Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The limits to not being smug

Kate's network of college friends has left her with a social environment that is politically more diverse than mine. People she was simpatico with in college and treasures to this day were more conservative than she at the time, and some have followed that path to being Trump supporters today.

For whatever reason, that isn't my situation.

One of Kate's college friends posted on her Facebook page a story from last summer, written by Emmett Rensin, a liberal, about the smug style in American liberalism, blaming this attitude for a large part of why conservatives won't give credence to liberal arguments.

The article has some good insights.

It should be obvious that telling people they're stupid is probably not a very effective way to get them to vote for the person you think should win.

It should be obvious, and yet it happens. I've seen others do it. I've done it in my own head, and) I've done it out-loud in private among like-minded people. I can't vouch that I've never done it publicly (though I'm very careful not to do it in class).

But I have two big problems with the article.

First, there's a symmetry in the disregard with which our country's two political camps view each other.

Urban, liberal elitists are smug and condescending toward those they portray as ignorant, backward-looking.

Rural, conservative commoners are dismissive of those they portray as lazy know-it-alls, untutored by the necessity of living in the real world.

Those are both generalizations of each side's view of the other, but I've personally witnessed both, and both have been written about. I suspect that neither one is uncommon.

There's always value in fixing one's own flaws, and liberal smugness can't have helped our cause, but I think Rensin is a long way from demonstrating how important that one factor is.

In particular, if many conservatives already "know" that liberals are lazy and out of touch, will they change their minds if liberal smugness is reduced?

You might argue that liberal smugness caused conservative dismissiveness of liberals. It's easy to imagine that it contributes, but that conservative dismissiveness has been there a long time - I observed it in college in Indiana in the 1980s.

The dismissiveness is also very useful to conservative politicians who want to do something like, oh, I don't know, phase out Medicare, or privatize Social Security. Those positions in themselves are massively unpopular. If you ran on that as the main cause of your campaign, you'd lose. But if you can confirm back to conservative voters that liberals are lazy and immoral, you can get them to vote for good, God-fearing conservativism, and once you have the presidency and enough members of Congress, you can kill Medicare and Social Security.

My second big problem with Rensin's article, is the emphasis he places on knowing. The italics are his; they're his way of denoting a process of you and I signaling to each other that we're in the know, in contrast to those rubes in the sticks, with their stupid not-knowing-stuff.

I recognize that process, and Rensin describes it well. But he seems to leave no room for the role of, you know, actually knowing stuff.

Take Kentucky, where the former governor, a Democrat, implemented Obamacare but called it "Kynect" in order to avoid associating it with Obama, who was politically unpopular in the state. People simultaneously benefited from Kynect and hated Obamacare. They voted for a Republican governor who ran against Obamacare, then for Republican Senate and presidential candidates who ran against Obamacare. And now they're complaining about losing their black-lung disease protections that are tied to Obamacare.

Liberals didn't just "know" that if Republicans won, there was a risk of millions of lower-income households losing access to affordable health care. We weren't just knowing about it. We actually God-damn knew it. And we were right.

The paragraph that follows is, I think, a fair paraphrase of Rensin's argument:
Liberals say they want to help poor people, and perhaps their policies really would do that. But in their smugness, liberals disdain and despise those they claim to want to help. So it's no wonder that the intended objects of their solicitude resent them in return and vote for the other guy.
But how much are you respecting the heartland's deep-seated moral values if you shout them from the rooftops while ignoring them in your own life?

And it looks to me like Republicans at the national level have been running a bait-and-switch on their voters, using hypocritical statements about "values" as cover for changes that will make their lives worse. How much are you respecting the heartland's intelligence if you assume your voters will fall for that?

"Smug" is bad. A knowing attitude is unhelpful. But if that's your big explanatory variable, you're absolving conservatives of the responsibility of being informed voters.

"You voted for Republicans and now you're shocked and terrified that they're actually moving toward closing down a program that has literally been saving your life, just like liberals said they would. Objectively, that was a very poor decision on your part, but it wasn't your fault - how could you possibly have voted for anyone as smug as those liberal assholes?"

Obviously people don't decide how to vote by looking at the parties' positions on the issues that matter to them, factoring in the probability that a party will or can follow through on its declared intention, adding it all up, then choosing the party that provides the highest expected utility. Instead, a large role is played by emotion and by a sense of identification with one's political-cultural "tribe," and against the other "tribe." If you want to win elections and have a chance to enact good policy, you have to work with that reality.

But the point of winning elections should be to enact good policy.

If you focus too much on how liberals are smug, you take attention away from how government policy actually works and the ways it enters people's daily lives, for better and for worse. You move politics even more in the direction of theater, spectacle, and identification, and away from  politics as a discussion of how we ought to govern ourselves.

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