In Part I, I dealt with the introduction and transition of Gerard Alexander's WaPo commissioned editorial, "Why are liberals so condescending". In Part 2, I dealt with the the first of the four liberal narratives Alexander cites as manifestations of so-called "liberal condescension." This diary deals with the second such narrative.
If Alexander's first narrative is a transparent bunch of hooey, the same cannot be said about his second one. There is some truth in claim that liberals look down at people repeatedly voting against their economic interests, for cultural causes that are repeatedly ignored or outright betrayed between elections. But this is an isolated observation, and the question is one of context, which raises a host of subsidiary questions: Are liberals who do this more or less condescending than the cynical conservative manipulators who run these games? Is there anything particularly liberal about this? Or is it simply a matter of elite attitudes towards the masses? Or--as Jack Balkin's analysis "Populism and Progressivism as Constitutional Categories" suggests, of people who identify with progressivism towards those who identify with populism? And what about those on the left who reject the 'stupid voter' narrative one way or another? Such as George Lakoff, Drew Wesson, Larry Bartells ("What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?"), or me, for that matter? And, finally, what about all those liberals who are themselves members of the working class who haven't been fooled at all, but sure are pissed at Democratic elites for doing such a lousy job on their behalf the last three decades or so? The welter of questions like these points to where a genuinely honest debate about elitism and condescension, left and right, might take us. But it's not at all a direction in which Alexander has any interest.
Indeed, Alexander regards his interpretation of this narrative as so self-evidently true, without any possible alternatives, that he lays it out in a single sentence, then points quickly to three examples in support, before (condescendingly, one might think) telling us what it all means. First:
But, if conservative leaders are crass manipulators, then the rank-and-file Americans who support them must be manipulated at best, or stupid at worst.
This may seem self-evident to Alexander, but that hardly makes it so. First off, voters are always being manipulated, and most of them know it--usually all too well. The real question is what kind of manipulation, and the argument from the first narrative is that conservative hegemonic warfare involves a much more sweeping, systematic, and disingenuous form of manipulation than what most politics involves. Second, the charge of stupidity is entirely off the mark. Most Americans don't pay much attention to national politics for very defensible, very rational reasons: they focus their attention on things that (a) matter immediately to them, (b) that they feel they can do something about. Reasons why voters and non-voters are not more involved have everything to do with America's political institutions. What looks like stupid behavior on the individual level is far more often a rational response to institutions that discourage--if not punish--intelligent participation. One example of this is the fact that America--unlike other industrial democracies--has a pronounced class bias in its electorate. Poorer Americans vote far less than more affluent Americans--and, they quite rationally are more convinced that politicians don't really represent them, a very rational reason not to bother voting.
This is the second variety of liberal condescension, exemplified in Thomas Frank's best-selling 2004 book, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Frank argued that working-class voters were so distracted by issues such as abortion that they were induced into voting against their own economic interests.
While Frank did make this argument, his point was not to rail against stupid, working-class voters, but to attack the Democratic political establishment that had virtually abandoned them on core economic issues. (Frank himself came from a working-class Kansas background.) Thus, while Alexander may have gotten the mechanics of part of Frank's argument right, he totally misrepresented its import for Frank's larger argument. Why? Because Frank's larger argument goes directly against the point that Alexander is trying to make.
Alexander's next example takes him even further off the mark:
Then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, later chairman of the Democratic National Committee, echoed that theme in his 2004 presidential run, when he said Republicans had succeeded in getting Southern whites to focus on "guns, God and gays" instead of economic redistribution.
This is Alexander (following many others) at the peak of taking a soundbite out of context. Dean--like Frank--was actually making the opposite argument: not that something was necessarily wrong with Southern whites, but rather with how Democrats had failed to reach out to them. This was immediately evident from the less Washington-spun, more reality-based local reporting at the time. I give you the St. Petersberg Times, Nov 5, 2003, which records his remarks in their full context, where it should be clear that he's reaching out to the very people Alexander would have you think that he's pandering to:
Dean brings his straight-talking style to Florida
Now that Sen. Bob Graham is out of the presidential race, the ex-Vermont governor begins his Florida courtship.
By ADAM C. SMITH
With the 2004 election a year away, Dean showed Floridians in Jacksonville and Tallahassee the confident and blunt style that has won over so many Democratic activists in early primary states.
He also assured the crowd that he sees Bob Graham, who announced Monday he would not seek a fourth U.S. Senate term, as a strong contender to be his vice presidential pick.
"I told Bob Graham the day he made his decision to drop out (of the presidential race) that he was on the short list, and he is on the short list. He is one of the finest public servants in this country's history," Dean said.
Later, Dean told reporters that of the nine other Democratic contenders, he felt closest to Graham, who, like Dean, opposed the war in Iraq and has gubernatorial experience.
