In the Land of Smug

It’s good to know you were right all along. You don’t have to say anything. Just smile. Those who mocked you will fall silent and just slink away, in shame of course. In March 2003, on Good Morning America, Bill O’Reilly said this about those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush administration again.”

Cool. And a year after the invasion that led to this:

O’Reilly, who has the top-rated political talk show on cable news, was confronted on ABC’s “Good Morning America” about his statement before the Iraq war that if Saddam Hussein is overthrown and there were no such weapons found, he’d apologize to the nation.

“Well, my analysis was wrong and I’m sorry,” O’Reilly said.

“I am much more skeptical of the Bush administration now than I was at the time,” he added…

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that George W. Bush wanted to remove Saddam,” he said. “And in history, I believe that will be a good thing … But I think every American should be very concerned, for their families and themselves, that our intelligence isn’t as good as it should be.”

Ah, this was not the fault of George Bush per se – it was the damned intelligence community – but he was pressed on what he had said about an apology to the nation. What’s this stuff about Bush being fooled by the dastardly intelligence community? Was he apologizing to America, as he promised, or wasn’t he? And that’s when he got really angry:

“I just said it,” he told [the host Charles] Gibson. “What do you want me to do? Go over and kiss the camera?”

Well yes, Bill, we do. Many of us were told we’d be awfully embarrassed when the United States found those weapons of mass destruction, which were obviously there. We’d been mocked – or told we were French, or worse – we were on the side of the terrorists, which made us terrorists too. Yeah, right – kiss the camera, Bill. He had been so smug. Now it was our turn. And it was sweet.

Moments like that don’t come along often, but another one just came along:

Charles Koch says he won’t “put a penny” into trying to stop Donald Trump, that there are “terrible role models” among the remaining Republican presidential candidates, and that his massive political network may decide to sit out of the presidential race entirely.

“These personal attacks and pitting one person against the other – that’s the message you’re sending the country,” Koch said in an exclusive interview with ABC News that aired Sunday. “You’re role models and you’re terrible role models. So how – I don’t know how we could support ’em.”

The billionaire CEO of Koch Industries and one of the most powerful and controversial figures in politics said he and his brother David Koch have also turned down pleas to join the “Never Trump” movement, which aims to deny the real estate mogul the nomination.

Instead Koch said he and his brother plan to stay out of the party’s nomination fight.

The two men who have bankrolled the Republican takeover of more than half of all state governments and the House and Senate just said that the only two men who now can possibly be the Republican nominee for president are, well, just awful people:

Koch, author of the book “Good Profit,” said he would only consider contributing to either Trump or Cruz if they backtrack on some of their most controversial promises. That includes one of Cruz’s favorite lines of his campaign stump speech – to carpet bomb ISIS in the Middle East and “make the sand glow.”

“That’s gotta be hyperbole, but I mean that a candidate – whether they believe it or not – would think that appeals to the American people,” Koch said. “This is frightening.”

Koch also slammed Trump’s rhetoric towards Muslims, saying his proposal of a temporary travel ban was “antithetical.”

“What was worse was this ‘we’ll have them all registered,'” Koch said. “That’s reminiscent of Nazi Germany. I mean – that’s monstrous as I said at the time.”

One calls for indiscriminate genocide and the other is a Nazi – that won’t do – and then there was this:

Koch went so far as to say the GOP nightmare of another Clinton presidency might be a better alternative to the remaining Republican candidates at this point.

“It’s possible,” he said.

No one expected that. The Koch brothers just said that Hillary Clinton would be far better than Trump or Cruz, the only two alternatives the Republicans have left to offer us now, and said that on national television? It seems so, which created another smug told-ya-so moment for the left, when such moments are few and far between. Cool. It’s good to know you were right all along, and then the woman they’d reluctantly trust with the country rubbed their noses in it:

Hillary Clinton may make a better president than any of the Republicans vying for the job, according to billionaire Charles Koch, but the Democrat wasn’t thrilled that she could be a new favorite of the conservative mega-donor.

