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Is Liberals’ Vanity Stronger Than Their Misery?

Lena Dunham, going to a Hillary rally in October (JStone/Shutterstock)

A reader writes:

So this is really happening:


The New Republic says Clinton failed because nobody cares about Katy Perry and Lena Dunham, and they just want MORE progressive policies. Minimum wage!

The article seems to say that the only thing wrong with the Democrats’ appeal is that it wasn’t more economically based. While there is a lot of truth to that, it leaves unaddressed the possibility that the multicultural identity politics that liberals suck on like crack pipes had a lot to do with their loss.

The reader comments:

Maybe she’s right about the economic security. But she doesn’t even consider that there might be tension between the goals of economic and cultural progressivism. That you can be FOR a higher minimum wage but AGAINST wangs in the girls locker room. And that some people might choose to forego the wangs even if it means foregoing the wage.

The worldview is so obvious to them that they cannot even imagine that union members might object to mass, unfettered, low skill immigration on logical grounds. And it cannot imagine seeking such voters because they are guilty of the only sin there is: BIIIGGGOOTTT!!!

Because to even consider the question is to commit that sin themselves.

Seems to me that they forced conservatives to collapse on marriage, but then moved all too quickly to the trans thing, insisting against all logic that these are exactly the same, even though many in the LGBT community don’t see it that way. Worse, they forced all legitimate questions into the closet, then were shocked when people chose to lie to pollsters rather that risking cultural pariah status.

And now, their solution is… more progressivism!!

Trans is to Obamaism what tax cuts became for Reaganism.

Legit issue! But when you refuse to accept victory and demand annihilation instead, you get Trump instead. Just like Reaganites spawned Obama.

This clip from the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving America has been going around. I found it in Jedediah Purdy’s new piece in Jacobin, but it’s been bouncing around all year in various versions:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

There are two interesting things about this passage. The first, obviously, is Rorty’s foresight (which is to say, Luttwak’s) about wages, outsourcing, and politics. The second is Rorty’s moralistic blindness about cultural issues. He reminds me here of those rightist nuts who couldn’t tell the difference between Obamaism and Marxism. This is not analysis on Rorty’s part; it’s hysteria. Thing is, Rorty was not a talk-radio ranter, but one of the most influential American philosophers of the second half of the 20th century. Roger Scruton’s summary of Rorty’s legacy is revealing:

Undoubtedly he was the most lucid of the postmodernist philosophers – though that is, given the competition, no great achievement. And undoubtedly he added, in his thoughts about contingency and irony, a real insight into a peculiarly postmodern way of thinking. However I believe that the concept of truth is fundamental to human discourse, that it is the precondition of any genuine dialogue, and that real respect for other people requires an even greater respect for truth. I therefore cannot go along with what seems to me, whenever I encounter it, to be a wholly specious and even cheap way of arguing, which Rorty typified and indeed perfected. Rorty was paramount among those thinkers who advance their own opinion as immune to criticism, by pretending that it is not truth but consensus that counts, while defining the consensus in terms of people like themselves.

What it reveals is the sanctimony with which many liberals cloak their epistemic closure on cultural issues. It never seems to occur to people like Rorty that people who disagree with them on cultural matters might be anything other than bigots. It leads them to assume, completely without warrant, that America is a seething cauldron of hatred kept from boiling over only by a heavy lid controlled by the sure hand of liberal authority. When they construe the rest of the world in that way, they cannot help but misread it, and impute evil to those who don’t share their strict views. They end up only having a conversation with themselves, because they have so stigmatized anyone to their right that they both don’t want to listen, and make the price of dissent so high that dissenters end up keeping their mouths shut for fear of losing their jobs or their positions.

On this point, Frank Rich Bruni (of all people!) is one liberal who seems willing to take a lesson from this week’s stunning vote:

Other factors conspired in the party’s debacle. One in particular haunts me. From the presidential race on down, Democrats adopted a strategy of inclusiveness that excluded a hefty share of Americans and consigned many to a “basket of deplorables” who aren’t all deplorable. Some are hurt. Some are confused.

Liberals miss this by being illiberal. They shame not just the racists and sexists who deserve it but all who disagree. A 64-year-old Southern woman not onboard with marriage equality finds herself characterized as a hateful boob. Never mind that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton weren’t themselves onboard just five short years ago.

