Liberal elitism in the aftermath of the 2016 election: what’s to be done, now that the fight has been lost?

Like any election night, November 8, 2016 was a powerful time. But as we saw, tensions were running high throughout 2016 between the sides of the aisle, and November 8 was the climax of all that fighting. To some people, it was the end of the world; to others, it was the most important political victory possibly ever.

In the weeks that followed the election, analysts and journalists took to the Internet trying to understand how things played out the way they did. Democrats (and some Republicans alike) wondered: how did we lose? Wasn’t it a shoe-in? Where did all these Trump supporters come from? Many finally turned their minds to the question of who these people were that they voted this way, though it was certainly not the first time anyone had bothered to ask. The idea of liberal elitism is and was vital to this conversation, this conversation that was portended by so many authors so many months before.

Jaja Liao, writing for Huffington Post, provides a good segue into this line of thought with her piece “The Hypocrisy Of The Liberal Elite,” published a week after the election. She describes herself and her friends as as “the epitome of the ‘liberal elites’ that Trump supporters hate so much” and talks about the shock and anger she observed among her peers the night of the election, as “the map turned redder and redder.” But over the next few days, she notes, the tune of her social media changed: “People were still posting links to petitions and protest events, but they also started posting statuses that were hopeful, ones along the lines of ‘it will be ok.’ By the time the weekend rolled around, my newsfeed had evolved into a third phase— Hillary supporters urging everyone to ‘engage in conversations with the other side’ in order to ‘understand Trump supporters.’”

“I found this third wave of posts ironic,” Liao says. She goes on to tell of how she spent time prior to the election trying to understand the mindset of Trump’s supporters, trying to figure out why they were rallying around this man. She calls for her liberal peers to “walk out of our echo chambers” and try to engage in constructive dialogue with the people they disagree with, to try to bust down the presently constricting role of ‘liberal elite’ and move towards an understanding of the opposition.

At the same time, several people writing in to The Atlantic engaged in a dialogue moderated by Chris Bodenner; reader Jon, for one, speaks of his time growing up in “the boonies” of New Jersey. He conceptualizes the Trump voter as looking for “a collective middle finger to The City [and the urban liberalism lying within]” and sympathizing, to a degree. But he also says that “part of me wants to respond with a middle finger of my own. And I’m afraid it feeds right into the narrative of urban snobbery and elitism we’ve been hearing about.” In so many words, Jon outlines his frustration with this idea of a Trump voter who is looking for a way to get back at the system that has supposedly been neglecting them and their needs. Essentially, he says, I did what you’re supposed to—work hard, make it big, live the good life. I didn’t have connections or rich parents or anything. I made the American Dream happen. Why can’t you, who claim to prostrate yourselves before it? Reader Susan replies, raising several issues with Jon’s perspective—first and foremost, why should success only be possible in the city? She also questions whether ‘making it’ is possible for most people, citing rising college and healthcare costs and a lack of retirement pensions as major blows against the lower middle class Jon claims to be speaking to. Other readers go on to dispute Susan’s evidence while acknowledging her frustrations as valid, but she gets the final word, saying: “I understand why people voted for Trump; they are hoping that maybe, just maybe, he won’t be a politician.”

This hints at the greater picture of liberal elitism, or at least the real tensions at play. On one side, as Emmett Rensin said all the way back in April 2016, you have the smug liberal, who sees their position as the natural and inevitable conclusion of accepting a series of natural, inevitable, independently verifiable facts. There is no discussion to be had. On the other side, you have the righteously angry…populist? Conservative? Trump voter? It’s hard to say—who sees the change and asks what their place is in the new order, or else sees the place they’ve been given as lacking. They look towards Washington and ask how we’re all still putting up with the ‘swamp’ that needs to be ‘drained,’ as Trump has put it.

