Liberals are great at preaching tolerance. Mere tolerance, though, is a terrible, insulting business. People both desire and deserve more than to be tolerated. They want to be respected. Sometimes they make that a tall order, but most of the time their humanity overrides their flaws.
Disrespect, then, is a malefaction. Disrespect of whole classes of people is bigotry. That’s why liberals are so quick to condemn racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc., and so creative in finding ways to detect these things everywhere they disagree with people.
So: what about open, sneering disrespect of everyone who disagrees with you, even when you’re competing and losing? Would that constitute a form of bigotry? It would.
Now put yourself in the place of a serious conservative. Would you watch Bill Maher? Would you read any liberal blog? Would you listen to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert? Probably no longer than liberals would read Ann Coulter or listen to Rush Limbaugh. It’s just not fun, and not very productive, to be called an idiot when you’re trying to have a serious conversation.
Let’s go a step further. Put yourself in the shoes of a Tea-Party enthusiast, someone who got into politics because of anger over the same things that bother liberals: a disappearing middle class and a government that seems to have lost its sensitivity to people. Liberals love to call you a teabagger, emitting a silent Beavis-and-Butthead snort every time they utter the word with its salacious connotations. Like most of your compatriots in the movement, you are a college graduate and a working man or woman. You don’t much like being called an idiot because you believe the federal debt is a bigger problem than the fact that marijuana is not universally available as a legal painkiller. (I know, a bit more in taxes, investment and stimulus takes care of it. But look at your shoes.)
Perhaps most sensitive are members of the religious right, for whom ridicule of their spiritual beliefs is an assault on their most essential selves. They believe some crazy things. But every religion asks its adherents to believe some things that are, on their face, absurd. That’s why religious people have faith in addition to, and quite separate from, reason. This applies to most of the great geniuses of human history, by the way. Most have been religious people. There is no point and no future in insulting people for what they believe. You can share their beliefs or not, but for goodness’ sake, leave them alone on points where religion does not negatively affect public policy. On points where it does, it’s useful to emphasize our tradition of separation of church and state, and to point out that the wall of separation went up to protect, not the state, but churches.
Are there morons on the right? Oh, yeah, and frauds, too. But for every Sarah Palin there’s an Al Sharpton; for every Chuck Norris, an Alec Baldwin; for every Ted Nugent, a . . . well, you’ve got me there.
The more material question, perhaps, is, are there any smart guys on the right? This would surprise a good many liberals, but the answer is, of course there are. Smart and sincere, too. George Will and Dick Armey are wrong about most things, but they bring a lot of intellectual heft to the public debate. Behind them are legions of less visible scholars and lawyers who have built a literature of modern conservative thought that is fresher and in many ways more compelling to young minds than that of the liberal tradition.
All that may be hard to swallow, but if liberals could bring themselves to believe it, they might become less snobbish toward the people they’re trying to represent – especially to the ones, like laborers, whom they’re trying to help. Then maybe some of those votes would come back to where they belong, to the Democratic Party.
Then again, maybe you think it’s not worth even trying to deal with the great unwashed (which is to say, working people who don’t have time to indulge in a lot of political reading). If that’s the case, ask yourself how you got so spic-and-span washed. With an expensive education? Really? Was it as costly as that of Paul Wolfowitz? Are you teaching at Stanford, alongside Condoleezza Rice?
Some of the less elite — liberals starting with Harry Truman and going through Lyndon Johnson — built a nation after the Second World War that took on the race problem at the same time it supported a labor movement, constructed a progressive tax code, regulated industry and finances, and opened most of the world to trade. With that liberal agenda, they also built the greatest economic colossus in history.
Excepting only John Kennedy, those presidents came from the working classes. They didn’t condescend to anybody. They didn’t alienate whole classes of people by presuming to instruct them. They led.
Come to think of it, they looked a lot like Joe Biden.
This, though, is not to endorse anyone for president. It is to suggest, humbly, that condescension can never elevate anybody’s class or appeal to anyone else’s. Quite the contrary. True class, and genuine appeal, are rooted in respect for others and a gentle, understanding nature. This is true for individuals and it is true for political organizations and movements. Heaven knows we need some gentleness.