“Not interested in endorsements from people who deny climate science and try to make it harder for people to vote,” Clinton said on Twitter after Koch’s comment…

Why make it easy on them? Charlie Gibson didn’t make it easy on Bill O’Reilly all those years ago, but there’s a danger in this. No one’s mind is really changed. Things don’t work that way. Those who think that Donald Trump is wonderful will continue to think he’s wonderful, and at The Fix, Callum Borchers explains why:

The billionaire has said things no politician would say about his fidelity and repeatedly betrayed his lack of understanding on subjects ranging from federal spending to the nuclear triad. This is all well-documented. But his supporters are unfazed by the same kind of media coverage that dooms other candidates. There must be something about why Trump lovers mistrust the media that makes them react to negative reports differently than voters typically do.

Here’s a theory: Trump backers feel personally offended by coverage that suggests they must be stupid to support him. Insulted, they refuse to accept information presented by media outlets that disrespect them.

Think about it: When someone calls you an idiot, then tells you what to do (or not do), do you listen? Even if the instructions are sound, your wounded brain is inclined to tune them out and go the opposite direction.

Borchers says that can be documented:

A study published this week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute suggests that insulting news consumers is indeed a major problem. In a survey of more than 2,000 people, 38 percent said “yes” when asked, “Have you ever had an experience with a news-and-information source that made you trust it less for any reason?”

What were the reasons? Factual errors and perceived biases were the top answers. No surprise there. But the third-biggest cause of diminished trust – cited by 24 percent of those who have had a bad experience – was finding “something about the content personally offensive.”

People are less receptive to new information when they are offended. That was one of the key findings of a 2013 study by communication scientists at the University of Wisconsin. Researchers tested the effect of “uncivil” reader comments appended to online articles – remarks like, “You must be dumb if you think X.”

“The results were both surprising and disturbing,” study co-authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele wrote in a summary published by the New York Times. “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”

They called this phenomenon the “nasty effect.”

Borchers explains how that works:

Now, for the most part, news outlets don’t explicitly say Trump supporters are morons. (Though the Huffington Post recently diagnosed a new “syndrome” known as STUPID: Support for Trump’s Unreal Policies Infecting the Dumb. But that was an exception. And it was a joke. I think.)

More common are stories that cite the low education levels of many Trump backers. As I’ve noted before, such articles have referred to Trump voters as “downscale,” “relatively ignorant” and “uninformed.”

There are subtle digs, too. Reports that characterize Trump as a “con artist” – one of Marco Rubio’s favorite labels for the real estate magnate – also imply something about his fans. After all, who falls for a con? Gullible dopes, of course.

And how many times have journalists (including this one) written some variation of this sentence? “Trump’s latest misstep should erode his base of support, but it probably won’t.”

What we mean is that Trump defies the laws of political gravity, leading polls and winning primaries despite conduct that would sink other candidates. It’s impressive – and a big reason he’s such an interesting figure. But it’s easy to see how such statements could be interpreted differently…

And now the Koch brothers are implicitly calling these folks morons or, at best, gullible fools. Why would what those two say, about Trump and Cruz being so obviously awful, make any difference to them at all? Everyone hates a smug bastard, or in this case two of them, but there’s smugness all around – more than enough for everyone – and there really may be more smugness on the left.

That’s what Emmett Rensin explores in The Smug Style in American Liberalism:

By the 1990s the better part of the working class wanted nothing to do with the word liberal. What remained of the American progressive elite was left to puzzle: What happened to our coalition? Why did they abandon us?

The smug style arose to answer these questions. It provided an answer so simple and so emotionally satisfying that its success was perhaps inevitable… The trouble is that stupid hicks don’t know what’s good for them. They’re getting conned by right-wingers and tent revivalists until they believe all the lies that’ve made them so wrong. They don’t know any better. That’s why they’re voting against their own self-interest…

It began in humor, and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy… The internet only made it worse. Today, a liberal who finds himself troubled by the currents of contemporary political life need look no further than his Facebook newsfeed to find the explanation…

NPR listeners are best informed of all. He likes that…

Liberals aren’t just better informed. They’re smarter…

They’ve got better grammar. They know more words…

Liberals are better able to process new information; they’re less biased like that. They’ve got different brains. Better ones. Why? Evolution. They’ve got better brains, top-notch amygdalae, science finds…

Yep, all that stuff gets passed around by like-minded people on Facebook, but there are lots of smug jerks out there. Still, something is going on. But Slate’s Jamelle Bouie is not impressed:

Where does it come from? Rensin ties it to a demographic shift. Where once the Democrats were a working-class party they’re now dominated by the professional and academic classes – “A movement once fleshed out in union halls and little magazines shifted into universities and major press, from the center of the country to its cities and elite enclaves,” writes Rensin. And he suggests that the smug style is one reason the working class, and the white one in particular, has kept its distance from the Democratic Party: “Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The rubes noticed and replied in kind.”

