Condescending Liberals

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"[I]n the end the bedrock common sense of the American people will prevail," wrote conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer Friday in the Washington Post. He was crowing over Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts and the apparent about-face by Americans generally about President Obama's health care reform. He mocked liberals for believing that "the people are stupid" and accused liberals of having "disdain for the intelligence and emotional maturity of the people."

On Sunday in the Post, political scientist Gerard Alexander asked, "Why are liberals so condescending?" He said they "insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots," and "the benighted public is either uncomprehending or deliberately misinformed."

As if to supply them with an example, Slate's Jacob Weisberg, wrote over the weekend that the "biggest culprit in our current predicament [is] the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large." So who wins this argument? Krauthammer and Weisberg are both old friends and former colleagues of mine (at The New Republic) so I can be completely objective. (Joke.) I give it to Weisberg. Where is the evidence that liberals are more condescending than conservatives?

Krauthammer offers a snippet from a New York Times columnist saying that people are "suspicious of complexity," an unnamed Time Magazine blogger who said we're "a nation of dodos," and a nine-year-old New York Times obituary in which a philosopher is credited with offering a "philosophical justification" for conservative ideas. The condescension, I guess, is in the notion that conservative ideas need a philosophical justification. Alexander's examples of condescension are mostly more like simple disagreement. He says that liberals "disregard the policy demands" of conservatives.

Poor babies. If believing that you are right and that people who disagree with you are wrong amounts to condescension, then we are all condescending. Of course, on any given issue, liberals tend to think that they are right. So do conservatives. It's a free country, and people can believe whatever they want. If evidence or reason persuades them that some opinion they hold is wrong, they are free to change it. So at any given moment, we all believe that our own beliefs are correct and anyone who disagrees with us has some explaining to do. Furthermore, if I believe that evidence and reason support my own views, then I also must believe that they do not support the views of those who disagree with me.

So the question naturally arises: how can someone hold a different view than mine on any given issue? Maybe he or she is right and I am wrong--an unhappy possibility that neither liberals nor conservatives keep excessively in mind. But there is no evidence or reason to suppose that liberals are more oblivious to evidence or argument challenging their opinions than conservatives. When was the last time the Wall Street Journal editorial page admitted to doubts about the value of tax cuts? Even if I decide that my current views are wrong, I will change them, and the question of how anyone can disagree with me arises once again.

Three possible answers are that they are misinformed, they are thinking poorly, or they are blinded by self-interest. Or, to put it crudely, they are ignorant, stupid or selfish. There is no evidence that liberals put it that crudely more often than conservatives. In any event, the basic point remains: it is silly to accuse people of arrogance for believing that they are right and that people who disagree with them are wrong. If nothing else, give Weisberg points for guts. It requires no courage to tell Americans that they have "bedrock common sense"--some mystical wisdom that is the gloppiest part of the old theory of American exceptionalism. There is no reason to believe that Americans are wiser, on average, than the citizens of other nations. Weisberg, in fact, makes a good case that the opposite is true. Americans make incompatible demands on the government (cut my taxes, but don't touch my favorite programs), demand change then recoil in horror when they get it, are gulled by transparent absurdities.

Only a hard core of "birther" zealots still believes that President Obama is not an American citizen, but many more are perfectly happy to believe that Medicare is not a government program. Not one in a hundred could tell you in even general terms what Obama's health care reform plan consists of, but that doesn't stop them from having strong opinions about it, which they offer to pollsters, who are the enablers of this particular bad habit. There is nothing condescending about telling your fellow citizens that they are being stupid or selfish. That is treating them as equals. Condescension is telling people that they have "bedrock common sense" simply because they're Americans and--on this occasion--agree with you.

In a society where the only snobbery with any real power is reverse snobbery, being condescended to is something to brag about, something to exaggerate or exploit--or to imagine. Conservatives are, by-and-large, the ones who have deplored the "culture of grievance" in which everyone becomes, as was said about John O'Hara, "a master of the fancied slight." Meanwhile, they encourage grievance and resentment when it suits their political purposes. If you had a friend who was wrecking his future by making bad choices, it would not be "elitist" to tell him so. It would be treating him as an adult--and as an equal. In the end, which is more condescending? To tell citizens that they are behaving like children or like fools, or to praise them for their "bedrock common sense"?

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Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. More

Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. He has an accomplished record in print, television, and online. He graduated from Harvard, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and came back to study at Harvard Law. While in his third year of law school, Kinsley began working at The New Republic. He was named editor and wrote that magazine's famous TRB column for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as editor at Harper's, managing editor of Washington Monthly, and American editor of The Economist. Kinsley was a panelist on CNN's "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. In the mid-1990s, Kinsley started working for Microsoft and became the founding editor of the company's online journal, Slate. He worked as a senior writer and columnist at The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire in 2010. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review named him Editor of the Year, and in 2010 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. He is famous for defining a gaffe as the moment when a politician tells the truth.
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