“You Are the Problem”

Is liberal smugness to blame for our god-awful political climate?

Protest signs criticizing the GOP with phrases such as "Can we please put the smart people in charge now?"
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images, Chris Schneider/AFP/Getty Images, Kevin Hagen/Getty Images, and Joshua Roberts/Reuters.

“It’s hard to tell who started it,” Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote in a Sunday opinion column for the New York Times. She was referring to the political climate in 2018, and the cultural conversation surrounding it, especially online. Mangu-Ward, the editor in chief of the libertarian magazine Reason, believes that there are two groups responsible for this undeniably depressing state of affairs—liberals (“cozy in their elite enclaves on the coasts, who burrowed down into self-righteousness, lecturing working-class Republicans about how they misunderstand their own interests”) and the modern right (“reared in the meme swamps of Reddit and 4chan, who emerged blinking into the daylight of politics and set about baiting anyone who disagreed with their chosen Republican king”). The smugness of the former group and the trollishness of the latter have fed off one another, she writes, creating the vicious cycle that is our politics today.

I recently spoke by phone with Mangu-Ward. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Donald Trump gets away with criticizing America, whether we are too politically correct about Trump voters, and if it is possible to avoid being smug when telling people you think they are voting against their own self-interest.

Isaac Chotiner: You write in your piece that, “The problem isn’t just filter bubbles, echo chambers or alternative facts. It’s tone: When the loudest voices on the left talk about people on the right as either beyond the pale or dupes of their betters, it is with an air of barely concealed smugness. Right-wingers, for their part, increasingly respond with a churlish ‘Oh, yeah? Hold my beer,’ and then double down on whatever politically incorrect sentiment brought on the disdain in the first place.” The way that’s written implies that the right-wing attitude that we see online and from the president is a response to a smug leftism. Is that how you see thisthat essentially the right is merely reacting to something?

Katherine Mangu-Ward: The sentence that’s at the very top of the piece is, “It’s hard to tell who started it.” I actually do believe that. I think it is not a case of a single original sin that sent us cascading down into the rhetorical swamps where we now live. But I do find that, although I am demographically and in many ways even ideologically sympathetic to people on the left, in this story, in the story of smug versus trolls, I find myself sympathetic to the right, sympathetic to this response of, “Fine, if you’re going to see me that way, I’ll double down on it. I’ll be as bad as you think I am.”

The idea, then, is that people are accused of being racist, or see other people being called racist, and as a response to that say, “You know what? I’m going to vote for a racist, or I’m going to be part of a political movement that looks the other way about racism.” If that is actually going on, and let’s grant for the sake of argument that it is, it’s a very strange way of operating in the world.

I guess I would challenge the way that you set that up. I think that when people feel that they’ve been accused of something horrible, like racism, or that their peers or friends have, that they respond negatively, and that they respond by maybe overstating their own case, or mocking the other side. I don’t think that it’s an accurate mental picture to say they responded by voting for a racist. I think they say, “You on the left are either overstating or overvaluing that particular aspect of Donald Trump. However, he has a lot of other attributes that you don’t value at all, and you’re wrong to not value those things.”

You say that smug people on the coasts, to speak broadly, look at people who vote for Republicans, white working-class people, and say, “You guys don’t understand your own economic interests.” That comes across as smug, and that makes people respond in a certain way. But if that’s your objective analysis of what’s going on, how do you think we should have that conversation? The sincere belief of many people on the left is that working-class people on the right are being taken advantage of, in this case by a con man.

The definitive piece on this, which I didn’t explicitly reference, but consulted, is Emmett Rensin’s Vox piece on the “smug style” in American liberalism. I find that piece to be a very compelling account of the demographic reasons why liberals believe that thing that you just described, [which is] that essentially the liberal coalition has been hollowed out. While it used to be a coalition that spread more evenly across different socioeconomic classes and a broader geographical area, it’s now rich, white people and then people of color, to oversimplify it dramatically. He says, and I think it’s true, that there’s a certain amount of baffled resentment at the class of people that abandoned the left. It was a coalition that made sense to the rest of the left before, when it was intact, and so the natural inclination then is to say, “Something’s gone wrong that those people left us, and it must be that they’re confused and were right before.”