It’s a comprehensive case. It’s a full-throated case. And it’s informed by a tradition of intra-left criticism of liberal elites, much of it fair and often needed. But it’s wrong.

 The argument has fatal flaws:

The first is just history. That liberal smugness might deter the white working class from the Democratic Party seems reasonable, if unfalsifiable. But to suggest that it is a prime mover in their alienation from the party is to ignore the actual dynamics at work. The driving reason working-class whites abandoned the Democratic Party is race. The New Deal coalition Rensin describes was devoured by its own contradictions, chiefly, the racism needed to secure white allegiance even as the party tried to appeal to blacks.

Pressed by those blacks, Democrats tried to make good on their commitments, and when they did, whites bolted. The Democratic Party’s alliance with nonwhites is what drove those whites away, not the sniffing of comedians on cable television. And, looking at the politics of the last seven years, it’s still keeping them away. (It’s worth noting that, up until left-leaning whites and minorities elected Barack Obama president, Democrats suffered little loss with working-class whites outside of the South.)

But of course smug liberals do exist:

It’s incontestable. (I’ve complained about them myself.) But Rensin doesn’t argue for the mere existence of liberals who are smug about their beliefs and ideology. He argues that smugness is the key to contemporary liberalism. That it’s all but a plank of today’s Democratic Party.

But his evidence is lacking. “The smug style in American liberalism” is defined entirely through media and social media. It is The Daily Show, it is liberal Twitter, it is Gawker… But these are small portions – fractions – of the Democratic Party. And they’re far from representative of American liberals.

Take The Daily Show. Under Jon Stewart, the show hit its ratings peak in 2012 during the presidential election. Its viewership in the last quarter of the year? Roughly 1.7 million viewers per episode. By the time Stewart left, The Daily Show pulled daily numbers of 1.15 to 3 million viewers. As Harry Enten notes for FiveThirtyEight, even if you include online viewers, you have a modest total of 1.5 million viewers daily. By contrast, Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show was seen by an average of 3.7 million people in the last quarter of 2014.

Who are The Daily Show’s viewers? According to a 2012 study, 40 percent held college degrees, compared with 25 percent of all news consumers. Similarly, 40 percent made more than $75,000 a year, compared with 26 percent of all news consumers.

Maybe this represents an important liberal constituency – an integral part of the Democratic Party. Or maybe it’s a minor and unrepresentative group of affluent people, likely clustered in a few major cities like New York City and Los Angeles. You can say the same for liberal users on Twitter (just a small minority of people use Twitter to talk about politics) and Gawker readers and perhaps even people who write for websites like Vox and Slate.

Rensin seems to know this. He even tries to address it. “The Daily Show, as it happens, is not the private entertainment of elites blowing off some steam. It is broadcast on national television,” he writes. “Twitter isn’t private. Not that anybody with the sickest burn to accompany the smartest chart would want it to be.”

This isn’t persuasive. The Daily Show might punch above its weight but it’s still at base a late-night comedy and talk show. It influences “the conversation” but doesn’t constitute it.

That may be nitpicking, but there’s also this:

Affluent, college-educated liberals are just part of the Democratic Party. A substantial plurality of the party comprises nonwhites, spread throughout the country, and integral to its national and regional political victories (those liberals can’t win without them). Even if you limit this to the nonwhites who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, it dwarfs the number of people who could possibly participate in the smug liberal culture Rensin describes. Many of them – middle-aged and working-class – likely aren’t even aware it exists.

Rensin tries to deal with this fact. At the beginning of the essay, he acknowledges minority voters as part of the Democratic coalition but asserts that “bereft of the material and social capital required to dominate elite decision making, they were largely excluded from an agenda driven by the New Democratic core: the educated, the coastal, and the professional.”

Later, he writes, “The Democratic coalition in the 21st century is bifurcated: It has the postgraduates, but it has the disenfranchised urban poor as well, a group better defined by race and immigration status than by class.” This is supposed to be a rejoinder – “Elite liberalism, and the Democratic Party by extension cannot hate poor people, they say!” he writes – but it’s not.

