Gerard Alexander complains of liberal condescension. Charles Krauthammer agrees, praising America’s bedrock common sense. Jake Weisberg says no, the problem is not condescending liberal politicians (or politicians of any kind, in fact) but the country’s childish and ignorant masses. Mike Kinsley offers Weisberg support – “brilliantly,” says Weisberg disinterestedly. “Which is more condescending,” asks Kinsley, “to tell citizens they are behaving like children or fools, or to praise them for their ‘bedrock common sense’?”
Far from clarifying the issue, as I think he wished to, Kinsley has obscured it.
The confusion actually starts with Alexander’s use of the term condescension, which is narrower than the complaint he wants to make. To condescend is to patronize. You do not patronize somebody when you call him an idiot, whether it is true or false. That is not condescension. It is, on the other hand, disdain. Alexander used that word too, and probably should have stuck to it. In the main, liberals are not condescending to middle America. But they are very often disdainful.
Condescension is a subset of disdain. A good example was Obama’s understanding remark about bitter voters clinging to guns and religion.
Kinsley says that the main thing is to be honest. I agree. But then he gets muddled. He says that calling somebody stupid is to treat him as an equal. If you are going to test that idea on a stranger, I suggest you choose somebody smaller than yourself. If I frankly told somebody, “You are not my equal,” would that also be treating him as an equal?
True, there is a difference between calling somebody a fool, and telling somebody whom you respect that he has said something foolish. Sensible people, even brilliant columnists, sometimes say stupid things. Is the progressive worldview that middle America is basically wise, but gets some things wrong now and then? Not that I can see. It is that middle America is stupid: parts of it, in fact, would be better fenced off and renamed Dumbistan. But I’m sure progressives who say that mean no disrespect.
In my world, unlike Kinsley’s, calling somebody stupid is to call him your intellectual inferior. Condescension cloaks that sentiment. Saying it straight out, however, is no more of an expression of respectful disagreement. It seems an unproductive way for politicians to talk to people they might wish to represent. Most important, it is likely to end the conversation rather than advance it, if that was something you were interested in doing.
What about conservative condescension? Isn’t it condescending, as Kinsley says, to praise middle Americans for their bedrock common sense? Yes, it would be, if you thought they were stupid, as Kinsley perhaps takes for granted. But I dare say Krauthammer and many conservatives sincerely believe in the bedrock common sense of middle America. (So do I, as it happens.) In that case, they might be wrong, but they are not condescending.
I thought Alexander’s piece, by the way, made many good points but was far too one-sided. Progressives do hold conservatives and their values too much in contempt. But conservatives return the compliment, going light on the accusation of stupidity and doubling down on the charge of wickedness. When it comes to creating a space for discussion, they are no better.
I also think Weisberg is partly right. This column of mine made some similar points. He just gets carried away. Some of his supposedly self-contradictory poll findings aren’t. For instance, he complains that majorities think (a) finance needs heavier regulation and (b) business is already over-regulated. Far from being self-contradictory, that position is correct. I’m for lower taxes; I’m also for smaller deficits; and universal health care. If you want an intelligent answer, ask an intelligent question.
Weisberg is right that America is reluctant to think about the hard fiscal choices it has to make. That is true, and a huge problem. The question is, are voters hopeless, as he says, or would they respond to better leadership? Maybe they would not. Good leadership is, among other things, about being straightforward, framing the issues correctly, and challenging the electorate. Has anybody tried that lately? I agree with Evan Thomas: it might be worth a shot.