Hey, Read This: Liberals Are Smug

Are American Liberals Smug? Vox Has Started a Conversation About Partisanship in the Time of Trump.


Welcome back to Hey, Read This, the column feature where we talk about the Things You Should Be Reading.™

This week, we’re reading Emmett Rensin’s 7,000-word manifesto in Vox and the resulting conversation on class and partisanship in modern America. Rensin was prompted by his disgust for the John Oliver-watching, dank meme-sharing, Andy Borowitz-retweeting culture of American liberalism that, he feels, condescends to the very people it claims to represent and champion—the poor and working class.

Debate ensued.

So, what’s the reading list?


1.  The original essay

It’s long, but you’ve got to do it. Don’t be one of those people who has an opinion on something you didn’t bother to read.

Rensin’s thesis, as I understand it, comes about a third of the way in:

If good politics and good beliefs are just Good Facts and good tweets — that is, if there is no ideology beyond sensible conclusions drawn from a rational assessment of the world — then there are no moral fights, only lying liars and the stupid rubes who believe them.

Rensin has a historical argument for the origins of this “smug style,” but he also argues that it’s the psychologically comfortable thing to believe:

If good politics comes solely from good data and good sense, it cannot be that large sections of the American public are merely wrong about so many vital things. It cannot be that they have heard our arguments but rejected them — that might mean we must examine our own methods of persuasion.

No: it is only that the wrong beliefs are unchallenged — that their believers are trapped in “information bubbles” and confirmation bias. That no one knows the truth, except the New York Times (or Vox). If only we could tell them, question them, show them this graph. If they don’t get it then, well, then they’re hopeless.

But where Rensin’s argument really shines is in its accusation that the “smug style” has helped create the very ignorance and economic disenfranchisement that it labels as the problem:

Today, it is the excuse of American smug mind: Where did all of these poor people come from?

If pressed for an answer, I suppose they would say Republicans, elected by rubes voting against their own self-interest. Reagan, Gingrich, Bush — all those Bad Fact–knowing halfwits who were too dumb to get elected to anything.

Well, sure. In the past 30 years of American life, the Republican Party has dedicated itself to replacing every labor law with a photo of Ronald Reagan’s face.

But this does not excuse liberals beating full retreat to the colleges and the cities, abandoning the dispossessed to their fate. It does not excuse surrendering a century of labor politics in the name of electability. It does not excuse gazing out decades later to find that those left behind are not up on the latest thought and deciding, We didn’t abandon them. The idiots didn’t want to be saved.

It was not Ronald Reagan who declared the era of big government. It was not the GOP that decided the coastally based, culturally liberal industries of technology, Hollywood, and high finance were the future of the American economy.

If the smug style can be reduced to a single sentence, it’s, Why are they voting against their own self-interest? But no party these past decades has effectively represented the interests of these dispossessed. Only one has made a point of openly disdaining them too.

2.  The Twitter-sphere upset

Twitter is its own media outlet these days, and the responses published there are as much a part of the conversation as any think piece.

Some loved it:

Some hated it:

The irony of this essay being published in Vox was lost on no one:

Some thought the medium did more to demonstrate the point than refute it:

And a few made more substantive critiques:

3.  The conservative gloating

Conservatives, predictably, loved the essay.

As Rod Dreher at the American Conservative put it:

This is why people like me would be open to voting Democratic at times, but pull back, because we know that deep down, the people who run the Democratic Party hate us.

David French at the National Review also welcomed Rensin’s piece:

I pass along his essay not to proclaim that conservative-world is culturally superior (Indeed, this entire election cycle has served as a heaping helping of humble pie for conservatives who believed our tribe was developing a healthy, thoughtful political culture), but rather to note that thoughtful liberals may be starting to wake up. So are thoughtful conservatives. Mutual loathing and contempt are spiraling out of control, and if each side can’t check their own worst impulses, then I agree with Rensin — “the divide, the disdain, the whole crackup are inevitable.”

4.  The race critique

Jamelle Bouie swept in with a great contribution in Slate in which he argues that Rensin’s essay operates just fine as a takedown of the way elite, white liberals talk to and about poor whites, but it fails as a comprehensive history of the Democratic party.

First of all, the white working class didn’t leave the Democrats because they found the party leaders too smug:

The Democratic Party’s alliance with nonwhites is what drove those whites away, not the sniffing of comedians on cable television.

Secondly, Rensin’s argument assumes that white elite cultural institutions have more power than they do:

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. And while The Daily Show and its peers are indeed smug, Rensin has mistaken this segment of national political dialogue for something that actually drives political activity. To posit that a show made by (and largely for) affluent, college-educated liberals somehow drives liberalism as a whole betrays an achingly parochial view of national politics.

Lastly, there is a consequence to this centering of white elites in the Democratic party by marginalizing the contributions of people of color and working class coalitions:

All of this gets to the central irony of the essay: 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.

5.  The outward zoom

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones made my favorite contribution (so far) so the conversation. In his telling, Rensin isn’t so much touching on a fatal flaw in liberalism as he is describing the psychological roots of modern partisanship:

[A]s 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 the smugness on the left isn’t so much as a cause of partisanship as it is proof of its existence. The larger question we should be asking, according to Drum, is whether there’s anything that contemporary media can do to mediate between the liberal and conservative “styles”:

So liberals and conservatives have different styles. No surprise there. The question is, do these styles work? Here, I think the answer is the same on both sides: they work on their own side, but not on the other. 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.


There, now don’t you feel a hundred times smarter?

Happy reading, and drop us a line in the comments to tell us about what (else) you’re reading this week.


Jacqui is a terrible dinner party guest—she only knows how to talk about politics and religion. On a typical Friday night, she can be found binge-watching her current Netflix show of choice, playing Civilization: The Board Game and drinking <$8 bottles of champagne.

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