Rensin doesn’t seem aware, for instance, of the partnerships between black and white Democrats in the South that delivered a measure of investment in public goods through the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s – until racial resentment helped kill the white Southern Democrat as a political figure. He seems blind to the ways in which Hispanics of all classes became a powerful force in California, shaping the state’s politics in profound ways. Somehow, he’s missed the extent to which nonwhite voters in the Obama era have become premier coalition members, moving Obama on everything from criminal justice reform to immigration. It is too much to say that nonwhite Democrats fully shape the party’s agenda. But a quick survey of recent history shows, clearly, that they’re prime partners in power.

Missing from his description of the supposedly “bifurcated” Democratic coalition are the millions of blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans – the large majority of each group, in fact – that aren’t the “disenfranchised urban poor.” Somehow, Latino military families in Hampton Roads, Virginia, black suburbanites in Atlanta, and Asian American entrepreneurs in Seattle have vanished – subsumed instead in a single, teeming, and undifferentiated mass.

Too many folks are left out, so finally there’s this:

Rensin wants to condemn “elite liberalism” and the Democratic Party as an institution. But he misses the huge degree to which his vantage point on American liberalism isn’t the vantage point. Depending on where and who you are, liberalism looks different, both as politics and culture.

This is blinkered. And the result is an essay that doesn’t criticize “liberalism” so much as it positions Rensin against other members of his cultural cohort. It’s what you might write if you’ve mistaken the consumption habits and shibboleths of your tribe for a politics that drives one of two major political parties in a democracy of over 300 million people, if you’re convinced of your own centrality to the currents in American history. I can think of a word for that.

Yeah, Bouie may be a bit defensive here, but Rensin is one smug bastard here too, and Kevin Drum thinks Rensin is using the wrong term:

There’s some smugness in there, sure, but I’d call it plain old condescension. We’re convinced that conservatives, especially working class conservatives, are just dumb. Smug suggests only a supreme confidence that we’re right – but conservative elites also believe they’re right, and they believe it as much as we do. The difference is that, generally speaking, they’re less condescending about it.

Everyone, however, thinks they’re right:

This isn’t smugness. It’s outrage, or hypocrisy, or standard issue partisanship. And as plenty of people have pointed out, outrage sells on the right, but for some reason, not on the left. We prefer mockery. So they get Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, while we get Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart.

So on one side you get this:

You can find a good example in conservative criticism of political correctness on college campuses: trigger warnings, safe spaces, shouting down speakers, etc. They’re infuriated by this. They think college kids are cosseted by their administrations; can’t stand to be disagreed with; and have no respect for the First Amendment. But they’re not usually smug or condescending about it – most of the time they’re scornful and outraged.

Generally speaking, elite conservatives think liberals are ignorant of basic truths: Econ 101; the work-sapping impact of welfare dependence; the value of traditional culture; the obvious dangers of the world that surrounds us. For working-class conservatives it’s worse: they’re just baffled by it all. They’re made to feel guilty about everything that’s any fun: college football for exploiting kids; pro football for maiming its players; SUVs for destroying the climate; living in the suburbs for being implicitly racist. If they try to argue, they’re accused of mansplaining or straightsplaining or whitesplaining. If they put a wrong word out of place, they’re slut shaming or fat shaming. Who the hell talks like that? They think it’s just crazy. Why do they have to put up with all this condescending gibberish from twenty-something liberals? What’s wrong with the values they grew up with?

So liberals and conservatives have different styles.

And that may be the real problem here:

Outrage doesn’t persuade liberals and mockery doesn’t persuade conservatives. If you’re writing something for your own side, as I am here most of the time, there’s no harm done. The problem is that mass media – and the internet in particular – makes it very hard to tailor our messages. Conservative outrage and liberal snark are heard by everyone, including the persuadable centrist types that we might actually want to persuade.

So no one is persuaded. Everyone gets to be smug. Bill O’Reilly gives a smug apology he doesn’t even mean. Thirteen years later the Koch brothers throw up their hands and, by default, endorse Hillary Clinton, and every left-liberal-progressive-Democrat feels justifiably smug – except that won’t make any difference at all. Those who love Trump are smug in their support of him – they don’t need the rich and “thoughtful” to tell them they’re morons. Implicit insults only anger them. Everyone is locked in. Everyone is locked in the land of smug. And, as they say, that’s why we can’t have nice things.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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