November 14, 2016

Calling out "smug liberal elites" cuts both ways and more

This started as a long post on Facebook, and eventually I realized I was writing a blog post, or starting to, and needed two.

A Vox piece about “Smug American Liberalism,” from this spring but just shared by someone on FB last Friday, made me realize that the author was venturing near, if not into, the territory of “Smug American liberalism put-downs.”

A fair degree of what it says is true. But, when used by some “everyday liberals” to smack down not just “liberal elites” for a “What's the matter with Kansas” on steroids smackdown of Trump voters, but a smackdown of other “everyday liberals” for holding similar values to the “liberal elites,” it cuts too far.

The piece blames the liberal elites for “abandoning” the white working class as a major contributor to Trump's win. And, that picture is itself incomplete at best.

First of all, there's a partial flip side to this. The white working class, whether unionized or not, drifted from the Democratic party.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they disdained protests against the Vietnam War. Whether or not more than "percent X" of Trump voters were driven to some degree by racial animus, at this same time, issues of race, while being somewhat overcome, were "of note" in unions, too.

(Folks at places like Jacobin, by finding exceptions to this — which do exist — have tried to pretend away racism in organized labor in America. Erm, wrong.)

Just as the Vietnam War, and American withdrawal from it, were winding down, the Equal Rights Amendment was wafting its way out to states for approval. No, not every white working class voter was a Neanderthal on attitudes toward women. But, they didn't have to be that. All they had to do is buy into the myth of the “nuclear family” with a “breadwinner” and a “housewife,” then listen to social conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly gin up the outrage.

Then, after ERA had controversially been blocked from constitutionality, gay rights issues started making their way on stage with the rise of AIDS.

And, again, overall, the white working class abandoned a Democratic party that dared to look (a bit) at other people, not just the working class, as “outsider” or “downtrodden.”

And we haven't even mentioned unions in the 1950s telling the rest of America “go fuck yourself” when President Truman tried to get national health care.

Nor have we mentioned the white working class's resistance to environmental legislation, and an accompanying readiness to believe their managers and plant owners that such regulation would destroy their jobs.

In short, to at least some degree, the abandonment painted in this story went both ways.

Yes, at the national level, in think tanks, the Democratic national hierarchy and some places, there may be some smugness.

But, playing a seeming zero-sum game of trying to humanize Trump voters away from a categorical stereotype by applying the same to liberal political and thought leaders is a mug's game, IMO.

Even more so, it's the case when this is applied to many liberal everyday voters because you think they're painting Trump voters with too stereotypical a brush.

I see other problems in the piece, such as creating a straw man out of Richard Hofstadter that I hardly recognize:
Richard Hofstadter, the historian whose most famous work, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, this essay exists in some obvious reference to, advanced a similar line in writing not so well-remembered today. His then-influential history writing drips with disdain for rubes who regard themselves as victimized by economics and history, who have failed to maintain correct political attitudes.
Really? That's not what I took away from his book. Oh, there arguably is a degree of generalized smugness. But, the "drips with disdain for rubes ..."? Don't recognize that.

From there, it tells an almost certainly untrue anecdote about Adlai Stevenson:
Adlai Stevenson, Democratic candidate for president, is on parade. A band is playing. 
Onlookers cheer. He waves to the crowd. 
A woman shouts: "Gov. Stevenson, you have the vote of every thinking person in this country!"
Stevenson replies: "Thank you, ma'am, but we need a majority."
The smug style says to itself, Yeah. I really am one of the few thinking people in this country, aren't I?
Sure, this happened. Sure, it did. A man twice elected governor of a Midwestern state commented like that. The smugness of the Vox author, Emmett Rensin, is coming through here if any smugness is.

But, in what's indeed a long read, that's not the only problem.

The piece assumes that not only are smug, or semi-smug, liberals monolithic, it assumes the white working class is monolithic, too.

And, the first half of this post has indirectly hinted that's not true.

This year's election returns also show that. Yes, Clinton's share of its vote dropped below Obama's. But, she still won a substantial minority of it.

The third problem with the piece is that it assumes that just “dropping the smug” is enough to draw back to the Democratic Party major portions of the white working class that have both indeed been abandoned by it (free trade, above all), and that have in turn willingly abandoned the party for other reasons.

To the degree there are more and more issues on the American plate, and we are a country pushing 320 billion people, the complexity of national politics alone mitigates against a combination of a mea culpa and liberal elite niceness drawing them back.

Again, in many cases, they both were abandoned by liberals, and abandoned social liberals on their own. In some cases, it was almost entirely white working class individuals starting the abandoning.

So, it may well be not enough. A fair percentage of those white working-class people may be gone for good from a consistent liberal coalition.

And, in turn, that gets back to the issue of painting out the outlines of Trump backers.

If we go back to the 1950s and Truman's attempt at national health care, that's illustrative of why America has no truly socialist party and, long before neoliberalism's ascent, why even social democracy, short of full-blown socialism, had a precarious perch in the Democratic party at times, and certainly among working-class whites.

To riff on Marx, they'd already been co-opted by capitalism.

Originally, I thought I was done at this point. (I started working on this on Friday evening.)

As it turns out, that was not the case. Further thought later on Friday led me to at least touch on several follow-up points.

First, the author mentions the Obergefell gay marriage ruling by the Supreme Court, then brings in the Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis, who refused to grant gay marriage licenses even on pain of jail. Rensin then asks, perhaps with a bit of his own smugness (again, per the above? more on that later), how many of the people who were trying to tell Davis that her religious beliefs were wrong were atheist.

Not me, buddy. Yes, I've met both Minnesota nice secular humanists like Chris ??? and Gnu-ish atheists like Dan Fincke, both with at least some background in religious studies, who have tried that on the gay issue.

Not me. I've blogged before that I believe Paul of Tarsus was indeed a gay-basher. And, given Jesus' silence on the issue compounded with him being harsher than the Pharisees on divorce (and other sex issues), one should not assume he was pro-gay in the face of the Torah, himself. (I include that with more detail, as well, in what is itself a long blog post at that link just above.) That said, I'm not sure whether Rensin is more targeting atheists or liberal mush-god Christians, though, to be honest.

And, Mr. Rensin, actually, per my blog post on Kim Davis, if anything, the fundamentalists themselves were equal-time explainers away of what their bible says, including what Yeshua himself says on divorce for the multiply-unhitched Davis.

Second additional point, more contra people posting this to slap down everyday liberals than against the author.

It's possible that Trump backers are, overall and on average (median? mean?) no more racist than Bush or Reagan supporters, just that they, like their putative leader, lack filters and self-control. That wouldn't surprise me. How much of that is a statement about them, how much is a statement about our Net 2.0 world, and how much is yet other things, I don't know.

There's "something" there; I'm just not sure what.

Third, as noted in passing above, is the smug factor. And it may not just be Rensin.

Regular readers here know I love the sound of petards hoisting in the morning. The author indeed comes off a bit that way. I can't speak to the motives of those who posted the original piece or who agree with its posting. They might, in turn, think I'm smug for writing this very paragraph.

And, I'll let a semi-sleeping dog lie at that point.

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