Andrew Sullivan: “Liberals have to be careful not to sound so fucking condescending, smug, as if they know it. And start actually engaging the other side and pursuing people.”Barney Frank: “I think you might want to teach by example on that.”
—HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, March 17th, 2017
Last year, Emmett Rensin wrote a lengthy piece at Vox entitled “The Smug Style in American Liberalism.” It critiqued, at length, the tendency of some political commentators on the left to claim that some Republican voters were voting against their own economic interests. Rensin accused American liberalism of having become “a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason.”
Such accusations have become more common in recent weeks. See, for example, Conor Lynch’s recent takedown of liberals who draw satisfaction and schadenfreude in seeing President Donald Trump’s less-affluent supporters possibly losing their health coverage. Granted, all of Lynch’s examples are nameless Reddit and DailyKos readers, but presumably some of that is going on.
In another recent example, Charles Peters wrote in the New York Times that “the liberal position is on the whole the right one, but the failure to understand the legitimate concerns of the other side causes anger and resentment…. Liberals can start on the road back if they stop wounding themselves, advocate fair play for all, and instead of looking down on Trump voters as a bunch of boobs and bigots, listen to their concerns. If we don’t listen, how can we persuade?”
So what’s going on? Does the left have a smugness problem?
I think there are a few things happening here. In one sense, calling your ideological opponent smug is simply a rhetorical device you can use when you have a losing argument. It’s tantamount to saying, “OK, you’re right, but I disapprove of the way in which you’re right.”
“Liberals can start on the road back if they stop wounding themselves, advocate fair play for all, and instead of looking down on Trump voters as a bunch of boobs and bigots, listen to their concerns.”
But the authors above offer another definition of smugness: thinking you know a person’s interests better than they do. And in general interactions, that’s just plain rude.
From the conservative perspective, liberalism is highly vulnerable to this version of smugness. After all, liberals are generally more likely to favor government solutions to social problems and greater taxation to pay for them. Conservative rhetoric that liberals think they know best how to spend your money and run your neighborhood, school, family, etc. can be interpreted as a broadside against liberal smugness.
But surely conservatives are similarly guilty. Isn’t telling women that they mustn’t be allowed to have abortions because they’ll regret it later a form of smugness? Or, for that matter, telling women that they’d be happier raising kids at home than struggling in the workplace? Isn’t it smug for Republicans to tell African Americans that they’ve been voting incorrectly for the past half-century?
What about Paul Ryan’s response to a Congressional Budget Office report that estimated that his health reform plan would kick some 24 million people off of health insurance in the next decade? He embraced the finding and said the reform would expand “choice” and “access,” even while people lose coverage. Might that not be considered smug?
Was it not smug for Mitt Romney to dismiss 47 percent of the population as “victims” who would vote for Barack Obama because they’re “dependent on government” and won’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
I could go on. But my point here is not that liberals aren’t smug — they certainly can be — but that smugness is not endemic to one ideology. It’s a poor character attribute and should generally be avoided when possible. Anyone advocating for a substantial change in public policy with which many people disagree may be tempted to make a smug argument that those people simply don’t know their own interests. But there are surely better ways to make one’s point.
So let’s try to avoid being smug when advocating our world view. And let’s not dismiss our opponents as smug just because they happen to be correct.