Amid the general collapse of liberal governance, it remains an unshakable article of faith among our pundit class that liberal sensibilities possess a vicelike stranglehold on our cultural life. This fanciful belief may be, at bottom, a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy: since political commentators must, as a matter of professional pride, hold that their studiously branded mode of thought leadership sternly guides our republic through its many travails and challenges, the attitudes and taste preferences of our opinion makers are a matter of great political moment.
It is, at any rate, a cinch that the prescription of first resort for professional prognosticators of our national politics is this peculiar pundit brand of mind-cure. In this backward-spooling cosmology of our public life, the more stubborn and deep-seated challenges of structural reform, painstaking political organizing, and demanding long-term strategizing yield magisterially to the modulations of attitude, taste, and Zeitgeist fealty that the Vox Populi supposedly demands from its pundit class and the allied liberal cognoscenti. The penalty for noncompliance is severe: a land rush of taste monitors will deem you fatally out-of-touch with the tenor of daily life in these United States.
The first noteworthy paradox in the taste-policing racket is that it’s a singularly lucrative and prestigious one.
The first noteworthy paradox in the taste-policing racket is that it’s a singularly lucrative and prestigious one—one that frequently elevates its adepts into the very cultural elite they profess to scorn as they deliver their camera-ready talking points. Charles Murray crafted a stupendously useless book from it, David Brooks has made a career of it, and pollsters lovingly dote over it.
The shortcoming of these prim re-education sermons is that even their hypothetical purchase on the public weal is plainly well past the sell-by date. We have, after all, endured a devastating recession, followed in short order by an austerity-driven upward distribution of wealth, and a white-nationalist uprising on the American right, all within the past decade. On what imaginable planet should the question of how and where liberals feed, entertain, and irksomely congratulate themselves for their reading habits be a subject that any sane person gives a shit about?
Yet, there the pointless, tail-chasing sport of liberal-taste-baiting hulks, smack dab in the center of our approved political discourse. A mere fortnight ago, the tirelessly chastising Pastor Brooks took to his New York Times column to relate the harrowing saga of how the less educated yeoman citizens of the working-class republic are menaced by the specter of Italian cold cuts. (Yes, really.)
And now, in a sort of clickbaity apotheosis of the genre, comes Business Insider columnist Josh Barro, fretting over a point made by National Review editor Rich Lowry, about how liberals never win credibility among the horny-handed sons and daughters of toil because their cultural preferences are so resolutely foppish. As Barro argues, “Liberal moralizing tends to read as college-educated people in cities arguing that everyone should behave more like them. Usually, that’s the substance of the moralizing, too.”
And this substantive elite moralizing is just about everywhere, by Barro’s account. Meddlesome cultural Stalinists on the left want you to stop eating hamburgers at home, since meat-intensive agribusiness makes climate change worse (and because every pundit on earth has evidently staked out a position on meat sandwiches). They want you to refrain from watching football, since the sport is retrograde, racist, and dangerous. And the worst part is that they’re just getting started!
Beyond what you’re doing this weekend, this movement has a long list of moral judgments about your ongoing personal behavior.
The SUV you bought because it was easier to install car seats in doesn’t get good enough gas mileage. Why don’t you have an electric car?
The gender-reveal party you held for your most recent child inaccurately conflated gender with biological sex. (“Cutting into a pink or blue cake seems innocent enough — but honestly, it’s not,” Marie Claire warned earlier this month.)
You don’t ride the subway because you have that gas-guzzling car, but if you did, the way you would sit on it would be sexist.
No item in your life is too big or too small for this variety of liberal busybodying. On the one hand, the viral video you found amusing was actually a manifestation of the patriarchy. On the other hand, you actually have an irresponsibly large number of carbon-emitting children.
All this scolding—this messaging that you should feel guilty about aspects of your life that you didn’t think were anyone else’s business—leads to a weird outcome when you go to vote in November.
Democrats believe they have an economic agenda that would help you — for example, by relieving your substantial childcare costs. You’re not particularly religious, and you’re not thrilled about Republican complaints about gay marriage and marijuana. You don’t make enough money to benefit much from Republican tax-cut proposals.
But are you going to entrust the power of government to the side of the debate that’s been so annoyingly judgmental about your life choices? Do you trust those people to have your best interests at heart?
