Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

Conservative writer William McGurn piles on the arguments being made by some liberals about elitism on the left. Here is the title and tag line for his latest: “Why Elites Hate: The liberal contempt for middle America is baked into the idea of identity politics.”

Frankly, I’ve about had it with this argument. How is it that the party that can never pass enough tax cuts for the wealthy and is intent on destroying our meager safety net continues to play themselves as the ones who care about the “forgotten man” while casting Democrats as the party of elites? Part of why they are successful with that frame is because so many liberals confirm the second half of the argument. McGurn points with pleasure to recent articles by Michael Tomasky, Joan C. Williams, Stanley Greenberg and Kevin Drum.

Perhaps because I don’t live in a coastal area (which is where Tomasky tells us these elitists live), I don’t see the kind of contempt for white working class Americans these writers keep talking about. As I’ve written previously though, all of these arguments seem to rest on ignoring the fact that an increasing majority of Democrats are people of color—many of whom are also working class Americans. Are we casting them as elitists now?

Let’s take a moment to review a couple of statements by the people McGurn casts as elitists. One is Barack Obama with his infamous line about clinging to god and guns. As a reminder, here is what he said in context.

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

It actually sounds pretty prophetic to me. Or how about that time that Hillary Clinton said something elitist?

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

Then, she continued: “But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

Call me elitist if you will, but both Obama and Clinton spoke the truth. Isn’t the idea of suggesting that they shouldn’t say such things an example of the worst kind of political correctness?

As the most recent iteration, let’s take a closer look at what Clinton said. In a campaign that initially garnered attention from the Republican base with a birther lie about our first African American president, was launched with lies about Mexican drug dealers and rapists and was sustained through comments bragging about sexual assault, how do you avoid the reality of racism and sexism? Are Democrats not allowed to name those issues for fear of being labelled “elitist?” That is basically the case McGurn makes.

When Mrs. Clinton labeled Trump voters deplorable (“racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it”) she was simply following identity politics to its logical conclusion. Because identity politics transforms those on the other side of the argument—i.e., Americans who are pro-life, who respect the military, who may work in the coal industry—from political opponents into oppressors.

In other words, Clinton shouldn’t name things like racism and sexism because she’s talking about people who are pro-life, respect the military and may work in the coal industry. As if those things somehow mitigate racism and sexism. I really have no idea how that argument works. But it seems to suggest that only truly evil people can embrace a racist/sexist candidate, which demonstrates how little McGurn knows about racism and sexism.

I understand why Republicans embraced the idea that telling the truth is elitist. Ever since they began their dog-whistle racism as part of the Southern Strategy, they’ve been playing a con game with voters. Elitism has now been extended to anyone who believes in climate science and evolution as a way to politicize those issues as well.

But what I don’t understand is why buying into that frame has become acceptable for liberals. It is as if they believe that white working class voters are too precious to hear the truth and/or too ill-informed to accept it. By doing so, they are infantilizing large swaths of the American electorate in a way that cripples their own agenda.

As a liberal, I could just as easily take offense to McGurn’s suggestion that liberals hate. Or how about all of the times we hear from conservatives that liberals aren’t patriotic and don’t love this country. Imagine with me for a moment that some conservative pundit told Republicans that they needed to back off those kinds of characterizations because they were too hurtful to liberals that need to be wooed. Not gonna happen, is it?

What is it about liberals that makes us so reluctant to speak our own truths? And who are the people who must be shielded from those truths because they are too politically incorrect? Since when did it become elitist to condemn things like racism and sexism or to believe in science? An assumption that white working class people would be offended by any of that is, in my mind, the real injury that is being inflicted.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.