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Anatomy of a Canard: “The Condescending Liberal”

Posted by Peter M. Shane on March 5, 2010

I once read that the smartest smear tactic in politics is to accuse someone else of your worst fault. Hence, among the canards thrown at liberals, one I have especially hated is how the left is so elitist and condescending towards people who disagree with them.

In an especially pristine version of this thesis, University of Virginia Professor Gerard Alexander recently took to The Washington Post to assert — based largely on his tendentious readings of books with which he disagrees: “American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration.”

Professor Alexander was kind enough to concede, “Every political community includes some members who insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots.” I will make the same concession for my camp.

But, for two reasons, I still hate his argument. First, in terms of demonizing those who disagree with them, the left can hardly compete with the vitriolic right. Liz Cheney’s current campaign to disparage the patriotism of Justice Department lawyers who offered volunteer legal services to Guantanamo detainees is but the most vile current example. To put the point another way, are there days of the week when Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and their acolytes are not encouraging their audiences — through name-calling, ridicule, innuendo and paranoia — to dismiss liberal positions as “illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration?”

But, even worse, it has always struck me that that no one is more condescending to conservatives than the demagogues actually hoping to lead their parade. It has always seemed to me that their customary appeals to fear, animosity, and reactionary instinct were an implicit insult to the collective intelligence of their intended audience. Otherwise, why not appeal to reason? Why not open yourself to actual debate? (William Buckley anyone?)

But, I have despaired, how might I ever persuade anyone on the right that their demagogues really were hoping to prey on their fears, animosities, and reactionary instincts? And so, I want to thank the Republican National Committee for its recent presentation on GOP fundraising. Right there in the presentation, Slide 29 to be exact, the RNC Fund-Raising Committee identifies the precise triggers to pull in order to motivate GOP donations through direct marketing. They are “Fear, ” “Extreme Negative Feelings Toward Existing Administration,” “Issue/Circumstantially Oriented,” and “Reactionary.” What I suspected to be true is now official GOP fund-raising doctrine!

So, Professor Alexander, let me say two things. First, I doubt that liberals are any more likely than conservatives to think that those who disagree with them are idiots. But second, I am certain that liberals do not regard as idiots those who are actually in their camp. That distinction apparently belongs to your “political community.”

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