I think that that explanation explains the weirdly emotional approach to this. It explains why people aren’t just like, “Oh, that’s a bummer,” or like, “You seem to be under a misapprehension,” but are like, “Screw you, you idiots,” because they were abandoned.

I think the flip side of that is that if you talk to conservative intellectuals, they don’t know what happened in their party. They are very confused about what happened. The sort of Never Trumpism among National Review types and others shows that they too are confused about what happened with that demographic.

OK, but I’m a writer. You’re a writer. I want to say what I think. I still haven’t quite figured out how to not smugly say that I think Donald Trump is a con man taking advantage of his voters. I don’t think every Republican, or the entire Republican Party’s platform, or libertarianism, or social conservatism, is just about conning voters. I do think Donald Trump is a con man, and he is essentially conning his voters to enrich his family. I don’t know how to say that without sounding smug and without immediately telling essentially everyone who voted for him, “You got conned.” I just don’t quite understand how to get out of that pickle when you have someone like Donald Trump as president.

Your response is very similar to a significant portion of the response to this piece. That is to say, of the people who replied to me on Twitter and elsewhere, the vast majority of people who were “team smug” offered some variant of what you just said, like, “But we’re right, and they’re wrong, and so what do we do?” All due respect to you and all those people, that’s precisely the problem. You are the problem. That is to say, just because you have an analysis of why someone voted the way they did and you think that it’s wrong, you don’t have to say it out loud. Having said it out loud lots of times, and it having not been effective as a rhetorical move to shift the political landscape in the direction that you want, why not try another tack?

I think this is the argument for [saying], “OK, maybe these people who we are talking about here, these Trump voters, it is not that they are confused about their own interests, but simply that I am not looking at the world the way they look at the world. How can I do better at that?” It’s an Oprah thing to say, but it is nonetheless the answer.

It seems like what you’re saying is a version of political correctness. It’s as if saying this, even if it’s the truth, doesn’t work, so you should stop saying it, which is itself almost condescending. It’s essentially, “You people can’t hear this.”

Yeah, I think that’s right. It is a version of political correctness, but the origins of political correctness are nonpernicious. The very, very beginning of the political correctness movement was basically just people saying, “Hey, why not temper your speech slightly to avoid giving offense to those in a position of less power than yourself?” That’s a good idea. I think obviously you don’t want to pull every punch, but at the same time, to say over and over, both formally as the Democratic Party and also rhetorically as the pundit class, “You all are wrong about what you need and want,” is not doing it.

It just feels to me that as writers we have some responsibility to argue for what we think the truth is. You write in the piece, for example, about the DACA debate, “The left labeled the right racist. The right accused the left of hating America.” There’s just more truth to one of those things than the other. We should have some responsibility to say what’s true rather than just saying, “This is how people feel.”

Again, all due respect, but you’re wrong about that asymmetry. Just to be clear, I think that every single DACA beneficiary and every Dreamer, because those are, I guess, slightly different categories, should be given immediate full citizenship forever, and ever, and ever, and their family forever and ever, amen. I am basically an open border person.

You libertarians, you love those open borders. Go on.

Yes, but I think it is equal. The assumption about motivations on both sides is equally an exercise in some amount of truth and some amount of bad faith. There are many, many people, even relatively close to libertarian circles, who are very clearly not racist and who are genuinely worried, instead, about keeping a distinctive and powerful American culture intact, who are worried about the bottom line of the federal and state governments, who are worried about overcrowding in schools. Again, I don’t think those are good reasons to keep these immigrants out, but none of that is about racism.

Conversely, I think there are many liberals, of course, who don’t “hate” America, but I think it is fair to say of many liberals that they don’t particularly value national loyalty or patriotism very highly, and that also they think that whatever America is, it’s OK if it changes, which to a person who very highly values America as it exists right now, is not a good outcome.
Again, it’s not exactly hating America, but it is a little, and it’s not exactly racism, but it is a little, in many cases. I think it’s a fair parallel. I really don’t think there’s an asymmetry there.

