Debating The C-Word

Gerald Alexander at Washington Post:

Every political community includes some members who insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots. But American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration. Indeed, all the appeals to bipartisanship notwithstanding, President Obama and other leading liberal voices have joined in a chorus of intellectual condescension.


This condescension is part of a liberal tradition that for generations has impoverished American debates over the economy, society and the functions of government — and threatens to do so again today, when dialogue would be more valuable than ever.

Liberals have dismissed conservative thinking for decades, a tendency encapsulated by Lionel Trilling’s 1950 remark that conservatives do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” During the 1950s and ’60s, liberals trivialized the nascent conservative movement. Prominent studies and journalistic accounts of right-wing politics at the time stressed paranoia, intolerance and insecurity, rendering conservative thought more a psychiatric disorder than a rival. In 1962, Richard Hofstadter referred to “the Manichaean style of thought, the apocalyptic tendencies, the love of mystification, the intolerance of compromise that are observable in the right-wing mind.”


In his 2008 book, “Nixonland,” progressive writer Rick Perlstein argued that Richard Nixon created an enduring Republican strategy of mobilizing the ethnic and other resentments of some Americans against others. Similarly, in their 1992 book, “Chain Reaction,” Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall argued that Nixon and Reagan talked up crime control, low taxes and welfare reform to cloak racial animus and help make it mainstream. It is now an article of faith among many liberals that Republicans win elections because they tap into white prejudice against blacks and immigrants.

Race doubtless played a significant role in the shift of Deep South whites to the Republican Party during and after the 1960s. But the liberal narrative has gone essentially unchanged since then — recall former president Carter’s recent assertion that opposition to Obama reflects racism — even though survey research has shown a dramatic decline in prejudiced attitudes among white Americans in the intervening decades. Moreover, the candidates and agendas of both parties demonstrate an unfortunate willingness to play on prejudices, whether based on race, region, class, income, or other factors.

Finally, liberals condescend to the rest of us when they say conservatives are driven purely by emotion and anxiety — including fear of change — whereas liberals have the harder task of appealing to evidence and logic. Former vice president Al Gore made this case in his 2007 book, “The Assault on Reason,” in which he expressed fear that American politics was under siege from a coalition of religious fundamentalists, foreign policy extremists and industry groups opposed to “any reasoning process that threatens their economic goals.” This right-wing politics involves a gradual “abandonment of concern for reason or evidence” and relies on propaganda to maintain public support, he wrote.


Of course, plenty of conservatives are hardly above feeling superior. But the closest they come to portraying liberals as systematically mistaken in their worldview is when they try to identify ideological dogmatism in a narrow slice of the left (say, among Ivy League faculty members), in a particular moment (during the health-care debate, for instance) or in specific individuals (such as Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom some conservatives accuse of being stealth ideologues). A few conservative voices may say that all liberals are always wrong, but these tend to be relatively marginal figures or media gadflies such as Glenn Beck.

In contrast, an extraordinary range of liberal writers, commentators and leaders — from Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” to Obama’s White House, with many stops in between — have developed or articulated narratives that apply to virtually all conservatives at all times.

To many liberals, this worldview may be appealing, but it severely limits our national conversation on critical policy issues. Perhaps most painfully, liberal condescension has distorted debates over American poverty for nearly two generations.

Starting in the 1960s, the original neoconservative critics such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed distress about the breakdown of inner-city families, only to be maligned as racist and ignored for decades — until appalling statistics forced critics to recognize their views as relevant. Long-standing conservative concerns over the perils of long-term welfare dependency were similarly villainized as insincere and mean-spirited — until public opinion insisted they be addressed by a Democratic president and a Republican Congress in the 1996 welfare reform law. But in the meantime, welfare policies that discouraged work, marriage and the development of skills remained in place, with devastating effects.

