You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Elitism Is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem

There are plenty of non-deplorables in middle America. The Democrats need to learn how to embrace them.

Illustration by Jasu Hu

So here we are, finally past the hundred-day mark. What we’ve learned about the president is self-evident—that the weight of the office has not changed him, and will not change him. What we’ve learned about the Republican Party and conservatism is unsurprising—that they’ve sold their souls to a demagogue, and will continue to do so. (Until his behavior threatens to cost them their majority.) But what exactly have we learned about liberalism, in defeat?

One salutary thing: Liberals are fighting in a way we haven’t seen in our lifetime. From the Senate, where Democrats held the line on the Neil Gorsuch filibuster, to the House, where they stood firm on Obamacare repeal, to the streets, where people have made clear their determination to stand up and be counted, the opposition is behaving like an opposition.

But there’s one thing a lot of elite liberals haven’t gotten around to dealing with yet: They haven’t made their peace with middle America. Which is a pretty big deal, given that middle America is extremely large, and encompasses most of the country, and generally determines the outcomes of most presidential elections.

Before I go further, let me announce that I myself am an elite liberal. I tick all the major boxes. I’m not religious. I have few Republican friends. I have deeply conflicted feelings about patriotism. I would never consider living anywhere other than a major city, or at the very least a liberal university town where the odds are slim that I would end up next door to an actual racist. So if I’m hectoring anyone here, I’m hectoring a group that includes me.

I think a lot of liberals in places like New York, Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are too suspicious of middle America. I thought this long before Trump came along, although he brought a new urgency to the task of making peace with those who live beyond our deep-blue enclaves. On Election Night, many liberal opinion-makers who live on the coasts looked at the electoral map with horror: How could those people? Who are those people?

I did, too. Some days I still do. And I understood the need for the post-election “was it racism or was it economics?” debate. It’s essential that we explore the reasons for our defeat. But at a certain point—a point we reached weeks ago—the debate stopped being a debate and became little more than an ideological standoff, a kind of purity test.

Each side is supported by a set of assumptions that brings it a measure of emotional reassurance. Those inclined to blame racism take a dark view of middle America; they’re often accused, by those on the other side of the partisan divide, of being too sheltered, too politically correct, too obsessed with identity politics. Those who argue it was mostly economics are implicitly saying that, the horrors of a Trump presidency notwithstanding, the electoral situation isn’t really all that bad, that those people aren’t really all that bad; they’re typically accused by the other side of being soft on racism, or even racist themselves.

There’s merit to both arguments. But I’m mostly on the side that finds the entire debate pulverizingly counterproductive. Some of Trump’s vote was down to racism, some to economic anxiety. Do we really need to assign percentages to each? That’s the seduction of Twitter, and the folly of those who need to win Twitter arguments. All we need to know is this: Some percentage of Trump’s voters are people whose support no self-respecting Democrat would want. But some percentage of them aren’t. We can even put a ballpark number on it: We’ve learned that 9 percent of Barack Obama’s voters flipped to Trump, including 22 percent of Obama’s non–college educated white voters.

That’s what matters most. There are plenty of non-deplorables out there.

This is the point at which columns like this usually start rattling off policies that will appeal to voters in middle America. But we already know those policies, from affordable health care to tougher Wall Street regulation. They’re all fine.

The issue of elite liberal suspicion of middle America has nothing to do with policy. It has to do with the mindsets of our two broad ideological factions.

It has been observed that today’s conservative movement, to use the old Leninist vernacular, is a “vanguardist” movement. The word referred to the revolutionary party, the one that was going to make the revolution happen. (Its weak-kneed counterparts were the “spontaneists,” who were going to sit around and wait for it to happen, being alert to the moment.) Some conservatives welcomed the comparison. In Blinded by the Right, David Brock reports that Grover Norquist had a portrait of Lenin in his home.

