There is a smug style in American liberalism. 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 — not really — but by the failure of half the country to know what's good for them.
In 2016, the smug style has found expression in media and in policy, in the attitudes of liberals both visible and private, providing a foundational set of assumptions above which a great number of liberals comport their understanding of the world.
It has led an American ideology hitherto responsible for a great share of the good accomplished over the past century of our political life to a posture of reaction and disrespect: a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason.
The smug style is a psychological reaction to a profound shift in American political demography.
Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, the working class, once the core of the coalition, began abandoning the Democratic Party. In 1948, in the immediate wake of Franklin Roosevelt, 66 percent of manual laborers voted for Democrats, along with 60 percent of farmers. In 1964, it was 55 percent of working-class voters. By 1980, it was 35 percent.
The white working class in particular saw even sharper declines. Despite historic advantages with both poor and middle-class white voters, by 2012 Democrats possessed only a 2-point advantage among poor white voters. Among white voters making between $30,000 and $75,000 per year, the GOP has taken a 17-point lead.
Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt
The consequence was a shift in liberalism's intellectual center of gravity. 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. Minority voters remained, but 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.
It is not that these forces captured the party so much as it fell to them. When the laborer left, they remained.
The origins of this shift are overdetermined. Richard Nixon bears a large part of the blame, but so does Bill Clinton. The Southern Strategy, yes, but the destruction of labor unions, too. I have my own sympathies, but I do not propose to adjudicate that question here.
Suffice it to say, by the 1990s the better part of the working class wanted nothing to do with the word liberal. What remained of the American progressive elite was left to puzzle: What happened to our coalition?
Why did they abandon us?
What's the matter with Kansas?
The smug style arose to answer these questions. It provided an answer so simple and so emotionally satisfying that its success was perhaps inevitable: the theory that conservatism, and particularly the kind embraced by those out there in the country, was not a political ideology at all.
The trouble is that stupid hicks don't know what's good for them. They're getting conned by right-wingers and tent revivalists until they believe all the lies that've made them so wrong. They don't know any better. That's why they're voting against their own self-interest.
As anybody who has gone through a particularly nasty breakup knows, disdain cultivated in the aftermath of a divide quickly exceeds the original grievance. You lose somebody. You blame them. Soon, the blame is reason enough to keep them at a distance, the excuse to drive them even further away.
Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Financial incentive compounded this tendency — there is money, after all, in reassuring the bitter. Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style. It began in humor, and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that its opponents were, before anything else, stupid. The smug liberal found relief in ridiculing them.
The internet only made it worse. Today, a liberal who finds himself troubled by the currents of contemporary political life need look no further than his Facebook newsfeed to find the explanation:
Liberals are better able to process new information; they're less biased like that. They've got different brains. Better ones. Why? Evolution. They've got better brains, top-notch amygdalae, science finds.
The smug style created a feedback loop. If the trouble with conservatives was ignorance, then the liberal impulse was to correct it. When such corrections failed, disdain followed after it.