Ignoring conservative cautions and insights is no less costly today. Some observers have decried an anti-intellectual strain in contemporary conservatism, detected in George W. Bush’s aw-shucks style, Sarah Palin’s college-hopping and the occasional conservative campaigns against egghead intellectuals. But alongside that, the fact is that conservative-leaning scholars, economists, jurists and legal theorists have never produced as much detailed analysis and commentary on American life and policy as they do today.

Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend. Democrats have been busy expanding, enacting or proposing major state interventions in financial markets, energy and health care. Supporters of such efforts want to ensure that key decisions will be made in the public interest and be informed, for example, by sound science, the best new medical research or prudent standards of private-sector competition. But public-choice economists have long warned that when decisions are made in large, centralized government programs, political priorities almost always trump other goals.

Even liberals should think twice about the prospect of decisions on innovative surgeries, light bulbs and carbon quotas being directed by legislators grandstanding for the cameras. Of course, thinking twice would be easier if more of them were listening to conservatives at all.

Nick Gillespie at Reason:

One correction is certainly in order: Let us be clear. That durable warning about government programs failing is really a libertarian insight, as conservatives who were convinced that the U.S. army could resculpt the Middle East and Afghanistan for well under $100 billion back in the early 2000s could surely tell you. That’s an important distinction to make because libertarians are all-too-often dismissed as not worthy of engagement by liberals and conservatives alike, ostensibly because we don’t have a tribal affiliation with a major political party and/or aren’t “serious” about governing. That latter point may be true: We tend to be less interested in governing than living, dammit. And the two things are definitely very different.

Yet when you look at the main eggheads, cracked or otherwise, who undergird what passes for conservative political thought, many if not most are libertarian (Hayek and Friedman to name two).

This op-ed is a warm up for a lecture Alexander is giving on Monday at The American Enterprise Institute. If you’re in the DC area and want more details on attending “Do Liberals Know Best? Intellectual Self-Confidence and the Claim to a Monopoly on Knowledge,” go here.


This seems clearly designed to make reporters and editorialists write that Obama is being presumptuous again, if he challenges Republican ideology instead of simply saying “well, we just have to disagree on that point” and moves on. It’s also clearly a pre-emptive move to make the Democrats think twice about their “tone” for far of failing to appear to be properly bipartisan.

The conservatives have successfully played this game for decades. They make it thoroughly acceptable for the National Review to say things like this:

The product of divorced parents from Marin County, California (are there any other kind?), he was raised in the very crucible of cultural nuttiness at the absolute zenith of its pervasiveness. He is a child of hot tubs, amicable divorce, racial guilt, vegan diets, Chardonnay anti-Americanism, and “Teach Peace” bumper stickers. He is the product of gray-bearded radical high-school history teachers, old Volvos, public radio, world beat music, women’s bookstores, pita-wrap sandwiches, and clunky brown sandals. He is . . . well, you know who he is. He’s a rich American kid from a rich American town who was raised to believe that every crazy idea and every loony impulse he ever had was valid, that all cultures are basically equal (except for ours, which is a good deal worse), and that America is a pretty bad place

… while simultaneously complaining that liberals are rude and condescending.

They are now attempting to make this culture war hypocrisy into a complaint about their colossally failed ideas now, which they are, with characteristically insane bravado, claiming have been vindicated by the past year of Democratic government. It’s a bold move, but completely predictable.

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink:

It’s tough to choose which form of condescension is more insidious. Is it the constant need by liberals to dismiss their ideological opponents as liars who will say things they don’t believe just to win elections and arguments?


Or is it the constant need to dismiss conservative policies as little more than racist fearmongering?

Matthew Yglesias:

I have a condescending attitude toward this op-ed. Of course I think my views are correct and based on fact and reason. If I thought my views weren’t correct and based on fact and reason, I would adopt different views—correct fact-and-reason based ones. Does Alexander really think that conservatives don’t think their views are correct? Does Alexander not think his own views are correct? Not based on fact? Not based on reason? I’m not sure it’s possible to be condescending enough to this op-ed.

UPDATE: Michael Kinsley in the Atlantic

More Bunch

Clive Crook


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One response to “Debating The C-Word

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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