Home / General / Is “Smugness” A Significant Causal Factor in American Politics? (SPOILER: No.)

Is “Smugness” A Significant Causal Factor in American Politics? (SPOILER: No.)



Jamelle Bouie says most of what needs to be said about Emmett Rensin’s extremely long essay about liberal “smugness” and the allegedly large role it has played in liberal political reversals:

It’s a comprehensive case. It’s a full-throated case. And it’s informed by a tradition of intra-left criticism of liberal elites, much of it fair and often needed. But it’s wrong. Or at least, it has three fatal flaws that make it far from persuasive.

The first is just history. That liberal smugness might deter the white working class from the Democratic Party seems reasonable, if unfalsifiable. But to suggest that it is a prime mover in their alienation from the party is to ignore the actual dynamics at work. The driving reason working-class whites abandoned the Democratic Party is race. The New Deal coalition Rensin describes was devoured by its own contradictions, chiefly, the racism needed to secure white allegiance even as the party tried to appeal to blacks.

Pressed by those blacks, Democrats tried to make good on their commitments, and when they did, whites bolted. The Democratic Party’s alliance with nonwhites is what drove those whites away, not the sniffing of comedians on cable television. And, looking at the politics of the last seven years, it’s still keeping them away. (It’s worth noting that, up until left-leaning whites and minorities elected Barack Obama president, Democrats suffered little loss with working-class whites outside of the South.)

That said, there’s no question that smug liberals exist. It’s incontestable. (I’ve complained about them myself.) But Rensin doesn’t argue for the mere existence of liberals who are smug about their beliefs and ideology. He argues that smugness is key to contemporary liberalism. That it’s all but a plank of today’s Democratic Party.

But his evidence is lacking. “The smug style in American liberalism” is defined entirely through media and social media. It is The Daily Show, it is liberal Twitter, it is Gawker. (Rensin devotes a portion of the essay to excoriating an essay by writer Hamilton Nolan.) But these are small portions—fractions—of the Democratic Party. And they’re far from representative of American liberals.

Precisely. There are of course smug liberals (as there are smug people of any political persuasion.) Are liberals more likely to be smug? I have no idea, but let’s say that it’s true. The obvious problem is that there have always been smug liberals. There were smug liberals when the Democrats got routed in 1984, and there were smug liberals when Democrats won big in 2008. The causal logic Rensin uses is transparently wrong. Consider this, for example:

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, the working class, once the core of the coalition, began abandoning the Democratic Party. In 1948, in the immediate wake of Franklin Roosevelt, 66 percent of manual laborers voted for Democrats, along with 60 percent of farmers. In 1964, it was 55 percent of working-class voters. By 1980, it was 35 percent.

To state the obvious, if a large percentage of the white working class defected between 1948 and 1964, as Bouie says it’s pretty hard to argue that Jon Stewart and people saying mean things about Kim Davis on Twitter played a major causal role.

And that’s not the only problem. While substantial majorities of manual laborers and farmers might have voted for the Democrats in 1948, that doesn’t mean they were a voting bloc for the left. The 1948 election didn’t just come in the wake of FDR; it came in the wake of Congress passing the Taft-Hartley Act with veto-proof majorities, a rather important fact that inevitably gets left out of stories about the Golden Age of the Democratic alliance with the white working class.

The most fundamental problem with Rensin’s argument is that it treats conservative control of Congress and many statehouses as a recent development, an anomaly to be explained, when in fact it’s the rule. Democrats may have controlled Congress with the support of southern and rural white voters for most of the 20th century, but the periods in which Congress had an effective liberal agenda have always been fleeting. And even in the pre-1937 New Deal and the heyday Great Society, southern conservatives retained enough influence to force painful compromises and constrain ambitions. Smugness on social media is neither her nor there in explaining these longstanding institutional and cultural conditions.

While we’re here, there’s also this:

If there is a single person who exemplifies the dumbass hick in the smug imagination, it is former President George W. Bush. He’s got the accent. He can’t talk right. He seems stupefied by simple concepts, and his politics are all gee-whiz Texas ignorance. He is the ur-hick. He is the enemy.

He got all the way to White House, and he’s still being taken for a ride by the scheming rightwing oligarchs around him — just like those poor rubes in Kansas. If only George knew Dick Cheney wasn’t acting in his own best interests!

It is worth considering that Bush is the son of a president, a patrician born in Connecticut and educated at Andover and Harvard and Yale.

It is worth considering that he does not come from a family known for producing poor minds.


He did, however, deliberately cultivate the confusion. He understood the smug style. He wagered that many liberals, eager to see their opponents as intellectually deficient, would buy into the act and thereby miss the more pernicious fact of his moral deficits.

He wagered correctly. Smug liberals said George was too stupid to get elected, too stupid to get reelected, too stupid to pass laws or appoint judges or weather a political fight. Liberals misunderestimated George W. Bush all eight years of his presidency.

George W. Bush is not a dumbass hick. In eight years, all the sick Daily Show burns in the world did not appreciably undermine his agenda.

Yes, someone in an essay excoriating smug, elitist liberals assumes that if someone attended fancy east coast prep schools and universities as a third-generation legacy, they must be highly accomplished intellects.

Moving right along, did many liberals underestimate Bush’s political skills and his conservatism in 2000? Sure. But was it the reason Bush won? That’s rather more dubious. Al Gore, whatever mistakes his campaign made, took Bush and the threat he posed very seriously. (It was Ralph Nader — who I don’t think is the kind of smug liberal Rensin has in mind — who said “Don’t you worry. George Bush is so dumb, Gore will beat him by twenty points” and portrayed Bush as a harmless moderate, not Gore.) But the idea that most liberals didn’t think Bush was a major political challenge in 2004 — who are these liberals, exactly?

I agree that “sick Daily Show burns” did not undermine Bush’s agenda. (I’m not sure who does believe this, but one can say the same about most of the positions attributed to unnamed “liberals” throughout the essay.) But you know who did do a pretty job job of undermining Bush’s second-term agenda? Congressional Democrats, who stopped Bush’s centerpiece legislative initiative as a minority and then further undermined his agenda by capturing Congress in 2006. Somehow, this all happened with Jon Stewart in charge of American liberalism from his perch at Comedy Central.

It’s also unclear to me even in Bush’s more legislatively successful first term how less “smugness” could have undermined his agenda. The key actions — wars, tax cuts, a Medicare expansion, all funded by debt — aren’t exactly the heaviest of political lifts. Misunderestimated or not, he had the votes where any Republican president could have been expected to have the votes and didn’t when they wouldn’t. I’d say that in terms of degree of difficulty, what Obama/Pelosi/Reid did in half the time is considerably more impressive. Perhaps Rensin will write a 50,000 word essay about how this all happened because conservatives were lulled into complacency by the smugness of the 1/2 Hour News Hour and the O’Reilly Factor.

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