Today’s stimulus for thought comes from this nicely pointed op-ed from William McGurn:
In the last week or so a flurry of articles have appeared arguing for toning down the looking-down. In the New Republic Michael Tomasky writes under the heading “Elitism Is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem.” Over at the New York Times , Joan C. Williams weighs in with “The Dumb Politics of Elite Condescension.” Slate goes with a Q&A on “advice on how to talk to the white working class without insulting them.” Stanley Greenberg at the American Prospect writes on “The Democrats’ ‘Working-Class Problem,’ ” and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones asks for “Less Liberal Contempt, Please.”
None of these pieces are directed at Trump Nation. To the contrary, they are pitched to progressives still having a hard time coming to grips with The Donald’s victory last November. Much of what these authors write is sensible. But it can also be hilarious, particularly when the effort to explain ordinary Americans to progressive elites reads like a Margaret Mead entry on the exotic habits of the Samoans.
McGurn recognizes the intractability of the fault addressed by the commentators he links:
But the larger progressive dilemma here is that contempt is baked into the identity politics that defines today’s Democratic Party.
McGurn leaves the key insight for the reader to infer, but it’s not really that hard to reach.
So the question becomes: Is there a future for a party or other political body whose principal appeal to prospective members and supporters is its insistence upon its members’ superior wisdom and virtue?
For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. – Thomas Jefferson
Those who attempt to level never equalize. In all societies some description must be uppermost. The levellers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things; they load the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground. – Edmund Burke
“[W]hat democracy needs most of all is a party that will separate the good that is in it theoretically from the evils that beset it practically, and then try to erect that good into a workable system. What it needs beyond everything is a party of liberty. It produces, true enough, occasional libertarians, just as despotism produces occasional regicides, but it treats them in the same drum-head way. It will never have a party of them until it invents and installs a genuine aristocracy, to breed them and secure them.” – Henry Louis Mencken
Everyone has his own notions about what characteristics justify a claim of personal superiority. Lately, the focus has been on political alignments. It hasn’t always been that way. Nor has it always been the aim of perceptive and intelligent men to exalt themselves over others:
Do you feel that you are superior to the Japanese? The truth is that the Japanese consider themselves far superior to you. A conservative Japanese, for example, is infuriated at the sight of a white man dancing with a Japanese lady.
Do you consider yourself superior to the Hindus in India? That is your privilege; but a million Hindus feel so infinitely superior to you that they wouldn’t befoul themselves by condescending to touch food that your heathen shadow had fallen across and contaminated.
Do you feel you are superior to the Eskimos? Again, that is your privilege; but would you really like to know what the Eskimo thinks of you? Well, there are a few native hobos among the Eskimos, worthless bums who refuse to work. The Eskimos call them “white men,” that being their utmost term of contempt….
The unvarnished truth is that almost all the people you meet feel themselves superior to you in some way, and a sure way to their hearts is to let them realize in some subtle way that you recognize their importance, and recognize it sincerely. – Dale Carnegie
“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Only one thing do I know, and that is that I know nothing.” – Socrates
Contrast those three quotes with the ones at the beginning of this segment. Find the key divergence in assumptions. It won’t take you long.
The Left’s divergence is political: Adopt our political stances, they proclaim, and we will certify you as superior to those who do not. As there are many who need to feel superior to others, this has a certain appeal. Its problem is the same as that of coalition politics: it cannot maintain an enduring majority. That, of course, doesn’t quench the need to feel superior among those who flock toward its banner.
As I wrote just yesterday, the Democrats and the activist Left have gone “all in” on their campaign against the Trump Administration, the Republican Party, and the many millions of Americans who remain attached to the conception of America as a free and prosperous commonwealth that looks out for its people and itself above all other considerations. Either their strategists sense an opportunity that won’t come again, or they’ve grown too desperate to wait any longer. In either case, they’ve committed themselves past the political point of no return. If their gamble fails, they’ll spend many decades in the political wilderness. The Democrat Party, in particular might need to “die and be reborn.”
Yet there will always be persons who must feel superior to others. Their actual virtues and capabilities won’t be the foundation of that conviction; far too few persons actually are so much better than others at anything that matters to base a claim of superiority on what they can do. The irony swells when we note the strong correlation between Democrat / Leftist political affiliation and lack of ability and standards.
All the same, those persons will find one another again. “Birds of a feather flock together.” They always have and they always will. When the need to feel superior to others is all that sets them apart from other oxygen wastrels, we may rest assured that it will be their bond. The natural repugnance decent, modest persons feel toward the self-exalting will usually hold them at bay. Men of good will want neither to become commissars nor to be ruled by them – and as counter-intuitive as it may sometimes seem, the great majority of Americans are men of good will.