A movement intent on hastening the revolution develops certain habits of mind. It has enemies, to be sure. But it knows that it’s an embattled minority, so it welcomes new recruits, as long as they agree on some basic principles. That’s why every liberal who abandons liberalism to join the right—from the Irving Kristol neocons of days gone by, to David Mamet and Donald Trump—is joyously embraced. So you’ve finally seen the light! Welcome!

American liberalism is, of necessity, anti-vanguardist. It is counterrevolutionary, since liberals know well that the only revolution that stands a chance of taking hold in this country is a right-wing one. At the same time, elite liberals are regularly being smacked around by a left that is stronger and more confident than it has been in 40 years.

As an anti-vanguardist movement, liberalism thinks very differently than its conservative opponents do. In trying to protect its territory against insurgencies on both the right and left, it becomes defensive and distrustful. Whereas the vanguardist movement that won is on the prowl for new comrades, the anti-vanguardist movement that lost is looking for people to blame. It’s not plotting a revolution. It’s rehashing year-old fights.

I read a line not long ago—I wish I could remember where—that went something like this: You could put a bunch of conservatives in one room and a group of liberals in another and present each with a list of 100 items. If both groups came to agreement on only three things, the conservatives would emerge boasting that they’d reached three triumphant points of agreement. The liberals would come out grousing that they were hopelessly deadlocked on 97 points.

This glass-half-empty mindset must change, and it must change most dramatically with respect to how elite liberals view the rest of the country. There are plenty of liberals out there in middle America, and plenty of liberalish moderates, and plenty of people who lean conservative but who aren’t consumed by rage and who think Barack Obama is a pretty cool guy and who might even have voted for him. These people are potential allies. But before the alliance can be struck, elite liberals need to recognize a fundamental truth: All of these people in middle America, even the actual liberals, have very different sensibilities than elite liberals who live on the coasts.

First of all, middle Americans go to church. Not temple. Church. God and Jesus Christ play important roles in their lives. Elite liberals are fine with expressions of faith among African Americans and Latinos, but we often seem to assume that white people who are religious are conservative. It’s not remotely the case.

Second, politics simply doesn’t consume middle Americans the way it does elites on the coasts. Many of these people have lots of friends—and sometimes even spouses—who are Republicans. They don’t sit around and watch MSNBC and talk politics. They talk kids, and local gossip, and pop culture, and sports. They don’t have a position on every issue, and they think Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for partisan rancor and congressional gridlock.

Third, their daily lives are pretty different from the lives of elite liberals. Few of them buy fair trade coffee or organic almond milk. Some of them served in the armed forces. Some of them own guns, and like to shoot them and teach their kids how to shoot them. Some of them hold jobs in the service of global capital and feel proud of their work.

Fourth, they’re patriotic in the way that most Americans are patriotic. They don’t feel self-conscious saluting the flag. They don’t like it when people bad-mouth our country. They believe that America is mostly good, and that the rest of the world should look more like America.

We need to recognize that in vast stretches of this country, hewing to these positions doesn’t make someone a conservative. We also need to recognize that in many places, being a nonconservative can be hard. At best, your friends poke fun at you. At worst, some nail-spitting maniac tries to run you off the road because of your Hillary bumper sticker. Living in Dayton or Des Moines is just not the same as living in Brooklyn or Belltown.

I would go so far as to say that this chasm between elite liberals and middle America is liberalism’s biggest problem. It’s how we isolate ourselves. It’s one of the reasons a lot of middle Americans didn’t vote for Hillary. And bridging the gulf is on us, not them. It requires that we accept certain realities. A person can still be “on the team” even if they think the minimum wage should be raised only to $10, or don’t consider the placement of the crèche on the courthouse square for two weeks in December a constitutional crisis, or haven’t yet figured out how they feel about transgender bathrooms. If we don’t find a way to welcome them, they’ll go to the other side. That isn’t how majorities are built. Unfortunately, it’s how elections are lost.