“There is a smug style in American liberalism,” wrote Emmett Rensin in a justly celebrated essay for the Vox web site. “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.”
Rensin wrote these words back in April 2016, before Brexit and before Trump. And time has made them even more pertinent. One might even call them prophetic. For if liberals used to adopt “a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason” before, they do so even more these days. And for the most part they are wholly unrepentant about it. Indeed, they are more often than not proud of their superiority complex. They are in the right, after all.
Rensen argues that the liberal smugness in the US is a consequence of the long decline in the number of working-class Democrats. In 1948, 66% of manual labourers voted for the Democrats. That figure was 55% in 1964. And 35% in 1980. And voting Democrat among the white working class has seen an even sharper decline.
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So by the Nineties, Rensin argues, the old alliance between the working class and the progressive, college-educated elites began to break apart, leaving the graduates puzzling to themselves why they had been abandoned by the working class. Thomas Frank asked the question, in 2004, with his best selling book: What is the Matter with Kansas? And the answer that they began to develop was that the working class were basically too stupid to know what was in their best interest.
Frank, for example, argues that the Kansas working class have been duped by a Republican alliance of social conservatism and economic liberalism. The Republicans, he contends, make conservative noises (though not much more) about social issues – gay rights, abortion etc – so as to garner working-class support for a set of economic policies that only ever benefit the wealthy. In other words, they are duped. And why are they duped? Because they are stupid.
Rensin’s analysis is of the United States – but it feels uncomfortably close to the state of play in the United Kingdom in the run up to Brexit. What is the matter with the Midlands? Progressives offer a similar answer: foolish Leavers have been duped by an appeal to patriotism and the fear of immigration as a way to get them to vote against their own economic interests. The only explanation for this is that they were too stupid to know what was going on – idiots who were sold a fantasy on the side of a bus.
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As in the United States, the progressive graduate community has developed its own brand of humour to be directed towards the traditional working class conservative or Brexiter. In the United States, it is John Oliver on The Late Show, among others, who draws a great deal of his humour from taking the piss out of the easy target of idiot Trump supporters.
Over here something similar is going on with comedians such as Marcus Brigstocke and Stuart Lee, both of whom had 20 minutes of Brexit material in their stand up routine last year, with Brigstocke noting that, outside of London, he had people walking out of his show every night. And it is not just Brigstocke, comedy is now dominated by the middle-class college-educated progressive perspective.
As Aaron Brown, editor of the British Comedy Guide, noted: “I would say the comedy world’s reaction [to Brexit] has been almost exclusively negative.” Robin Ince, Chris Addison, Eddie Izzard, David Schneider and so on, they all have this air of intellectual superiority, using comedy to look down on those who see the world from a different perspective. The satire of the middle-class comedian towards those idiots who voted Leave – and the cheap Twitter derivative of this humour – has shown itself up as pretty bad at checking its own privilege.
A similar intellectual smugness pervades the way this same group approaches religion. To be religious – and Christian especially – like being a Brexiter, is to have made some basic intellectual mistake that you can only make if you are stupid or in some way morally corrupt. And mistakes like this are not worth arguing with, they just need to be ridiculed. Forget the need to engage with St Thomas Aquinas when all you have to do is reference the flying spaghetti monster.
This approaches the heart of the matter. Rensin argues that what is often behind liberal smugness is the philosophical assumption that the difference between people politically is always a difference of knowing various facts, not a difference of ideology. This is the problem with the empiricist approach to politics: the fact-based assessments and belief that evidence only should drive our disagreements. For when fact-based empiricism comes to dominate the cultural and intellectual apparatus of the liberal world-view, then it can only be a knowledge of the facts that divides people.
This is where progressive smugness comes from: the idea that I know stuff that you do not. It is not that we disagree ideologically, because ideology is dead. All that is left is facts and knowing facts. And either you know the facts or you don’t. And we do. And you don’t.
When it comes to Brexit – as with Thomas Frank and Kansas – it is widely insisted upon that no one could possibly have voted against their own economic interests knowingly. No one voted to be poorer, Anna Soubry told the Commons in an impassioned speech last week. The argument goes on thus: because Brexit will make us poorer, the Brexit-voting working class cannot have known what they were doing. So either they are stupid or (which amounts to the same thing) easily manipulated by the dark forces of those who do have much to gain.
But what if people did indeed think that there was something about Brexit that was more important that GDP? Why is it impossible to consider that possibility, that some people were indeed prepared to accept a relatively poorer country as a price worth paying for a more independent one? That some things are more important than money?
What middle-class liberals really do need to appreciate is that the difference between their perspective and that of the Trump supporter or the Brexiter is not one of ignorance of facts, but one of basic philosophy. It is not a mistake or ignorance that other people want to live in a very different world with very different values.
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The smug sneer that progressives direct towards those who are “too stupid to know what is in their best interest” is premised upon a massive misreading of the situation. The Trump supporter and the Brexiter – and yes, of course I generalise – has a different philosophical perspective. Ideology has not gone away. It has returned in popular form. And that grin of intellectual superiority only feeds the opposition to the liberal perspective.
Rensin ends his essay with a brilliant call to action:
This is not a call for civility. Manners are not enough. The smug style did not arise by accident, and it cannot be abolished with a little self-reproach. So long as liberals cannot find common cause with the larger section of the American working class, they will search for reasons to justify that failure. They will resent them. They will find, over and over, how easy it is to justify abandoning them further. They will choose the smug style.
Which is exactly the point that needs to be made over here as well. Brexit has also bred a deep smugness in progressive circles. And what progressives do not seem to realise is that this attitude has the capacity to totally destroy the alliance that we used to call the Left. Or maybe, depressingly, it is already too late.