Is Liberalism Really “Smug”?

Vox says smugness has reshaped the Democratic Party. How droll.

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
The Daily Show influences the conversation but doesn’t constitute it. Above, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart speak during the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010.

Kris Connor/Getty Images

Is liberalism “smug”? In an essay for Vox, Emmett Rensin says yes. “There is a smug style in American liberalism,” he writes. “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 … but by the failure of half the country to know what’s good for them.”

This “smug style” is informed by programs like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and its offshoots, The Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. It manifests on Twitter and Facebook, in tweets and status updates and displays of liberal arrogance. It’s present in how liberals talked about figures like Kim Davis, how they relate to people who disagree with them, in public and private.

Where does it come from? Rensin ties it to a demographic shift. Where once the Democrats were a working-class party, they’re now dominated by the professional and academic classes. “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,” writes Rensin. And he suggests that the smug style is one reason the working class, and the white one in particular, has kept its distance from the Democratic Party: “Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The rubes noticed and replied in kind.”

It’s a comprehensive case. It’s a full-throated case. And it’s informed by a tradition of intra-left criticism of liberal elites, much of it fair and often needed. But it’s wrong. Or at least, it has three fatal flaws that make it far from persuasive.

The first is just history. That liberal smugness might deter the white working class from the Democratic Party seems reasonable, if unfalsifiable. But to suggest that it is a prime mover in their alienation from the party is to ignore the actual dynamics at work. The driving reason working-class whites abandoned the Democratic Party is race. The New Deal coalition Rensin describes was devoured by its own contradictions, chiefly, the racism needed to secure white allegiance even as the party tried to appeal to blacks.

Pressed by those blacks, Democrats tried to make good on their commitments, and when they did, whites bolted. The Democratic Party’s alliance with nonwhites is what drove those whites away, not the sniffing of comedians on cable television. And, looking at the politics of the last seven years, it’s still keeping them away. (It’s worth noting that, up until left-leaning whites and minorities elected Barack Obama president, Democrats suffered little loss with working-class whites outside of the South.)

That said, there’s no question that smug liberals exist. It’s incontestable. (I’ve complained about them myself.) But Rensin doesn’t argue for the mere existence of liberals who are smug about their beliefs and ideology. He argues that smugness is key to contemporary liberalism. That it’s all but a plank of today’s Democratic Party.

But his evidence is lacking. “The smug style in American liberalism” is defined entirely through media and social media. It is The Daily Show, it is liberal Twitter, it is Gawker. (Rensin devotes a portion of the essay to excoriating an essay by writer Hamilton Nolan.) But these are small portions—fractions—of the Democratic Party. And they’re far from representative of American liberals.

Take The Daily Show. Under Jon Stewart, the show hit its ratings peak in 2012 during the presidential election. Its viewership in the last quarter of the year? Roughly 1.7 million viewers per episode. By the time Stewart left, The Daily Show pulled daily numbers of 1.15 to 3 million viewers. As Harry Enten notes for FiveThirtyEight, even if you include online viewers, you have a modest total of 1.5 million viewers daily. By contrast, Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show was seen by an average of 3.7 million people in the last quarter of 2014.

Who are The Daily Show’s viewers? According to a 2012 study, 40 percent held college degrees, compared with 25 percent of all news consumers. Similarly, 40 percent made more than $75,000 a year, compared with 26 percent of all news consumers.

Maybe this represents an important liberal constituency—an integral part of the Democratic Party. Or maybe it’s a minor and unrepresentative group of affluent people, likely clustered in a few major cities like New York City and Los Angeles. You can say the same for liberal users on Twitter (just a small minority of people use Twitter to talk about politics) and Gawker readers and perhaps even people who write for websites like Vox and Slate.

Rensin seems to know this. He even tries to address it. “The Daily Show, as it happens, is not the private entertainment of elites blowing off some steam. It is broadcast on national television,” he writes. “Twitter isn’t private. Not that anybody with the sickest burn to accompany the smartest chart would want it to be.”

This isn’t persuasive. The Daily Show might punch above its weight but it’s still at base a late-night comedy and talk show. It influences “the conversation” but doesn’t constitute it. And while The Daily Show and its peers are indeed smug, Rensin has mistaken this segment of national political dialogue for something that actually drives political activity. To posit that a show made by (and largely for) affluent, college-educated liberals somehow drives liberalism as a whole betrays an achingly parochial view of national politics.

That is the second fatal flaw. The final one is related. Affluent, college-educated liberals are just part of the Democratic Party. A substantial plurality of the party comprises nonwhites, spread throughout the country, and integral to its national and regional political victories (those liberals can’t win without them). Even if you limit this to the nonwhites who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, it dwarfs the number of people who could possibly participate in the smug liberal culture Rensin describes. Many of them—middle-aged and working-class—likely aren’t even aware it exists.

Rensin tries to deal with this fact. At the beginning of the essay, he acknowledges minority voters as part of the Democratic coalition but asserts that “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.”

Later, he writes, “The Democratic coalition in the 21st century is bifurcated: It has the postgraduates, but it has the disenfranchised urban poor as well, a group better defined by race and immigration status than by class.” This is supposed to be a rejoinder—“Elite liberalism, and the Democratic Party by extension cannot hate poor people, they say!” he writes—but it’s not.

Rensin doesn’t seem aware, for instance, of the partnerships between black and white Democrats in the South that delivered a measure of investment in public goods through the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s—until racial resentment helped kill the white Southern Democrat as a political figure. He seems blind to the ways in which Hispanics of all classes became a powerful force in California, shaping the state’s politics in profound ways. Somehow, he’s missed the extent to which nonwhite voters in the Obama era have become premier coalition members, moving Obama on everything from criminal justice reform to immigration. It is too much to say that nonwhite Democrats fully shape the party’s agenda. But a quick survey of recent history shows, clearly, that they’re prime partners in power.

Missing from his description of the supposedly “bifurcated” Democratic coalition are the millions of blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans—the large majority of each group, in fact—that aren’t the “disenfranchised urban poor.” Somehow, Latino military families in Hampton Roads, Virginia, black suburbanites in Atlanta, and Asian American entrepreneurs in Seattle have vanished, subsumed instead in a single, teeming, and undifferentiated mass.

All of this gets to the central irony of the essay: Rensin wants to condemn “elite liberalism” and the Democratic Party as an institution. But he misses the huge degree to which his vantage point on American liberalism isn’t the vantage point. Depending on where and who you are, liberalism looks different, both as politics and culture.

This is blinkered. And the result is an essay that doesn’t criticize “liberalism” so much as it positions Rensin against other members of his cultural cohort. It’s what you might write if you’ve mistaken the consumption habits and shibboleths of your tribe for a politics that drives one of two major political parties in a democracy of over 300 million people, if you’re convinced of your own centrality to the currents in American history. I can think of a word for that.

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