Neil Buchanan: Liberals Should Stop Flagellating Themselves

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

The 2016 presidential election was almost seven months ago. Why are liberals still so willing to blame themselves—and especially each other—for Trump's narrow victory in the Electoral College?

The narrative that will not die is that "real Americans" abandoned the disdainful, sneering Democrats. Those coastal elites who say and think nasty things about non-latte-drinking regular folk got what was coming to them, we hear over and over again.

And it is not conservatives who are saying those things. It is liberals themselves who are engaged in this orgy of self-doubt and intramural finger-pointing.

To be sure, it is a sign of maturity to be able to consider the possibility that what went wrong was one's own fault. The opposite of introspective doubt is, after all, stubborn self-righteousness—most obviously personified in the orange-hued blowhard who is currently occupying the White House.

But when liberals think about the 2016 results, the now-standard response is to say, "We screwed up. They hate us, and it's our own fault." Again, there is more than a bit about that attitude that is admirable. It also can prevent people from saying, "Well, there was nothing we could have done. So there's nothing that we can do now, either, I guess."

Yes, it is a good thing to be able to look in the mirror and ask tough questions. But that does not mean that people will always give themselves the best answers. Liberals need to stop beating themselves up in order to be able to think clearly about what has happened and what to do next.

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Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton has figured this out. Even less surprisingly, people still want to yell at Hillary Clinton for things that she did not actually say or do.

Clinton's bottom line is quite simply that she and her campaign made a lot of mistakes, but those mistakes are not why she lost. Russia and Comey are explanation enough (as, we should recall, is the press's ridiculous treatment of Clinton throughout her career).

Even so, when Clinton says, "Here are the things that went wrong, here are the ones that I could control, whereas here are the ones that made the difference," what happens? She is faulted by a liberal writer for having "found plenty of non-Hillary Clinton things to blame for her 2016 loss." Sick burn!

Clinton is apparently supposed to have taken a public stance that says, "It's all me. I'm not allowed to blame anyone else, internally or externally. My fault. Sorry." That is not merely imposing an expectation on her that would not be imposed on anyone else, but it conveniently allows liberals to say that even their own supposed sins are really Hillary's fault.

A recent op-ed by a left-leaning law professor in The New York Times was titled: "The Dumb Politics of Elite Condescension." To her credit, the author rightly rejects the idea that "identity politics" was the Democrats' problem last year. She even lays out a decent policy-driven case for winning future elections.

Even so, we quickly learn that the problem with liberals is that we are just so snotty toward working-class people. Examples? The author writes: "We hear talk of 'trailer trash' in 'flyover states' afflicted by 'plumber's butt'— open class insults that pass for wit."

Flagellation-of-saint-jerome
Flagellation of Saint Jerome dated 1476, tempera and gold on panel, Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago

In other words, this is the standard story in which Real Americans are supposedly so fragile that they will vote to put a lying, unqualified, bigoted, sexist threat to the planet in the White House because they cannot bear to be told that their states are uninteresting to outsiders. How is that not a condescending narrative?

I must say that after all these months of reading similar articles by self-flagellating liberals, I continue to be surprised by the mildness of the litany of insults that supposedly motivated Trump's voters. The fact is that adults are much less snowflake-y than many liberals seem to think.

The weirdest part of the op-ed, however, was when the author returned to the theme as follows: "In some cities, a construction boom is hobbled by a lack of plumbers. We might ameliorate this problem if we stopped talking about plumber's butt." Taken literally, that is laughable. Even as an attempt at something that would pass for wit, however, it is simply bizarre.

Perhaps the worst error that liberals continue to make is to reinforce the false narrative about Hillary Clinton's now-infamous comment about the "basket of deplorables" during the campaign. As I noted in the immediate aftermath of that comment, it at first appeared that the phrase would have a limited shelf-life and would soon become one of those phrases that political geeks use knowingly.

Instead, liberals have piled on and reinforced the false narrative that the Trump campaign (especially Mike Pence) used to portray Clinton's comment as proof of liberals' condescension.

For example, that law professor who is oddly obsessed with plumbers' posteriors added this comment: "This condescension affects political campaigns, as in Hillary Clinton's comment about 'deplorables' and Barack Obama's about people who 'cling to guns or religion.'"

Maybe Obama's comment was evidence of condescension, and maybe not. It certainly did not cost him the election. But it is worth reminding ourselves—yet again—that Clinton's comment was in fact the opposite of condescension. In fact, she was doing exactly what her detractors from the left say she should have been doing.

