Vox has a well-written and interesting piece today about the smug style of American liberalism. I suppose it has to be said up front, because it’s hard to go on if we don’t get this out of the way first, but having Vox criticize smug liberals is like having Bill Clinton criticize womanizing politicians or maybe like having whoever is hosting the next Oscars criticize self-aggrandizing spectacle on television. We’ll get back to that later but for now this piece really is interesting and deserves a look despite the double-take inducing place it was published:
There is a smug style in American liberalism. It has been growing these past decades. It is a way of conducting politics, predicated on the belief that American life is not divided by moral difference or policy divergence — not really —but by the failure of half the country to know what’s good for them.
In 2016, the smug style has found expression in media and in policy, in the attitudes of liberals both visible and private, providing a foundational set of assumptions above which a great number of liberals comport their understanding of the world.
This is not exactly news to anyone who deals with progressives online regularly but the author demonstrates he is serious by placing blame on one of the beloved figures of this movement: Jon Stewart. In fact, had Vox wanted to be a bit more sensational, the headline of this piece could have been ‘How Jon Stewart’s smug style is ruining progressivism.’
Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style. 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 and that its opponents were, before anything else, stupid. The smug liberal found relief in ridiculing them.
The core of the piece is the argument that progressives have, to some degree, lost the path of empathy for people not like them because it is easier (and more enjoyable) to simply mock and ridicule those people. The author suggests the difference between the in crowd and the other often comes down to having the correct opinions. Like any religious tradition, some set of people come to believe having the right doctrine is the whole point:
Elites, real elites, might recognize one another by their superior knowledge. The smug recognize one another by their mutual knowing.
Knowing, for example, that the Founding Fathers were all secular deists. Knowing that you’re actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder. Knowing that those fools out in Kansas are voting against their own self-interest and that the trouble is Kansas doesn’t know any better. Knowing all the jokes that signal this knowledge.
The knowing know that police reform, that abortion rights, that labor unions are important, but go no further: What is important, after all, is to signal that you know these things. What is important is to launch links and mockery at those who don’t. The Good Facts are enough: Anybody who fails to capitulate to them is part of the Problem, is terminally uncool. No persuasion, only retweets. Eye roll, crying emoji, forward to John Oliver for sick burns.
The Daily Show really does seem to be a focus of this critique. Here it comes up again as the author rejects the idea that all of this smugness is just the left blowing off steam:
We have long passed the point where blithe ridicule of the American right can be credibly cast as private stress relief and not, for instance, the animating public strategy of an entire wing of the liberal culture apparatus. The Daily Show, as it happens, is not the private entertainment of elites blowing off some steam. It is broadcast on national television.
One of the enjoyable aspects of this piece is that the author frequently leaves his jabs at the left implied. He doesn’t spell it out but lets the reader work it out a bit. For instance:
The smug style plays out in private too, of course. If you haven’t started one yourself, you’ve surely seen the Facebook threads: Ten or 20 of Brooklyn’s finest gather to say how exasperated they are, these days, by the stupidity of the American public.
“I just don’t know what to do about these people,” one posts. “I think we have to accept that a lot of people are just misinformed!” replies another. “Like, I think they actually don’t want to know anything that would undermine their worldview.”
They tend to do it in the comment section, under an article about how conservatives are difficult to persuade because they isolate themselves in mutually reinforcing information bubbles.
Again, the point of all this is that the smug has crowded out what he sees as the better progressive tradition of empathy. He believes progressives have, in some sense, taking the easier and less fruitful path of condescension. Whether you agree with that premise or not, the piece itself shows more liberal self-awareness then you’ll find in a month of Huffington Post stories (or ten years at Think Progress).
So back to that point I put aside at the beginning. It really does need to be said that Vox was founded by people who helped perpetuate the smug style of American liberalism. Yes it was launched with a feint at escaping the pitfalls of partisanship (aka cultural cognition) but it also promised ‘explanatory journalism’ the whole premise of which was that Vox would better explain the wisdom of progressive policy preferences to the unenlightened. So it’s a bit bizarre to have Vox publish this piece which to some degree undercuts the site’s reason for being. Still, they did publish the piece rather than refuse to do so. Perhaps it is better to applaud the occasional candle of self-criticism than curse the smug darkness.