I know many liberals, and two of them really are my best friends. Their idealism has been an inspiration for me and many others. Many liberals are very smart. But they are not as smart, or as persuasive, as they think.
And a backlash against liberals – a backlash that most liberals don’t seem to realize they’re causing – is going to get President Trump re-elected.
Liberals dominate the entertainment industry, many of the most influential news sources and America’s universities. This means that people with progressive leanings are everywhere in the public eye – and are also on the college campuses attended by many people’s children or grandkids. These platforms come with a lot of power to express values, confer credibility and celebrity and start national conversations that others really can’t ignore.
Consider some ways liberals have used their cultural prominence in recent years. They have rightly become more sensitive to racism and sexism in American society. News reports, academic commentary and movies now regularly relate accounts of racism in American history and condemn racial bigotry. These exercises in consciousness-raising and criticism have surely nudged some Americans to rethink their views, and to reflect more deeply on the status and experience of women and members of minority groups in this country.
But accusers can paint with very wide brushes. Racist is pretty much the most damning label that can be slapped on anyone in America today, which means it should be applied firmly and carefully. Yet some people have cavalierly leveled the charge against huge numbers of Americans – specifically, the more than 60 million people who voted for Trump.
In their ranks are people who sincerely consider themselves not bigoted, who might be open to reconsidering ways they have done things for years, but who are likely to be put off if they feel smeared before that conversation even takes place.
It doesn’t help that our cultural mores are changing rapidly, and we rarely stop to consider this. Some liberals have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.
This judgmental tendency became stronger during the administration of President Barack Obama, though not necessarily because of anything Obama did. Feeling increasingly emboldened, liberals were more convinced than ever that conservatives were their intellectual and even moral inferiors. Discourses and theories once confined to academia were transmitted into workaday liberal political thinking, and college campuses seemed increasingly intolerant of free inquiry.
These are the sorts of events conservatives think of when they sometimes say, “Obama caused Trump.” Many liberals might interpret that phrase to mean that America’s first black president brought out the worst in some people. In this view, not only might liberals be unable to avoid provoking bigots, it’s not clear they should even try.
This is a limited view of the situation. Even if liberals think their opponents are backward, they don’t have to gratuitously drive people away, including voters who cast ballots once or even twice for Obama before supporting Trump in 2016.
Champions of inclusion can watch what they say and explain what they’re doing without presuming to regulate what words come out of other people’s mouths. Campus activists can allow invited visitors to speak and then, after that event, hold a teach-in discussing what they disagree with.
People determined to stand against racism can raise concerns about groups that espouse hate and other problems without smearing huge numbers of Americans.
Liberals can act as if they’re not so certain that bigotry motivates people who disagree with them on issues like immigration. Without sacrificing their principles, liberals can come across as more respectful of others.
When liberals use their positions in American culture to lecture, judge and disdain, they push more people into an opposing coalition that liberals are increasingly prone to think of as deplorable. That only validates their own worst prejudices about the other America. Those prejudices will be validated even more if Trump wins re-election in 2020, especially if he wins a popular majority.
Liberals are inadvertently making that outcome more likely. It’s not too late to stop.
Gerard Alexander is an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.