Dear Mr. Edsall,
Please forgive me if the salutation is too formal. I was brought up in the South to say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” and while I have modernized a bit depending on context, I felt it appropriate in this case to lead with traditional manners.
I’m writing in reference to your op-ed in The New York Times, the latest in a series of pieces in the past 15 months or so alerting “liberals” to our alleged blind spots and biases.
I should say at the outset that I’ve never understood what a “liberal” is, particularly in U.S. politics in my lifetime. To paraphrase Rebecca West, I only know that people call me a “liberal” when I express sentiments that differentiate the less fortunate from doormats or women from prostitutes. I keep hearing that the Democratic Party is going farther and farther “left,” but surely that’s a function of the old conservative “Dixiecrats” finally abandoning a party label that hadn’t made sense since Reconstruction. Social programs that the “conservatives” readily accept in Europe would be considered “socialist” here.
Your piece is frankly a confusing read. At the outset, it appears that “liberals” fail to understand their own role in creating Trumpist populism. Then it veers into a Karen Stenner’s argument about tolerance and inevitable conflict, which frankly struck me as a bit nihilistic. Next up was Eric Schnurer suggesting the “left” is ravaging the manufacturing industry, which I’d think most relatively objective economists would point out is a by-product of a rapidly changing global economy in which technology has revved up productivity. See the frightening headline “Robots Could Steal 40% of U.S. Jobs by 2030.”
The underlying assumption here is that “liberals” clustered in “blue” states lack the capacity or the will to understand Middle America’s concerns. You could probably come up with some evidence of that, sure. I’ve often joked that The Washington Post views everything south and west of the Potomac, even those of us just a few miles away, as a giant experiment in anthropology.
But these “liberals” have made a considerable effort to understand what’s going on, before and especially after last year’s election. Much of that effort has bordered on self-flagellation.
Why? Well, to paraphrase another Southern centrist now labeled “liberal”: “It’s the empathy, stupid.”
It’s also empathy based on a long-term view. You mention “Republican strengths” in your second paragraph, and you include: evisceration of key regulatory policies, economic growth, the Dow Jones, the unemployment rate and the new tax plan.
Unfortunately, “liberals” understand that any gain from all of these things is short-lived. Without those regulatory policies, climate change will continue unabated, eventually plunging coastlines underwater. The tax plan forces graduate students to include their tuition waivers as income, effectively reducing access to postgraduate education that would drive future economic growth as the world automates.
It’s too facile to dismiss these concerns as elitist East Coast-ism. If you’ve spent any time in the blue states and cities, you know that a lot of us are from somewhere else. I’m from the South, born and raised to be suspicious of “Yankees” and social programs. I went to summer camp and learned muscular Christianity, in which we would all grow to be good little Christians by beating each other up in preparation for the real world.
As I’ve grown older and moved northward, I’ve realized a few things. First of all, no matter how hard we work, we can’t predict the future and guarantee our financial success. I went into journalism, an industry that has sharply declined thanks to the Internet siphoning away readership and ad dollars. Others went into manufacturing, where their jobs have been lost to automation.
I’ve also realized that these “Yankees” ain’t such bad people. Living in a cold city fosters a mutually reliant community — in short, a sense that we all have to pull together to face whatever difficulty is in front of us. They’re also not ignorant about the rest of the country, in part because many of us are from the rest of the country. I’m not the only Southerner in Northern Virginia. Everybody here is from somewhere else.
And the most “elite” of these Yankees, you’ll note, are voting against their self-interests. Does a “limousine liberal” benefit from the GOP tax plan? Most definitely. And they’re not the ones who’ll lose access to health care. They’re not the ones whose water will be poisoned.
These elite blue-staters are in pain right now not because of what they will experience. They’re in pain because of what others will face.
And they grasp the problems in the red states with greater acuity and greater empathy than the populists.
The populists, you see, are lying. And the blue-states know that.
The blue-staters know that the promises of manufacturing jobs are hollow. They know that today’s young people are emerging into a “gig economy” that leaves them without employer-sponsored health insurance, which means they’re one bad diagnosis away from bankruptcy. They know the populists’ weeping for the decline of traditional moral values is a bunch of poppycock — for goodness’ sake, the Democrats just tossed Al Franken, and Alabama is about to elect Roy Moore.
So while I appreciate your concern for liberals misunderstanding America, may I humbly suggest that what we need instead is better communication so that we Americans are less susceptible to demagogues? The Democrats, quite frankly, need a lot of help doing that.
You see — the problem isn’t with liberals’ ears. It’s with their mouths.
I wouldn’t be a good Southern gentleman (albeit a modernized one) if I didn’t thank you for your time. Thank you for reading.