The phrase “Latte-sipping liberal elite” may have recently arrived on British soil, but the picture it paints is straight out of the American political playbook. Having moved to the US last summer to do a humanities PhD at an Ivy League university—truly fertile ground for smug soft-leftism if there ever was any—I have discovered that, like most imported political narratives, it is far more accurate in its original context. The right-wing caricature of the American left as self-congratulatory, self-indulgent elitists has more than a grain of truth to it.
The problem arises partly because a whole American generation has now reached political maturity in an era where there are very few intelligent conservatives in public life. Yet the American left goes wrong in ruling out even the possibility of reasonable centre-right politics. Many American left-wingers hold the complacent belief that it is just obvious that their views are correct. This is even more intense in the university environment, where there are supposedly well-educated people who have never even questioned the belief that free trade exploits the developing world rather than helping it, and who respond with utter bafflement to reservations about the legalisation of marijuana. These people, while just about well-informed enough to express right-on opinions to murmurs of approval at drinks receptions, are often unaware of the complexities of these issues, their black-and-white attitude bred, in part, by a lack of intelligent criticism of their views.
This attitude carries over to political action. An especially striking example came in the form of Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” That Stewart, who combines middle-brow semi-intellectualism in politics with anodyne, smug satire in comedy, is such a phenomenon amongst youngish, politically active centre-left Americans is in itself depressing. But his rally was downright objectionable. Its attitude was literally that its opponents—clearly the American right, whatever Stewart’s pretensions to neutrality—are insane. This is disastrous political strategy for the left. The march came off as a parody of value-driven political action, standing for nothing positive, from a young post-ironic generation for whom deep convictions are risible. It is precisely this kind of patronising smugness that drives ordinary Americans straight into the arms of the Republicans.
The deeper point, however, is that too much of the American left—stiff New England senators as much as Stewart’s demographic—are uncomfortable with talk of values. When I mentioned the word “moral’” in conversation with a wealthy middle-aged liberal New Yorker I met at a party, she shrieked “Morality?! What’s that?!”, cuing an explosion of laughter from the assembled mass. Sure, it was a joke, but it illustrated the fact that, for many urban Americans, the word “morality” now belongs solely to gay-bashing, abortion-hating, Bible-thumping Republicans. The American left has let this happen, afraid to set out a competing moral vision and instead presenting itself as the side of “common sense.” This is a crucial strategic mistake in a country where ordinary people believe deeply in foundational values of freedom, justice and, yes, equality: values which the left can rightfully claim as its own.
Take the Democrats’ approach to gay rights. Having tried to avoid the issue for years, Democrats now justify gay marriage by appealing to a rhetoric of modernity and pragmatism. Explaining his decision to vote in favour of the recent landmark bill legalising gay marriage in New York, State Senator Carl Kruger said, “What we’re about to do is redefine what the American family is. And that’s a good thing. The world around us evolves.” This language feeds right into conservative claims that the legalisation of gay marriage is an attempt by a remote elite to, as Kruger himself puts it, redefine the family; an exercise of state control over ordinary peoples’ wishes.
Conversely, the language of freedom, with which the Democrats should make their case, is ceded to conservatives, who are allowed to get away with doing bloody violence to it. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, for example, likened the New York gay marriage law to legislation by a communist state where “government presumes daily to ‘redefine’ rights, relationships, values and natural law,” adding, “we cherish true freedom, not as the license to do whatever we want, but the liberty to do what we ought.” Democrats responded with understandable contempt; what they did not do is argue that it is Dolan’s notion of freedom—where freedom only extends to being able to do what the church approves of—that is at odds with the key American value of liberty. Liberals need to tap into the American suspicion of top-down control of peoples’ lives, and explain that it is the regulation of whom one can get married to that does this, not the move to get rid of that regulation.
Democrats should stress that one need not like gay marriage to recognise that it should be a matter of free choice; that the whole point of the freedom that the founding fathers sought to establish is that the government should leave people to make their own moral choices about their own lives. Such a strategy would stand a chance of engaging America’s religious population, rather than decrying them as bigots and ignoring them, as America’s younger liberal population tend to do. Equally, it is wrong to concede to them that gay marriage is an affront to their freedom of religion, as too many older, moderate congressional Democrats have done. Putting the case for toleration and moral autonomy would allow Democrats to navigate their way between these two mistakes.
A second example comes from the economic sphere, where the ideal of opportunity for all is famously held dear. Yet ordinary Americans feel that they do not have the same opportunities as the financial elite. Adam Haslett’s piece in the July edition of Prospect details how Republican Mike Huckabee has gained a great deal of popularity from being willing to recognise this. This shows that the message chimes with Americans, far from turning them off. Yet Democrats shy away out of fear of being branded socialists. And, as Haslett notes, Huckabee has no solution of his own to inequality of opportunity, instead just reverting to the mantra that “the market should adjust it.”
Democrats should be all over this. They need to stress that their goals are not socialism, but the great American ideals of opportunity and meritocracy; and that Republican economic policy has made these ideals little more than a charade. Specifically, they need to puncture the narrative that financial advantage leaves equality of opportunity undisturbed, and that the rise of a handful of exceptional individuals from disadvantage to positions of power demonstrates a level playing field which requires no correction. Ordinary Americans know that this runs contrary to their own lived experience; still, it takes boldness for a politician to be willing to challenge such an engraved and powerful fiction.
Instead, Democrats focus on macroeconomic trends such as unemployment and growth. These are certainly important issues, but they are not issues on which Democrats have any inherent advantage over Republicans. Economic debate becomes a mere blame game between the two parties. Relating it back to fundamental values of equality of opportunity would allow the Democrats to exploit a unique angle on the economy which distinguishes them from their Republican counterparts. The closest we get to egalitarianism at present is a focus on the economic wellbeing of the median citizen—we hear far less about the isolation of America’s poor underclass. Furthermore, Democrats are keen to promote their economic agenda as ‘non-ideological’ and ‘pragmatic’, once again sidestepping the challenge of explaining why their policies best realise fundamental American values. For historical contrast, compare Harry Truman in his 1949 State of the Union address:
“In this society, we are conservative about the values and principles which we cherish; but we are forward-looking in protecting those values and principles and in extending their benefits. We have rejected the discredited theory that the fortunes of the Nation should be in the hands of a privileged few. We have abandoned the “trickledown” concept of national prosperity. Instead, we believe that our economic system should rest on a democratic foundation and that wealth should be created for the benefit of all… The government must see that every American has a chance to obtain his fair share of our increasing abundance.”
This kind of language is increasingly rare, and its decline corresponds to the rise of right-wing conviction politics and Reaganism, which completed the Republicans’ transformation from a party of urban capitalist technocrats into that of the flag-waving masses. Its effective caricature of ‘big government liberalism’ has bullied the left into being scared of standing up for what it believes in as the right does, with Democratic congressional candidates instead queuing up to prove that they’re ‘not that liberal, really’. So effective has the right been in annexing the terrain of values that even Democrats now associate moral values with the right, and consequently avoid talking about them.
Ultimately, however, the American left of course has its own values: it is the language of values that it needs to (re)acquire. For all his flaws, what made Barack Obama stand out so much from his Democratic rivals back in 2007 was that he was comfortable talking about values, and this is one reason why he remains such a great asset to the party. But the rhetoric has turned more anodyne and empty as the business of government has unfolded. With 2012 looming, Obama needs to put values centre stage. But to achieve a real change in perception, the East Coast liberal elite, both old and young, need to follow suit.