The problem here, it seems to me, is that these two imaginary people aren’t talking or thinking about even remotely the same thing. They’re speaking fundamentally different languages that have just enough in common to come across to the other as completely backwards. So now I wonder—how do we get people talking about the same thing and in the same way? Alternatively, does this model of the political conversation hold any merit? Is it too biased in one direction or another? Too forgiving, or too damning?

Liberal elitism as discussed in early 2016: does it exist, and if so, in what form?

Throughout 2016, both preceding the U.S. presidential election and subsequently, countless op-eds spilled from a variety of journalistic outlets—ranging across the political spectrum—all focused on a single idea: a pervasive elitism infecting the American left. Conservatives lambasted their counterparts across the aisle, especially after the election, for not recognizing their own flaws, and liberal publications alternatingly confirmed the accusations and denied them viciously, claiming that making such claims was simply passing the buck for a Republican error. That error, of course, being the election of Donald Trump to the office of president.

Regardless of whether Trump’s presidency is a mistake that was allowed to occur or the greatest thing to happen to American politics in a hundred years, though, the conversation surrounding liberal elitism definitely has teeth on both sides. But first, the question must be asked: what does it mean to be part of the liberal elite?

All the way back in April of 2016, long before Trump was even the official Republican nominee, Emmett Rensin wrote an absolutely scathing essay for Vox Media entitled “The smug style in American liberalism.” Rensin posits, with no few words, that the American left has allowed itself to abandon the working class citizens that were once the bread and butter of its supporters, shifting throughout the second half of the 20th century to act more in the interest of urbanites and the university crowd. Rensin also claims that the left has changed the nature of their politics, replacing moral belief with a supposed appeal to what Rensin sardonically terms ‘Good Facts.’

Essentially, Rensin says, the left no longer believes its political opponents are wrong, but rather that they are simply criminally uninformed on the topics at hand. He calls leftism “A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from ‘imposing their morals’ like the bad guys do.” The conclusion of liberal elitists, he says, is that the “dumb hicks” that make up the opposition believe what they do because they’re too dumb to put two and two together and come up with four like anyone in the know would be able to. (Knowing, italicized, is another term Rensin uses often in describing his perspective on how liberals posture themselves above conservatives. They know the Good Facts, so they have the right opinions, because no other conclusion is possible once you know the Good Facts.)

Rensin sounds relatively liberal himself, but minces no words tearing into the ‘smug style’ he finds so disdainful and disrespectful. He takes special care to criticize the social media and journalistic trends that have turned mocking conservatives into something of a sport while simultaneously dismissing claims that it’s all just “private entertainment of elites blowing off some steam,” saying at one point: “Twitter isn’t private. Not that anybody with the sickest burn to accompany the smartest chart would want it to be. Otherwise, how would everyone know how in-the-know you are?”

His conclusion is essentially that regardless of whether the liberals projecting this smug style are actually correct in their worldview or not, approaching the conversation with such a twisted perspective of the other side will only ever create more problems and widen the social gap between political perspectives. He does not ask for liberals to “compromise their issues for the sake of playing nice,” but fears that if not put in check, the smug style will continue to alienate potential allies or beneficiaries of liberal perspectives, will continue to create people with less and less empathy for political others, and will continue to perpetuate itself through need for more people to find disdain for.

Rensin’s definition of “liberal elite,” then, finds that the elite are elite because they smugly believe themselves to be morally superior to their political others, grounded not in belief or creed but in simple facts and logic.

On the other side of the debate, Eric Alterman penned a column for The Nation in May of 2016—a month after Rensin—firing back at conservatives who attempted to blame Donald Trump’s then-recent rise to political legitimacy on liberal media. Alterman described the conservative perspective as demonizing “coastal cultural gatekeepers” in the media, turning them into elitists whose enforcement of the “tyranny of political correctness” was responsible for Trump’s pulling ahead in the primaries.