"He certainly is going to be very likely to have a place in a Dean administration if he wants one," Dean said.
The Tallahassee Tiger Bay crowd was largely made up of southern Democrats typically not inclined to embrace a blue-blood Yankee often painted as an antiwar liberal. Dean, though, surprised a lot of people.
"I am leaning to (retired Gen. Wesley) Clark, but I think I have to think again when I hear this fellow," said Dexter Douglass, former general counsel to [former Florida governor] Lawton Chiles. "It's very difficult for a New Englander to win, but this guy's got the potential to win."
Dean is leading his opponents in fundraising, is virtually tied for first place in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses in recent polls and is handily leading the field for the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary.
His opponents have been hammering him lately for saying he wants to be the candidate "for guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks."
Asked about that reference to a racially polarizing symbol, Dean noted he has long been saying Democrats can win over working class Southerners concerned about access to health care.
"We have got to stop having our elections in the South based on race, guns, God and gays and start having them on jobs and health insurance and a foreign policy that's consistent with American values," he said.
Dean's message here would later be borne out by his actions in implementing the 50-state strategy, empowering all state parties, but especially ones that had previously been neglected, such as most of those in the South. Talk about condescension, huh?
OTOH, subsequent events--bailing out Wall Street while bailing on Main Street--make Alexander's characterization of Obama seem more on the money than it seemed at the time:
And speaking to a roomful of Democratic donors in 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama offered a similar (and infamous) analysis when he suggested that residents of Rust Belt towns "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations" about job losses. When his comments became public, Obama backed away from their tenor but insisted that "I said something that everybody knows is true."
Everybody in the Third Way crowd, perhaps. Everybody who really doesn't get what a big deal job losses really are. Everybody who lives in Versailles, regardless of whether they're a "liberal" or not.
And that's just it: This is not evidence of liberal condescension. It's evidence straight from the genetic code of Versailles, including clueless characters like David Broder and Joke Line praising Sarah Palin's monumental status as a populist icon, at the same time that self-identified Republicans have concluded that--whether they like her or not--she's not ready for prime time, and probably never will be.
Finally, Alexander's last word on the subject, what it all mens:
In this view, we should pay attention to conservative voters' underlying problems but disregard the policy demands they voice; these are illusory, devoid of reason or evidence. This form of liberal condescension implies that conservative masses are in the grip of false consciousness. When they express their views at town hall meetings or "tea party" gatherings, it might be politically prudent for liberals to hear them out, but there is no reason to actually listen.
This is such a perfect amalgam of idiocy and accidental insight that it leaves one dumbstruck on first reading--second and third readings too. But eventually, gurgling speech-like sounds return. First to the accidental insight: taking the underlying problems seriously--but not necessarily the policy demands--gets it exactly right. Of course, that's not exactly what Alexander wrote, but it's a point worth dwelling on. It's something I've thought about often, but rarely written about that I can recall. Alexander gives it a snarky, condescending twist, but there's nothing necessarily condescending at all with the straight version of it. After all, why have a representative democracy at all, if not to have people who hear our concerns, and then go out and find ideas that will address those concerns? This is precisely what elected representatives ought to be doing, not just for those they may differ with on policy, but for everyone--including their base supporter. Politicians get lazy when all they do is give their supporters more of the same policies that met their concerns in the past. Politicians ought to be regularly revisiting the concerns of all their constituents to see if last year's solutions are still the best solutions today.
The same attitude ought to apply to non-supporters as well. If you can listen to people's problems, then you can speak to their problems--and perhaps come up with solutions they never dreamed of. Martin Luther King illustrated this point in his speech, "The Drum Major Instinct" when he told the story of his interactions with some of his white jailers--although it was not his main point:
The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking--calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point--that was the second or third day--to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."
Given the centrality of King's listening to his jailers in the above story, it's hard to think of anything more at odds with Alexander's last line:
When they express their views at town hall meetings or "tea party" gatherings, it might be politically prudent for liberals to hear them out, but there is no reason to actually listen.
But King is the actual model here. What Howard Dean was saying--less eloquently--was perfectly in line with what Martin Luther King said in the passage above, and there was nothing condescending in King engaging with his white jailers the way he did.
Obama may well fit within Alexander's narrative framework; I've long argued that Obama is much more deeply at odds with Martin Luther King than most folks realize. In "Martin Luther King and The Moral Imperative For Polarization", for example, I wrote about King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail," and the letter from local white clergymen that he was responding to. The very last lines of my diary were:
When Obama said, "We don't need more heat. We need more light," he was lifting a page right out of the white clergymen's letter to King. King's response was simple: I wish it were different, but it's always been this way--it takes more heat to bring more light.
So if Obama fits Alexander's narrative, it's not because he's a "liberal". It's because he's pure Versailles.