OK let’s get constructive

Readers keep saying I should frame my criticism of liberals more constructively. Let’s go for it. This sentiment is wallpapering Twitter lately. (This is just an indicative example.)

I think that this is a very unhelpful way for liberals to communicate. Let me explain.

Analytically, these statements don’t make much sense. More than one group of people can be in “a bubble.” The dichotomy is false. Nor is this language precise. When we speak of bubbles in this way, we’re speaking metaphorically about how different people have differing levels of information and interest in the lives of others. This is not a binary but a spectrum, and a multilinear one at that, given that there are different kinds of information and different kinds of ignorance. Further, ascribing attitudes to vast geographical regions isn’t helpful. Is the idea that literally everyone in Manhattan/Missoula is informed/ignorant about the “other side?” No one believes that, I hope. So what’s the analytical value of these statements? “Our side is generally more informed about the other side than they are about us”? That might be true, but it’s very hard to say, it’s not clear what the criteria are, and I’m not sure what the value of such a statement is given that we’re talking about vast generalizations here.

Politically, this is disastrous. Conservatives have made incredible hay out of the perception that liberals sneer at people who don’t live in coastal enclaves. These arguments accept that frame even as they dispute its conclusions, which is not a good argumentative strategy. Additionally, many of these tweets have replies sneering at “rednecks.” Why are you doing that? What is the political value? Aren’t you trying to win elections precisely in the places where these statements would appear most insulting? This is the unfortunate reality: neither the Electoral College nor the Senate are going anywhere anytime soon. They are facts of life. You can refuse to do what’s necessary to win back power in a country structurally designed to make red states disproportionately powerful while Republicans set about implementing an agenda. Or you can develop a strategic political discourse that demonstrates a sensible attitude towards how you frame your appeals. I get it: these aren’t campaign slogans or TV ads for Democrats. But the communal rhetoric of an ideology matters. The day-to-day messaging of the members of a political party matters. What exactly is the political advantage that you think you’re getting from talking like this?

Morally, this is a betrayal of the basic principles that are supposed to underlie progressivism. The whole idea – the basic, bedrock notion underneath all of this – is moral universality. Central to the liberal self-conception is the idea that everyone should be treated with human dignity, enjoy equal opportunity and equal rights, and live free of poverty and injustice. Chopping up the country into places that you think matter and don’t – acting as though some places deserve hopelessness and economic malaise and some don’t – is contrary to the basic moral architecture of the American progressive tradition. Yes, I agree, the other party is worse in this regard. So what? A universal assumption of adult morality is that the bad behavior of others does not function as an excuse for your own. Everyone has a right to material security, human dignity, and equal rights by virtue of being human; those things are not deserved and cannot be lost by virtue of being wrong. To suggest otherwise is to accept the moral reasoning of conservatism.

What’s the alternative? Don’t play their game! Don’t accept their frame; insist on your own. Here’s what you say if you want to lose: “We’re not in the bubble, it’s the people in flyover country who are in the bubble. It’s not our job to educate them.” Even if that were a meaningful statement and were true, it wouldn’t matter. That’s hurting your own cause, and it’s an ugly, narrow-minded way to behave. Here’s what you say if you want to win: “It’s not about red state vs. blue state or rural vs. urban. It’s about building a country where everyone has their basic necessities, where everyone is free from poverty and despair. Yes to affordable housing and health care, yes to public education, yes to food for the hungry and warmth for the cold. No to poverty, no to racism and sexism, no to exploitation and greed. They stand with the comfortable and the rich, we stand with those who suffer and need. Everywhere. Because we’re all in this together.”

That’s how you win. That’s how Barack Obama won, with precisely that kind of language. I’m not writing this as another post mortem of the Hillary Clinton campaign. I’m trying to make a point about how liberals can succeed moving forward, if they’re smart.

Liberals, please: politics is not therapy. Politics is about power. Right now you don’t have it. Not at the state level, not in Congress, and soon not in the White House. If you want to get it, you have to be smart. Stop giving Republicans the argument they want! Stop playing to their frame! It doesn’t matter if you’re right. That’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if they’re the ones in the bubble! The only thing that matters is what you can accomplish. Right now, that’s not much. Your opponents, meanwhile, are a single state legislature flip away from being able to pass constitutional amendments. So you better come up with a plan to convince the people who are able to be convinced. Including those who you think live in bubbles in the hinterland. Even if you think you shouldn’t have to convince them, you have to appeal to them if you want to win. Life’s not fair. Get to work, or keep doing what you’re doing and lose again.