A few scattered thoughts on this treatise on liberal smugness by Emmet Rensin.
- The piece describes a real thing. It’s a real facet of American liberal life. It has real, profoundly negative consequences, politically and morally, for the broad left-of-center. It really is underdiscussed. It really is key that we confront these issues as we move forward as a coalition.
- This is the most important paragraph:
The consequence was a shift in liberalism’s center of intellectual gravity. 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. Minority voters remained, but 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.
- The critique is in my wheelhouse, and I frequently make similar critiques of my own. What’s being indicted is a certain slice of American post-collegiate urban striving types who are overrepresented in our media, in large measure because they write such a large part of it. I have profound criticisms of that group, as a group (many of them are lovely individually), and think they cause a not-insubstantial portion of our culture’s problems. But I should be clear: I am a member of that culture. I don’t live in New York or LA, and I don’t have a job in media, and there are a lot of little ways in which I feel distinct from that culture. Still, I can’t deny that I’m part of it, that the conditions that influence people within it largely influence me as well, and that I am closer to them in myriad ways than to the working class people who I frequently argue must be the central concern of any genuinely left-wing movement.
- I am the last person to say an essay is too long, usually, and I totally reject the popular faux-contrarian take that people write too long these days. There’s no such thing as a “right” average length for essays, which should be as long as they should be and no shorter or longer. But this piece is perhaps too long. Then again, who am I to criticize someone else for that?
- It’s hard to get liberals to take problems seriously because Democrats currently hold the presidency, which always instills liberals with overconfidence. But the Democratic party has major structural problems. State legislatures do more to determine the day-to-day life of average Americans than the federal government, and Democrats have lost 900 state legislature seats since 2010. It’s a crisis happening under the nose of the liberal intelligentsia, but as long as the White House stays blue, they’re unlikely to notice.
- Jamelle Bouie noted on Twitter that Democrats lost the white working class in large measure because of civil rights and racism. That’s true, and important to point out; it’s an essential historical addendum. But there’s a few essential points. First, “white working class” is a vast and shaggy designation that pulls in huge numbers of people who share very little in common, a very large number of whom are not motivated by racial animus. Which doesn’t undermine Bouie’s important and correct historical point, but should lead us to use caution here. Second, I sometimes see an argument play out concerning these issues: we shouldn’t worry about the white working class because Democrats lost them thanks to racism, so therefore they don’t a) deserve our help and b) deserve to be in our coalition. Which, I think, is just an attitude that makes no sense in democracy. In democracy, your job is always to convince those who you disagree with. That’s true even if you have profound moral problems with them. This is especially true here because, despite how often people in progressive media reflexively talk about a “majority minority” country, white people in America continue to enjoy huge numerical superiority and even greater political and economic influence. Simply to say “arrivederci” to this huge group isn’t politically sensible, even setting aside our moral responsibility to improve the lives of everyone in our country.
- And, let’s not forget, it’s rich white elites, not the white working class, that perpetuates the status quo, including the status quo of structural racism.
- I kept wanting to get to the word “meritocracy,” at some point, in this essay. That’s what I think is missing. Because a great deal of the phenomenon described in this essay is a product of what I’ll call meritocratic liberalism. (I’m going to avoid the neo-word because it’s always so controversial for some reason.) One of the prevailing tendencies within contemporary liberalism (though not, thankfully, a universal one) is a liberalism that embraces meritocracy, and which argues that it merely needs to be reformed to be more inclusive. That is, such people recognize that racism and sexism lead to inequality of access to the elite, and think that we need to make access to the elite equitable. It’s still fundamentally an attitude consonant with the existence of not only a class hierarchy, but of a class hierarchy of massive inequality. This is precisely what Walter Benn Michaels critiqued in his book The Trouble with Diversity. It’s essential to say that, though this diversifying of the elite is posed as being good for people of color and women, it ultimately leaves the vast majority of them behind. Because there’s only enough room in the 1% for… 1% of people. On the margins, yeah, it’s better to have a diverse elite than not, I guess. But the whole point is to tear down the elite altogether.
- Anyway: the conditions Rensin describes stem in part from the embrace of meritocratic liberalism because that philosophy is ultimately a means of justifying certain people’s success — and in this case, it’s people who happen to consider themselves liberals. That correspondingly means that it’s also a justification for other people’s pain and hardship. The brutal logic of meritocracy, combined with liberal righteousness about diversifying Goldman Sachs and Harvard, plus the narrative about white working class people being universally bigots, combines to give you something like what we have: a lot of people who grew up affluent, have reached financial security, consider themselves worldly cosmopolitans, and think of themselves as part of a left-wing tradition, who evince contempt and hatred for the uneducated and the poor.