I have to be a little skeptical of Emmett Rensin’s essay on “The Smug Style in American Liberalism” because it captures almost exactly how I feel. I’m tempted to offer some pithy quote and say “read the whole thing.” But that’s boring. Instead, I’ll offer three counterpoints to his piece. Rensin attributes too much power to the style. Rensin’s evidence is dangerously anecdotal. Rensins does not sufficiently acknowledge competing “smug styles.”

Rensin’s argument.

Since the end of World War II and especially since the 1960s, liberals in the United States have increasingly adopted what Rensin calls a “smug style” that turns off people who might otherwise be inclined to support liberals’ programs. This smug style is found when liberals insist they know better than those who might disagree with them on any number of issues or policies. This “knowing better” specifically targets the white working class, according to Rensin. Disagreement with putatively liberal policies stems at best from an undue attachment to less important concerns like “guns and religion” and at worst from base motivations like racism or sexism.

Counterpoint No. 1: Too much power to the style.

For the most part, Rensin is discussing a style and not a substance. It’s not so much what liberals advocate as it is how they go about it. “I am not suggesting,” he says, that liberals “compromise their issues for the sake of playing nice.” He’s more concerned about the role smugness plays in alienating potential allies.

Still he hints that smugness leads to the adoption of harmful policies. He claims that “open disdain for the people they [liberals] say they want to help has led them to stop helping those people, too.” However, he doesn’t elaborate on what this means on a practical level.

I therefore wonder if he–and I–perhaps assign too much power to the “smug” style as a style. Even though I can think of specific policies–even policies I support like Obamacare–that in some ways hurt workers, at some point we have to leave off pointing out smugness and engage in accounting for why and how those policies are harmful.

Counterpoint No. 2: Rensin’s evidence is of necessity anecdotal.

With a couple exceptions, Rensin wisely eschews psychoanalyzing liberals’ latte-drinking inner demons. He focuses instead on what liberals say or what is said in favor of causes liberals presumably support. His examples are many, taken from Facebook and Twitter feeds, excerpts from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and other venues.

All to the good for his argument. But the anecdotal nature of his evidence limits what he–and we–can say about liberals’ smug style. First, there’s the problem that what is smug for me may not be smug for ye. Sometimes a joke is just a joke and a barb is just a barb. (And for the record while I can’t stand Stewart’s schtick, I really enjoyed watching the Colbert Report, which is even more unrelenting in its critique of a certain brand of American conservatism.)

More important, we see what some people say on Facebook, but not how those same people interact with others in real life. We see what Stewart does and guess to whom his jokes are meant to appeal, but we don’t see the other things the audience laughs at or how they act when they’re not consuming his brand of entertainment.

Rensin’s argument almost has to be anecdotal. It’s not wrong for being anecdotal. And it’s hard in any systematic way to get at what he’s trying to get at. But we–especially those of us inclined to agree with him–should beware of how far we’re taking the evidence.

Counterpoint no. 3: Other styles compete with liberals’ “smugness.”

Early in the essay, Rensin says, “Of course, there is a smug style in every political movement: elitism among every ideology believing itself in possession of the solutions to society’s ills.” But he mostly lets that recognition drop right there. He quickly redirects the reader to liberal smugness: “few movements have let the smug tendency so corrupt them, or make so tenuous its case against its enemies” as American liberalism.

But let’s dwell a little more on the “smug style in every political movement: elitism among every ideology….”

There’s a libertarian smugness, often called glibness or glibertarianism. While I’m not a libertarian, one libertarian-lite policy I have endorsed is a good example of this. I once advanced the opinion that when considering wages and hours regulations (but not health and safety regulations), I prefer the policy that creates more jobs, if bad ones, to the policy that creates fewer jobs, if better paying ones. While I insist I adopted that position out of sincere concern for people less fortunate than me, I can certainly see how someone who works at or near minimum wage would see my position as smug or glib. At any rate, I’m not going to offer my opinion, especially when it’s unsolicited, to the many service workers I encounter. And if I did offer the opinion, I would be inclined to do so apologetically and in the spirit that I don’t really know what their life is like.

Adherents to non-libertarian conservatism can exhibit “styles” that approach something we can call smugness.

Two examples. One: We’ve all heard the “hate the sin, love the sinner” aphorism. On one level it’s offered, I submit, sincerely, in the belief that we all sin and fall short of the glory and that persistence in sin is detrimental to one’s well-being, perhaps more akin to a sickness deserving compassion than to a crime deserving sanction. But alas, as a slogan it has often accompanied attempts to promote “gay conversion therapy” or to deny the right to same sex marriage.

Two: We don’t have to go back too far to remember that voicing skepticism about the 2003 Iraq invasion signaled to some people that one was at best naive or worse, less than patriotic or supported terrorism. The opponents to the war gave their (sometimes inexcusable) tit to the neo-cons’ tat, but that element from the pro-war side was real, too.

Do religious posturing against gays and pro-war patriotism-baiting count as “smugness”? I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a brand of “knowing better” and dismissing dissenting views similar to the smug style Rensin describes.

But seriously, “read the whole thing.”

As I said above, I agree with Rensin. I don’t do so grudgingly, but gladly. He’s got it right. He uses evidence and logic to come to a conclusion that works for me and that I was inclined to accept in the first place. Therefore on one level, you might read this long post merely as an exercise in finding holes in another person’s argument. And frankly, Rensin could not have addressed my points and still written something readable.

But on another level, I do think those of us most eager to find a “smug style” among American liberals need to consider why the very smugsters we criticize might take exception. The goal isn’t only to win, to see our side through to its notion of the good and the just. It’s also to understand and live with each other because in my view that is part of the good and the just as well.

Category: Newsroom, Statehouse

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4 Responses to Counterpoints to Rensin’s Smug Style in American liberalism

  1. Michael Drew says:

    There was a moment in the blogosphere when this essay came out when everyone was trying to define exactly what smug is – and, importantly to them – isn’t. That was a really dumb moment.

    I’m glad to see someone point out that there are lots of smugnesses, and it’s pretty easy to find oneself in one of them, in fact hard to avoid. That makes it kind of not the end of the world, but it’s still unfortunate when it occurs. And as you suggest, just as trying to avoid smugness is an exercise in trying to understand people across the ideological divides, so too is accounting for and forgiveness of it when we think we see it in others across those divides. Likely we’ve all been guilty of smugness in the service of our own values.

  2. Thanks, Michael. That’s largely what I was going for.

  3. Joe Sal says:

    Good work Gabriel.

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