal arguments presented in the right way by the right pompous white guy, and it’s the smuggest and most irritating thing you’ve ever seen. But as much as I’d like to think otherwise, Aaron Sorkin isn’t the reason Republicans control the House. Just because something is really annoying doesn’t make it important. Rensin’s argument is half strawman and half a real thing whose importance he’s massively exaggerated.

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