Eccentric Flower poked me on Twitter to say something about populism and liberals. (Link goes to the post in question.) And, you know, I do so enjoy opining. And even more so when such opining is explicitly requested.
But of course, the topics EF touches on in this post are… complex. And my response was that if I started typing about this stuff I would never stop. It’s an onion topic – multi-layered – you can just keep peeling and peeling. And those topics are tough to blog about, at least for me, because I always want to keep drilling (or abstracting) to get to the core of the problem. In the United States, a lot of political issues, if you peel back enough layers, come down to race and/or the tension between authoritarians and enlightenment thinkers. There’s probably another thread there, too, maybe related to the appropriate roles of capital and government. Ya think? But anyway, how that all plays out for particular topics (gay marriage, public school reform, the existence of HOAs, urban planning, whatever) is, of course, the interesting bit. Interesting if you get to be an above-it-all analyst. Sort of more stressful if you’re in the out-group that gets the short stick on whatever issue. (And for different issues, different out-groups manifest.)
So, the swirl of topics around liberals, populists, unions, and so on is one of those complicated topics that merit whole books, right? To trace back the source of the conflict, and get to the nub of the real disagreement(s), that is. I don’t have enough information or data to say anything really informed about this stuff. I just have some general … inclinations that seem to be driven by some core assumptions I tend to make about the world as it is and the world as it should be (until and unless more data convinces me otherwise.) So just some quick thoughts, all of which will be over-simplifications.
On unions: I have never belonged to a union. My immediate family are not union members. Some of my extended family were in a union (I think) working at a ‘shoe shop’ long ago. Dimly lit, crap pay, and they all ended up with various RSI types of injuries. I am glad they had an organization to look out for them, at least a little bit.
In general, my inclination is almost always to align with the people over the powerful. Trite, but there it is. For context, McMurtry’s “Can’t Make it Here Anymore” breaks my heart every time I listen to it.
Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in
Should I hate ‘em for having our jobs today
No I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed
Their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war
And we can’t make it here anymore
Will work for food will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
So let ‘em eat jellybeans let ‘em eat cake
Let ‘em eat shit, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can’t make it here anymore
And my impression is that, bad apples aside, unions are a force for good against exploitative, unchecked capitalism. I saw Dan’s comment in the thread about the union holding him back from working at full performance capacity. I don’t think that phenomenon is unique to unions at all – having seen similar dynamics in my own white collar professional office environment. I see no other strong voice for working people (unionized and non-unionized) than organized labor. I appreciate my weekends, protections against child labor, and many other hard-fought gains. And I think there’s no question that Big Business and the capitalist imperative will continually seek to erode these gains and protections wherever and whenever possible (for reasons that merit its own series of books).
Put another way, one can look askance at or have mixed feelings about or have had a bad formative experience with almost any large-scale institution or organization. But the hate for unions, as EF points out, is something to behold. Of course, some large-scale organizations do result in more harm than good. (My gut reaction is to place organized religion in the ‘more harm’ column, but that’s a digression.) But, on balance I think we’re better off as a whole, given the terrible givens, with a strong labor movement than without.
Now, regarding the broader question of liberals and populists. My first instinct with such question is always to punt. To disdain the labels and say I can’t address the topic without understanding how these terms are being defined. My early training was a mathematician kicks in – begin any argument by defining your terms. And political labels in this country in particular have become almost meaningless (reasons for which, again, merit entire libraries of their own). I read the article EF pointed to, and while the thesis is clever, even cute, as with many such issues, I think …. it’s complicated. And more complicated than the author seems to acknowledge.
No one likes to be condescended to, sure. And it is easy for the well-informed to become impatient with the not-so-well-informed. (See, there’s my own condescension right there, right?) I’m just really not sure that ‘liberals’ is quite the right slice – back to the terminology question. A purely technocratic approach to governance and policymaking will fail. There is certainly a particular sort of person who likes to think that one can apply rational analysis in order to inform high-level policymaking. I may even be one of these people. Or maybe I used to be. But it’s clear that rational argumentation and analytics, while I would argue necessary to the creation of good policy, are far from sufficient. (And, by the way, by rational policymaking I mean something deeper than some simple economic cost/benefit/tradeoff hooey.)
But you have to meet people where they are. And most people are not inclined to give much weight to analytical rigor. It’s just the way we, as a species, seem to be wired. (I don’t mean to be quite as essentialist as all that, but…). We haven’t the time or the training to do more than glance at headlines. And we all suffer from confirmation bias and a desire to believe that what feels right is right. Not to mention that our own personal metrics for “rightness” are optimal.
I think the issue, however, is less about whether a certain fraction of so-called liberals can be “condescending” and more to do with whether there is a calculated and well-funded effort to stoke the flames of outrage and resentment against being condescended to in order to divert attention from other, more-concretely-harmful-to-the-offended, practices and trends. I think the evidence is clear that there is such a calculated and well-funded effort. And that it is a much bigger factor in how offended people actually feel (or think they’re supposed to feel) about elitist snootery than any elitist snootery itself.
 And indeed, I could keep typing. But I finally decided just to post this now, or else it would just sit half-finished forever.