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,…