Recall that Clinton coined her memorable phrase when she was trying to explain why Trump's campaign continually bobbed to the surface after multiple times in which it had appeared to have permanently been sunk by yet another of his many gaffes. Why, people had asked Clinton, was she not winning in a landslide?

Clinton sensibly noted that there are some people who are simply beyond reach. And anyone who thinks about this for even a second would understand that she is right. Does anyone really think that, if Clinton had been a more skilled campaigner, Steve Bannon would have decided to vote for her? Rush Limbaugh? Jeff Sessions? Betsy DeVos? The people who think that Clinton killed Vince Foster? The people who deliberately misinterpret the phrase "black lives matter" by pretending that it means " only black lives matter"? Who believe that women who are raped were asking for it?

Clinton thus turned a good phrase and said that there is unfortunately a large group, a basket of deplorables, who are not reasonably part of any Democratic campaign's outreach. This is not because liberals are too elitist, but because there is simply no common ground. If Clinton had tried to campaign in such precincts, she would have been rightly criticized for wasting campaign resources.

But Clinton quite forcefully and clearly said that she did not think that all Trump-leaning voters were beyond reach. She later apologized for calling it a 50-50 split, but given how fiercely the vast majority of Trump's supporters have continued to back him in light of everything that we have seen since November 8, Clinton might if anything have been too generous.

Again, however, the point is that Clinton did not condescend to the other basket of voters. She said—and I emphasize once again that there is no reading between the lines here, because she was as clear as possible about this in her remarks—that she sincerely believed that there were large numbers of Trump-leaning voters who should not be judged harshly and are non-deplorable.

I most definitely do not expect any Trump supporters or Clinton haters to be convinced by what I have written here. Instead, I am writing this to express my astonishment that liberals are so willing to believe bad things about themselves and their candidates that are simply not true.

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As another example, consider a recent op-ed by Roger Cohen, who generally focuses on foreign policy in his writings for The Times . Turning his attention to the U.S. political situation, Cohen expresses concern about people's increasing inability to find common ground. He writes:

This is the chasm to which Fox News, Republican debunking of reason and science, herd-reinforcing social media algorithms, liberal arrogance, rightist bigotry, and an economy of growing inequality have ushered us.

Did you catch that? Wedged in among the list of obviously true explanations for what is happening, he adds "liberal arrogance." At first, I assumed that he had tossed that in as matter of false equivalence, to be able to say, "Well, I didn't only blame conservatives." Instead, he ended up devoting a large section of his column to this idea that liberals are to blame for their own fates.

The liberal complacency that holds that these people simply need to be 'educated' is self-defeating. If that's what the Democratic Party exudes— coastal complacency— it will lose, just like Ms. Clinton did last year.

As Abe Streep, a journalist and writer based in Montana, put it to me: "Nobody's ever been convinced by being made to feel stupid.

So what, exactly, is the lesson for liberals? The reachable people who are voting for Republicans are basing their decisions on fact-free nonsense. It seems to me that voters need to be educated about the facts, and Cohen would appear to agree.

But if a liberal says, "There are more jobs in renewable energy than in fossil fuels, and the trend is entirely in that direction," we are apparently exuding "coastal complacency." If we say, "Trump is lying when he says that immigrants are pouring across the border," we are evidently at fault because the people who believe such lies are "being made to feel stupid."

Yes, obviously there are nice ways and nasty ways to say the same thing. Being nice is nice. But this whole notion that the non-Trump world is filled with a bunch of disdainful prigs is nonsense—or if it is true, the people who are complaining about it are certainly doing a terrible job of proving their case.

On the other hand, maybe I have just made Cohen feel stupid, in which case he can decide that the smart response is to start supporting Trump. But I doubt it.

Similarly, millions of Americans are capable of understanding that they are not at the top of the economic or social heap. The Democrats—most definitely including Hillary Clinton—have advocated policies that would make their lives better, yet many voted for Trump and the Republicans anyway. Some of them are beyond reach. Others are in play.

Liberals are right to try to figure out how to connect with skeptical voters. Democrats are dangerously on the wrong track, however, if they think that they are helping their cause by reinforcing the big lie that liberal condescension is a significant contributor to our political dysfunction.

"Vote for us. We promise to stop doing what we were never actually doing in the first place." Do we really think that this is what will win back voters?

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.

Neil Buchanan: Liberals Should Stop Flagellating Themselves | Opinion