OK. It’s just that the president, who has ended DACA or put it on the road to being ended—

Again, if what we keep doing here is coming back to Donald Trump as an avatar of trollish conservatives, then I will never push back on that. Donald Trump is a trollish conservative. He is the worst of his form, but—

He’s also president.

But I don’t think he is representative of the median grumpy right-winger in American right now.

You say in the piece, “Liberals and people of the left underpin their politics with moral concerns about harm and fairness. They are driven by the imperative to help the vulnerable and see justice done. Conservatives and people on the right value these things as well but have several additional moral touchstones—loyalty, respect, and sanctity.” How do you think Trump fits into that paradigm, specifically regarding respect and sanctity?

I think that Trump fits into it uneasily, which is again why the intellectual right was taken by surprise by his election. That intellectual framework still strikes me as extremely true for a way to think about our deeper underlying political differences. At the same time, I think you have to work a little bit to understand how that gets interpreted on Trump. In this case, I think it is, for instance, when we talk about loyalty, and in-group loyalty in particular, Donald Trump said a lot of times on the campaign trail, “I love America. America is the greatest country. We are better than the rest of the world. We need to get the best deals. It’s our group that matters, not that group.”

This is absolutely speaking to a value that, as I say in the piece, and as Jonathan Haidt, who’s the author of these categories has said, to a person who doesn’t share that value, it sounds like xenophobia. Sometimes it is xenophobia, but for lots of people, it’s not. For lots of people, the power of in-group solidarity drives good things. This is how people feel loyalty to their church, which drives all kinds of excellent community institutions. There’s of course the family. Loyalty is not a bad thing. Just because I happen to completely lack that part of my brain—

I was about to say, you hate family, you hate religion.

Yes. Libertarians generally have a huge hole in their brain where that part should be.

In many ways, I don’t share these values, but because I so often interact with people that don’t seem to share mine, I am sensitive to, and I think other people would do well to be sensitive to, what the good side of that coin looks like. I think Donald Trump, he is not the best version of any of those things, but he is a version of some of them. Hillary Clinton only communicated in the care/harm and justice/fairness dimensions. She never said any words that appealed to any of those other values.

What’s complicating about Trump, though, is that this is also the guy on the campaign trail who said worse things about America than any presidential candidate in memory. He said, “We’re no better than Putin’s Russia,” when he was asked about journalists getting killed. He said that, “We’re weak and stupid, and every country is smarter than us.” He attacks the FBI, a symbol of straight-laced American values, in a way that is astonishing, in a way that I never thought would be possible from an American politician. Yet these sorts of things don’t seem to weaken the idea that he is this ultra-nationalist who cares about these values that you’re talking about, which makes me think that there’s something else going on, which, my feeling is, probably has to do with race above all else.

I really don’t know how he did it, but I think what I’ve heard from people on the right, over and over, is that when Donald Trump says stuff like that, when he says, “We’re no better than Putin’s Russia,” it reads to his supporters like, “I can talk smack about my brother, but if you insult him, I’ll punch you in the face.” Because he has in some way that is opaque to me, but is very, very apparent to the people who voted for him, he has already proven his bona fides without a doubt, he is then allowed to occasionally criticize what is clearly his in-group. Somehow that seems to be the dynamic there.

Again, I absolutely do not deny that race and racism had a major component in the last election, but I think it disregards incredibly clear and powerful trends in the direction of nonracism. The typical human being in America today is astonishingly less racist than their parents or grandparents were. Wherever we’re looking for this explanation about why people disagree politically and why they’re having trouble communicating, the answer can’t just be race. We can’t just keep coming back to that, because all the trends are in the other direction.

Katherine, thank you for talking. I certainly feel that everything I said was right, and I’m feeling very smug.

Yeah, I know. I can tell.

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Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.