Political correctness has morphed into a moral purity that may feel exhilarating but isn’t remotely tactical. It’s a handmaiden to smugness and sanctimony, undermining its own goals.

I worry about my and my colleagues’ culpability along these lines. I plan to use greater care in how I talk to and about Americans more culturally conservative than I am. That’s not a surrender of principle or passion. It’s a grown-up acknowledgment that we’re a messy, imperfect species.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has documented that conservatives understand the liberal mind better than liberals understand the conservative mind. The basic reason is that liberals generally interpret all moral action in terms of Care and Fairness. Thus when conservatives think or behave in ways that violate what liberals believe is the Caring and Fair thing to have done, they can only figure that this is because conservatives Don’t Care and Aren’t Fair. In fact, Haidt says, there are other things going on in conservative moral reasoning, but liberals who strictly adhere to the Care/Fairness standards blind themselves to them.

This week’s vote shows what can happen when you do that. Robby Soave, a young editor at Reason magazine, showed no mercy in laying into the politically correct for Trump’s victory. Excerpts:

The segment of the electorate who flocked to Trump because he positioned himself as “an icon of irreverent resistance to political correctness” think it means this: smug, entitled, elitist, privileged leftists jumping down the throats of ordinary folks who aren’t up-to-date on the latest requirements of progressive society.

Example: A lot of people think there are only two genders—boy and girl. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe they should change that view. Maybe it’s insensitive to the trans community. Maybe it even flies in the face of modern social psychology. But people think it. Political correctness is the social force that holds them in contempt for that, or punishes them outright.

If you’re a leftist reading this, you probably think that’s stupid. You probably can’t understand why someone would get so bent out of shape about being told their words are hurtful. You probably think it’s not a big deal and these people need to get over themselves. Who’s the delicate snowflake now, huh? you’re probably thinking. I’m telling you: your failure to acknowledge this miscalculation and adjust your approach has delivered the country to Trump.


This is akin to the political-correctness-run-amok problem: both are examples of the left’s horrible over-reach during the Obama years. The leftist drive to enforce a progressive social vision was relentless, and it happened too fast. I don’t say this because I’m opposed to that vision—like most members of the under-30 crowd, I have no problem with gender neutral pronouns—I say this because it inspired a backlash that gave us Trump.

My liberal critics rolled their eyes when I complained about political correctness. I hope they see things a little more clearly now. The left sorted everyone into identity groups and then told the people in the poorly-educated-white-male identity group that that’s the only bad one. It mocked the members of this group mercilessly. It punished them for not being woke enough. It called them racists. It said their video games were sexist. It deployed Lena Dunham to tell them how horrible they were. Lena Dunham!

Soave goes on to say that Trump appealed to lots of people who were told by the left that they didn’t have a right to speak their minds, because he was not afraid to speak his. Read the entire Soave column. It’s important.

It’s hard to know whether there will be much soul searching within left-wing institutions around this question, and subsequent reform. This remarkable post-election editorial in the Harvard Crimsoncalling for on the university to make “ideological diversity” a priority is a welcome sign. I can’t help being skeptical of the imaginative capabilities of most liberal institutions, though. Universities, newspapers, and political parties are not churches, but the people who run them think of them as institutional forms of secular religion (though the last people in the world to realize that are their leaders). Forgive the irony of this analogy, then, but the liberal clerisy has just had a political version of the Ninety-Five Theses nailed to their wooden backsides by the American voter.

One last thing: don’t be fooled by the fact that the GOP is triumphant today. This is not the GOP of the Bush family and the Republican establishment. Trump destroyed that, and he was able to do so because it had rotted from within — mostly because its own religiously-held ideology blinded it to the discontent its policies caused for many of the people within its own base. And don’t be fooled by the fact that the candidate supported by many on the old Religious Right is going to be president. Donald Trump is not a moral or religious conservative, did not campaign as one, and is not likely to govern as one. The Religious Right did not win the culture war. To be opposed to political correctness is not the same thing as being a social conservative. Trump is right-wing, which is not the same thing as conservatism. Milo Yiannopoulos is the real face of Trumpism. Ralph Reed and all the old school Religious Right folks are just along for the ride, whether they know it or not.

It all goes back to the wisdom spoken by Don Fabrizio in The Leopard, about his countrymen: “The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery… .”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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