If you’re condemned, as I am, to engage in the thankless scut work of media criticism, you’ll discover that the damning hyperlinks Barro supplies to document his case against “a movement” consist of a fashion-glossy advice column, a CNN explainer video, and a pair of click-bait offerings from British dailies. If this is what constitutes a PC police state in the making, then the HGTV channel must be broadcasting wall-to-wall North Korean agitprop.
In other words, the toxic “bullying” and “busybody” liberal agenda Barro ascribes to liberal political activists is the bread-and-butter fare of a desperately shrinking Anglophone media-life-meddling complex. (It also turns out, as Twitter wags discovered in short order, that the dread culture sport of meat-shaming has been a favorite pastime of Barro himself.)
If this is what constitutes a PC police state in the making, then the HGTV channel must be broadcasting wall-to-wall North Korean agitprop.
But the category errors and rank hypocrisy of Barro’s manifesto are just standard features of the liberal-taste-policing genre. The real question is just how did the stereotyped vision of liberal politics get stuck with the notion that it’s “annoyingly judgmental about your life choices” in the first place? Yes, there was Newt Gingrich’s holy nineties war against “the nanny state” and all its moral enormities. Before that, the first George Bush inveighed against the perverse liberal foes of school prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, and tarred little earnest Michael Dukakis with the implication that he was a permissive criminal coddler and (horrors!) a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” Before that were the Reagan dictums that the government is not the solution to our problems but their source, and a breeding ground for “welfare queens,” “young bucks” and other cultural-cum-political defilements of the white-and-right sanctioned order of things. Spiro Agnew had his famous innings against the spectral influence of a tight band of ideologues forcing dissent through the gullets of impressionable Americans from their network boardroom politburos.
But if you were to doggedly trace the roots of the picture of liberalism as a set of dodgy elitist taste preferences, your ur-text should probably be Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech. There the embattled McCarthyite vice presidential candidate took to the infant medium of television to explain away serious charges of fundraising abuses that jeopardized his position on the Eisenhower ticket—and by extension, any viable future in national politics.
By well-honed instinct, Nixon—a true working-class outsider in the Eastern-establishment GOP politics of the Eisenhower age—blamed his plight first on “Communists in government” and then the national political press. But when the GOP establishment leaders keen to boot him from Eisenhower’s 1952 ticket prevailed on him to defend his honor in a nationally televised speech, Nixon rallied to the challenge with the rhetorical prowess of a true demagogue. He confessed to oversights in his fundraising activities—and countered that Eisenhower’s opponent, Adlai Stevenson, should likewise “come clean” about his own dubious fundraising overtures. But Nixon won the day with his emotional appeal to keep the spaniel that a heartland fundraiser donated to his family—and for good measure, name-checked the “Republican cloth coat” sported by his wife, Pat, who was awkwardly there at his side for the whole bizarre spectacle—a lifestyle prop occupying the same symbolic domestic space that the dog Checkers did. Here’s how Garry Wills masterfully sums up the political theater—and the not-so-subtle intraparty power play—of the moment:
By a cool disarming maneuver, Nixon was taking the matter away from the Eastern Establishment and putting it in the hands of men sympathetic to the regulars, to grass-roots workers, the “heartland”—people who respond in a partisan way to partisan attacks upon one of their own, people most vulnerable to the planned schmaltz and hominess of the Checkers reference, people with small debts of their own and Republican cloth coats.
Substitute hamburgers and gender-reveal parties for Checkers and cloth coats, and your have precisely the same terms of cultural engagement, preserved in amber, for the pundit political jousting of the terminally dumbed-down Information Millennium. With the GOP now flattened by its own failure to deliver on the one coherent policy aim it’s homed in on during the past seven years—to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—you’d think that our self-styled liberal thought leaders might be savvy enough to declare a bona fide policy victory, and to build on that precedent to embark on an ambitious expansion of social-democratic policy goals writ large.
But you would, of course, be a crazy dreamer to believe such a thing. For in the liberal commentariat’s crabbed and cloistered collective brainpan, it is always and forever 1952, and they must rally to the great cultural standard of the cloth coat. Just like David Brooks, Charles Murray and Rich Lowry are forever telling them to do.