Josh Barro gertrudes his way through the number at Business Insider, which would be cringeworthy in its simplisticness under other circumstances.
I’ve been haunted by a claim my KCRW colleague Rich Lowry made on our radio show a few weeks ago: Democrats keep coming up short in elections because they won’t give any ground on “cultural issues” to win back the working-class voters they’ve alienated over the past decades.
Most of the discussion of this trend has focused on non-college-educated white voters, who have swung heavily toward Republicans; but Democrats should also be worried about their disconnect with non-college-educated nonwhite voters, whose turnout declined precipitously in 2016.
On the other hand, when you look at the polling on specific “cultural issues,” Democrats usually have the edge.
There are two glaring, massive failures in this: first, polls get answers based on how questions are posed. “Are you in favor of discrimination?” No normal person could possibly answer yes, and yet, if people are asked, “should colleges prohibit students from saying ‘America is the land of opportunity,'” the opposite response results.
The second fail is that there is a stunningly broad array of cultural issues on the table. To lump them together is facile. Americans are cool with gay marriage? Yay. Americans are cool with prohibiting “hate speech”? Not so much.
But Barro only does this as a tummy rub to soften the blow of his real purpose in writing: the hamburger problem. Or to put it as Barro does, the Democrats are too “annoying.”
Let’s discuss the hamburger example.
Suppose you’re a middle-income man with a full-time job, a wife who also works outside the home, and some children. Suppose it’s a Sunday in the early fall, and your plan for today is to relax, have a burger, and watch a football game.
Conservatives will say, “Go ahead, that sounds like a nice Sunday.” (In the Trump era, they’re not going to bother you about not going to church.) But you may find that liberals have a few points of concern they want to raise about what you mistakenly thought was your fundamentally nonpolitical plan for the day.
Liberals* want you to know that you should eat less meat so as to contribute less to global warming. They’re concerned that your diet is too high in sodium and saturated fat. They’re upset that the beef in your hamburger was factory-farmed.
They think the name of your favorite football team is racist. Or even if you hate the Washington Redskins, they have a long list of other reasons that football is problematic.
And this smacks of the glaring failures of polls. Do you want to be healthy? Sure. Do you want the government to criminalize your burger? No. But still, it’s a shallow, even silly, example, even if it reflects the shallow, silly way people feel about issues in a theoretical vacuum versus the micromanagement of their ordinary lives.
But liberals, realizing they have won major aspects of the culture war, have begun to overreach, deeming nearly every aspect of life to be subject to public judgment.
They don’t necessarily intend to impose policies to change your behavior, but they definitely intend to use cultural power to shame you for your nonconforming choices.
Barro has glossed over a critical distinction. Liberals have prevailed on some big ticket cultural issues, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, to name two. But more radical forces weren’t satisfied, as these “small” victories emboldened them to re-engineer every aspect of their world, to fix everything that could be characterized as problematic by the most marginalized person around. And that wasn’t liberal, but crazy.
The contention is that the Democrats offer the non-college educated working class, the new Republican base, the better economic policies (“for example, by relieving your substantial childcare costs,” which demonstrates that Barro has a very shallow grasp of economics), but are turned away by the progressives shaming how many sheets of toilet paper they use (trees?!?).
Ultimately, he offers a list of ways in which the Democrats could regain control. It’s a perfectly fine list, but there is one huge fail again. It’s a lie. His advice is for the Democrats to pretend not to be progressive, lie to the public, and regain the public’s devotion, so that they can get back into power and do everything they want to do.
- Don’t tell people they should feel guilty. As I discussed at the top of this piece, Americans are broadly open to liberal positions on cultural policy issues. Over the last few decades, they have increasingly internalized the idea that the government should let people be free to do what they want in their lives. So embrace that ethos by emphasizing how liberal policy positions would let members of all sorts of groups live their best lives, protected from discrimination and harm. Don’t tell people they should feel bad about living their own lives as they want.
This is where Barro shows his inability to distinguish between liberal and progressive perspectives. People want to be free to live their lives. That’s liberal. But progressives abhor free choice when it conflicts with their control of every aspect of life they are absolutely certain is wrong.
Barro’s message is to stop telling people what you believe, and tell them what will sell instead. He does not argue that Democrats are wrong to believe that a handful of unduly passionate shriekers should dictate Utopia. He argues that they shouldn’t let people know that’s what they believe.
Don’t tell people they should feel bad about living their own lives as they want.
But Josh, that’s exactly what they want to do, because they’re RIGHT!!! Your advice is to lie because there will be no hamburgers in progressive paradise.
*Barro uses the word “liberal” to describe decidedly illiberal choices, rather than the correct word, “progressive.”