Alterman concludes that the concept of ‘liberal elitism’ is a simple myth invented by conservatives to foist the blame of architecting Trump’s popularity onto a body of people they already dislike—liberals. From his perspective, conservative fearmongering played easily into the minds of Trump supporters, who Alterman notes—referencing several polls and other articles—to be poorer, white, less educated, and generally “resentful of the recent political and economic gains being made by female and LGBT individuals.” This data does conflict with some more recent information on the demographics of people who actually ended up voting for Trump, but it was definitely a popular view of the body politic supporting Trump in the earlier months of 2016.

Countless other authors made their voices heard across a variety of publications, each offering their own perspective on what exactly liberal elitism is and what it entails—or whether or not it exists at all. I will continue to investigate this pattern of trending thoughts in subsequent blogs, but for now: what do you think of the basic premise? Is liberal elitism real, or is it an excuse? What of Rensin’s ‘smug style’? Do you feel there are perspectives from the beginning of 2016 that are particularly unheard here?

RE: “The Politics of Media – The Creature They Helped to Create” by Alex Buhler

(In response to this post.)

First and foremost, I agree with Buhler’s assertion that “the all important job of media..[is] bringing the people the most unbiased and even handed [sic] news.” The nature of democracy requires an informed citizenry to perform successfully, and while the United States may be a republic, we clearly espouse and aspire to democratic values.

If we take for granted the the corruption Buhler observes in the American media industry, it becomes obvious that change is necessary; as he notes, the nature of competition has pushed media corporations to focus not on disseminating the information that might best contribute towards the smooth functioning of our democracy but rather on what draws the most viewers. I believe this distinction is not made just in what issues are covered but how some issues are covered at all.

All news takes on what we might call “spin” the second it begins to work its way through a broadcasting firm. The “objective facts” of a situation–knowable or unknowable as they may be–are obscured as humans attempt to find a way to tell a story with the information they’ve been given. Sometimes this spin might even be predetermined and worked towards, if the firm in question feels that a certain perspective is more likely to draw attention to their programs.

Buhler explores whether we have options beyond privatized media focused on turning a profit; he mentions the possibility of a state-run media service, but dismisses it, making comparison to Nazi Germany and the present government of North Korea as evidence that creation of state-run media services will result in the same problems as privatized profit-based media. While I acknowledge his concerns, I do wonder whether a more state-controlled media might not move us towards a more positive political climate.

While an entirely state-owned and state-run media could very well end just as poorly as Buhler suggests, perhaps the state could get involved more…not in creating media, but in slowing it down. If we assume that spun stories are not necessarily the result of malicious intent by their creators, whatever their political views, it follows that perhaps the problem is not which media we consume, but that we consume it at all, at least in the quantities we do. Matthew Baum and Philip Potter note in their analysis of the effects of mass media on public opinion of foreign policy: “Despite a widely held belief in the media’s mission to inform (e.g., Bennett 1997, Patterson 2000), they do not consistently act to remedy the informational inequities in the foreign policy marketplace. Rather, they react in ways that tend to exacerbate the prevailing trend.” Essentially, the media doesn’t work to disseminate all stories, they work to create a narrative surrounding current events.

This narrative can often veer dangerously off course from what one actor or another may consider appropriate or accurate, and public opinion and understanding suffers as a result. So perhaps the solution to the problem is not to replace our media services with something else, but to restrict their purview. Create limits–not on subject matter, as that amounts to state-controlled media, but perhaps on how big media is allowed to get. Indeed, were the media restricted in business size, they would probably find themselves forced to focus on particular topics–narrower channels of discussion might begin to form. If the only sources of information on a topic were dedicated to that topic, misinformation might be harder to come by–generalities would no longer be necessary, and indeed, would no longer be possible, as content would need to be less broad and more deep.

Alternatively, it’s possible that we would simply find ourselves buried in a dozen or a hundred or a thousand small news companies all reporting on the same few stories at the same shallow depth, or find our stations easily manipulated by our government to ends not our own. But I do believe that our news media situation constitutes a problem in need of a solution, and I’m not sure we’ll reach an appropriate fix by thinking along the lines of the solutions of the past. A change of mindset may be required in order to discover the best way of changing the media industry in America for the better.