It was 12 years ago that Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire. The idea of Social Justice Warriors wasn’t yet a twinkle in anyone’s eye. It was then a matter of neocons versus everyone else. In an New York Times op-ed, entitled When Smug Liberals Met Conservative Trolls, Katherine Mangu-Ward relates this television appearance as the beginning.

The explosion of the smugs-versus-trolls phase of our political discourse is traceable to a 2004 confrontation between Jon Stewart and the political commentator Tucker Carlson in the waning days of “Crossfire,” in which Mr. Stewart dropped his comedian persona and accused Mr. Carlson and his ilk of undermining serious discourse with their partisan feuding and made-for-TV talking points. “Stop hurting America,” was his specific request. Mr. Carlson sputtered and fumed; it was generally agreed that Mr. Stewart won the day.

At the time, it didn’t look this way at all. Sure, Stewart beat Carlson to a pulp, and Stewart was, without a doubt, smug and self-righteous. But what didn’t yet exist was a mirror image of the neocons, with their simplistic mean solutions to challenges to their Utopia.

Whether this was the birth of social justice is a dubious contention, but even so, it was, at best, verschlimmbessern, making something worse while attempting to improve it.

It’s hard to tell who started it.

Was it the populist right, reared in the meme swamps of Reddit and 4chan, who emerged blinking into the daylight of politics and set about baiting anyone who disagreed with their chosen Republican king?

Or was it liberals, cozy in their elite enclaves on the coasts, who burrowed down into self-righteousness, lecturing working-class Republicans about how they misunderstand their own interests?

Does it matter who started it? Or more to the point, are these equivalents at all? Was the election of Trump the cause or the consequence of this dichotomy? Or did most of America not care for either side?

These two terrible tendencies now feed off each other, growing stronger every day: the more smugness, the more satisfying it is to poke holes in it; the more toxic the trolling, the greater the sense of moral superiority. The result: an odoriferous stew of political rhetoric that is nearly irresistible to those on the inside and confusingly abhorrent to those on the outside.

For outsiders foolish enough to bother to taste this odoriferous stew, it’s not “confusingly abhorrent.” It’s not confusing at all, really, but it is abhorrent. Jon Haidt tried to explain why.

After mucking around in a lot of survey data, he came up with this basic idea: Liberals and people of the left underpin their politics with moral concerns about harm and fairness; they are driven by the imperative to help the vulnerable and see justice done. Conservatives and people of the right value these things as well but have several additional moral touchstones — loyalty, respect and sanctity. They value in-group solidarity, deference to authority, and the protection of purity in mind and body. To liberals, those sincerely held values can look a lot like, in Dr. Haidt’s words, “xenophobia, authoritarianism and Puritanism.” This asymmetry is the fountainhead of mutual incomprehension and disdain.

Not to be invariably disagreeable, but this is nonsense. Putting aside the misuse of labels like “liberals,” who have nothing whatsoever to do with this progressive smugness, are SJWs any less inclined to their side of authoritarianism than frog-boys? The neocons are gone, but are their progeny Conservatives? Hardly.

When phrases like “see justice done” are used, the explanation is reduced to meaninglessness. Justice is whatever outcome you prefer. Both sides claim justice, even though the hard left has seized the word as its own and tainted it beyond recognition.

But the most problematic contention is that this represents an “asymmetry.” If anything, the symmetry is astounding, as both sides hurl insults at each other, manufacture their own rules of engagement and then ridicule the other for not playing by them.

Neither side carries any persuasive force. Their “arguments,” which consist only of fallacious attacks, change no minds, as they’re geared to appeal only to those who already buy into their ideologies. Screams of “cuck” or “privileged” are narcissistic indulgences. Each believes they’ve scored a point when their tribe backs them up, as if the tribe that gets the most “likes” wins.  The numbers say otherwise.

Barely half of the respondents to the last round of Gallup’s long-running question about partisan affiliation could bring themselves to pick a party at all, with just 28 percent identifying as Republicans and 27 percent as Democrats. (Happy start of midterm season!) And even when Gallup tried to force people into bicolor boxes, by asking the 46 percent identifying as independents which way they lean, the totals still come only to 46 percent on team red and 44 percent on team blue.

As the Democrats are staking out ever more radical, ever more progressive ground, because the smugs are righteous and the trolls are literally Hitler, they believe they are breaking away from this cycle of losing and will not only capture the vote of people who can’t help but recognize that Trump is a buffoon, but want to convince them to be righteous like them. Who wouldn’t want to be on the side of equality, compassion and, yes, justice?

But the smugs v. trolls view is a false equivalency. America isn’t a nation of evil white supremacists, racists, misogynists, xenophobes. It’s not just a nation that wants intolerant hard left authoritarians taking control any more than hard right. And the smugs have proven themselves, despite their advantages of education, of expectations, to be even less tolerant of disagreement (or, to be more precise, lack of complete obsequiousness and adherence to their ever-more-radical orthodoxy) than the trolls.

The social justice warriors mean well. It’s not that their purported goals of equality, or defending the vulnerable, are bad goals. They’re good goals. And yet in their zeal, their passionate fury to achieve their good goals, they’ve driven their natural allies away by shrieking epithets at them, by pushing their agenda to ever-more-bizarre causes, by being every bit as simplistic and intolerant as those they claim to abhor.

With the best of intentions, they have driven America away from their goals, making them harder, if not impossible, to achieve in a way we can all support. When the option offered by the smugs is “submit or you’re scum,” we run away from them. We will not be shamed into adopting the untenable ideology of social justice by their smugness.


*Hat tip to Simon Kuestenmacher for this wonderful word. Why David Meyer-Lindenberg never told me about it before is a mystery.

7 thoughts on “Verschlimmbessern*

  1. Mario Machado

    There’s nothing more smug than not changing their message or tone a year after losing an unlosable election. Sounds like “it’s not us, it’s you, you deplorable scum that doesn’t get it.”

    If anything, the progs have turned up the passion level. A year ago progs were not eating their own like they do today.

    1. SHG Post author

      It seemed almost impossible for Hillary to lose the election against Trump that any decent candidate would have won 80-20, but she committed suicide when she called Trump supporters “deplorable.”

      1. Mario Machado

        And what followed is insane head-against-the-wall adherence to the losing message. This in a country that values results above all else (one of it’s best features). It’s wacky.

        A year ago reasonable minds would’ve seen the Trump presidency as a freak occurence, a one and out. Now, not so much…

        *Verschlimmbessern is one of those cool words that defy direct translation, like saudade.

  2. JRP

    If anything the last election proved polling is bullshit easily manipulated.

    The decline of the major parties is to be expected as they get more “us vs. them”.

    Social media and regular media make the split out to be more than it is.

    The good thing is that more people are pushed toward the middle. If this will/ can be capitilized on for the good of all remains to be seen.

    1. SHG Post author

      My theory is that the hard right and left comprise 20% of the electorate, with a vast middle of 80% who are constrained to choose the least worst option. What that means is that neither party, no candidate, represents what the majority want. Granted, there are significant differences in the middle as well, but we (unlike the fringes) can argue about it and reach a general consensus about how to run a nation. They cannot.

      1. John Neff

        I was told by a congressional staff member that the hard right and left members get the money and those in the center get caught in the cross-fire.

        I think you are right that the majority of those that vote have to decide what candidate will cause the least amount of harm.

        In the old days we could disagree and still be friends. If that is not possible then grassroots gridlock will be the outcome.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s a critical point about money. It’s the bane of politics, and only the most passionate (read, angry and extreme) and organizations (of whatever ilk) will cough up some cash.

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