Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Politics of Condescension

“I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool.”
Those are Republican Representative Allen West’s words, posted by him on the Internet. Liberals in the blogosphere seem to be having a hard time taking them in. Take Charles Lemos: this “bizarre tirade” leaves him wondering "just how demented” West really is:  not “boorish,” mind you, but “demented.”

But why the wonderment and the reflexive reach for an explanation sounding in clinical psychology? It’s not like liberals aren’t used to being insulted by conservatives; liberals get vilified for their lack of patriotism and moral fiber all the time. But moral and civic condescension are one thing, intellectual condescension is something else. Evidently, liberals are unprepared to have their intelligence impugned by a conservative politician.

That’s because it’s so unusual a phenomenon. If you replace “Obama” with “Palin” or “Bachmann,” West’s words would have soundly perfectly natural coming from equally prominent Democratic politicians like Alan Grayson or Anthony Weiner (before he got caught marketing his “package” on the Internet) and any number of liberal pundits. Intellectual condescension toward Republican presidents, and by implication the people foolish enough to support them, is the mother’s milk of liberal political discourse.

Liberals didn’t doubt George W. Bush’s intelligence; they accepted his imbecility as an article of faith. And it’s not as if liberals acquired their flair for intellectual condescension only upon encountering Bush. When they belittled his intelligence, liberals were treating him as the lineal descendent, not just of the blithering father memorably portrayed by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s, but of Ronald Reagan, the “amiable dunce” Clark Clifford ridiculed at Georgetown dinner parties in the 1980s, and Gerald Ford, whom liberals mocked in the 1970s because, as Lyndon Johnson once observed in the 1960s, he’d played too much football without a helmet. Since John Stuart Mill ("Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives."), liberal progressives have been trumpeting the correlation between stupidity and conservatism .

Yet condescending intellectually to liberal presidents, and the people who support them, has never been conservatives' style. If some anonymous senior staffer of a Republican president were commending his boss for “leading from behind,” liberals would be chortling over another symptom of presidential empty-headedness and generously offering to explain to conservatives, slowly without using big words, what “leadership” means. Conservatives instinctively treat Obama’s studious passivity as a sign of his cunning in maneuvering us all down the road to serfdom without most Americans knowing they're being taken for a ride. And, from all appearances, conservatives take it for granted that liberal intellectuals are doing their level best to help.

Liberals react to being called "stupid" about the way that conservatives react to being called "racists."  By calling liberals in general, and Obama in particular, lightweights, West is breaking with conservative demonology and hitting liberals where it hurts them the most. It will be interesting to see if this sort of thing catches on in conservative circles.

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