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February 9, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Coping with smug liberal elites

Everyone knows (or should know) that there are a lot of downright nasty things said by people on both sides of the political spectrum, but it's not a two-way street. Many of those on the Left are prone to a vice that is almost unique to their side: smug condescension. "You poor Neanderthal, how can you possibly think that way?" (Cue Bruce Hornsby.) Us folks on the Right are well accustomed to playing a subservient role in the social hierarchy, occasionally lashing out as our pent-up resentment bursts.

It's an ironic situation, given that conservatives used to serve as the defenders of wealth and privilege in the Western world. But nowadays, the news media, the entertainment industry, and the educational establishment -- in other words, the very institutions that shape public consciousness about controversial issues -- are to a large degree dominated by the Left. (Fox News is the exception that proves the rule.) So, to adequately understand why this change has come about, we must examine the bedrock institutions of society and how they have been transformed over the past century. (See below.) I will address a key aspect of this very broad question -- namely, cultural hegemony -- in a future blog post.

I bring this up because of an excellent op-ed piece by U.Va. professor Gerard Alexander in Sunday's Washington Post: "Why are liberals so condescending?" He outlines four common forms in which the annoying, presumptuously superior attitude of liberals is manifested:

  1. Conservatives supposedly win elections not by offering better ideas, but by using sinister campaign tactics and misleading the public -- the good old "vast right-wing conspiracy."
  2. Working-class voters are supposedly fooled by "wedge" issues (such as abortion) into voting for conservatives, against their own economic interests -- Thomas Frank's argument.
  3. Republicans supposedly win by exploiting white prejudice against blacks and immigrants -- notwithstanding strong evidence that racism is fading away.
  4. Conservatives are supposedly driven by emotion, anxiety, and fear of change, while liberals appeal to evidence and logic -- hence, Al Gore's 2007 book, "The Assault on Reason."

Taken together, these underlying implicit assumptions held by many if not most people on the Left create an asymmetry that make any kind of serious dialogue across partisan or ideological lines extremely difficult. Just think about how pious and contemptuous the leading left-wing pundits such as Keith Olbermann or Paul Krugman act. By way of comparison, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as insulting toward their adversaries, but they do not speak from a lofty (metaphorical) pedestal; they are just average Joes with a sharp wit and a gift of gab.

Why do such bigoted attitudes persist among liberal elites? Because all societies are prone to fashion an elaborate, exclusive code of morality, artistic tastes, and social standards to justify their elite privileges. It was true of 17th Century Austria, it was true of 18th Century France, it was true of 19th Century Victorian England, and in late 20th Century America, it came to pass that Manhattan literati, Hollywood liberals, Harvard intellectuals set the rules that lesser beings were obliged to follow. Eventually, the pomposity is exposed as a fraud, and some kind of social revolution replaces the ancién regime with a more humane set of values.

Prof. Alexander held on online Washington Post chat question-and-answer session on Monday morning, and he was kind enough to reply to the question which I submitted:

Staunton, Va.: I agree with what you write about the four types of liberal condescension, but you seem to hastily dismiss Richard Hofstadter's critique of the right-wing paranoid style. (He has become my touchstone for comprehending what ails today's GOP, in which I was formerly active.) Likewise, I think there is a kernel of truth in the leftist argument that modern (?) conservatives are impervious to reason. Do you not perceive a strong anti-intellectual current in the conservative movement of today?

Gerard Alexander: The key for this conversation is that I don't detect -more- anti-intellectualism among rank-and-file conservatives than among rank-and-file liberals. Modern economics and the law are probably the two areas of academic research and policy-making most influenced by conservatives. Do they seem less rational to you than, say, sociology or literature or movie-making as enterprises? And I wish paranoia existed only on the fringes of the right; I'm afraid we could all name enough conspiracy theories to go around.

I get the impression that Alexander is paying more attention to conservative academic and policy wonk circles than to the grassroots political activists and humble bloggers, many of whom do (I think) exhibit anti-intellectual tendencies. Anyway, I tip my hat once again to Bruce Bartlett for bringing Alexander's op-ed piece to my attention before it even appeared in print. My "fair and balanced" response on Bruce's Facebook page:

It's sad, but some of that condescension is deserved, as conservative "movement" activists have self-selected themselves out of the intellectual world. Panicked by what they perceive (not without reason) as the impending doom of freedom, they closed ranks and came to falsely equate personal and partisan loyalty with ideological fidelity. Derek Hunter seems to be a good example of this. Notice how Rush Limbaugh rarely cites George Will or Charles Krauthammer any more? How many right-wing bloggers cite Daniel Drezner these days? Possessing a graduate degree is now seen as a badge of shame in the GOP. All it took was one extremely wayward president to lead the party astray and wreck the whole conservative enterprise. Lacking any capacity for thoughtful self-correction, we now have a mob of "mind-numbed robots" (as Rush calls the liberals) marching in lockstep toward oblivion.

In other words, I do not deny that the fourth item listed above (emotion vs. reason) may have some validity. What is needed is a conservative renaissance in which intellectual values of criticism are given greater respect. But as Bartlett and others have pointed out, unfortunately, some of the major institutions on the Right (e.g., the Heritage Foundation) have degenerated into populist mouthpieces, pandering to the "Base," which has little or no interest in thoughtful discussion of issues. As someone who has withstood heavy pressure to conform, I think I've earned the right to call things the way I see them. The Right may be plagued by social pathologies, but it is the Left that is much guiltier of rigid "political correctness."

6th District GOP contest

A week or two ago I learned that a man named Greg Habeeb is running for chairmanship of the Sixth Congressional District Republican Committee, seeking to replace Fred Anderson, who is evidently stepping down. Habeeb seems to have a good reputation for building the GOP in the city of Salem. See Roanoke Valley Republicans. The other candidate is Trixie Averill. Since I have made a point of steering clear of intra-party intrigues since I learned about all the distasteful cronyism, I don't have a dog in this fight. I'll leave it to someone else to clean up that mess. I have met Ms. Averill on several occasions, and I also know the incumbent Mr. Anderson, who barely withstood a challenge from Jim Crosby of Botetourt County two years ago. Anderson is a decent man who tried to prevent the local Republican Party from breaking apart, but he was badly misled by certain party activists, and his actions were too little, too late.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 10 Feb 2010, 1: 08 AM

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