The Problem with Liberal Smugness (And the Decline of Empathy)

by Gail Jankovski on May 30


Election season is fun, isn’t it?

I spend a lot of time (maybe too much) perusing social media. In my defense I am a writer, so keeping up with not only what is going on in the world, but also what people are saying about it, is important to me. Even if it is within the microcosm that is the social media world.

Even as a Canadian the discourse has obviously been inundated with US election information, commentary and rhetoric. Somehow this election seems to be more raucous and contentious than most. Which started me wondering why that is.

It would be easy to look to the rise of Trump as the impetus behind it. But given the infighting in even the Democratic race, I think it is more than that. I actually noticed the same trend last year, during the most recent Canadian election season.

I don’t delude myself into believing I am getting the whole picture.  My contacts on social media consist of predominantly privileged, educated liberals.  So as Amy so eloquently explained last week, that liberal, progressive viewpoint is what is presented to me day after day.

One might think that the liberal perspective would come through as a willingness to be open to opposing viewpoints. We expect that liberals would seek to understand people’s differences, not reject them. But what I am actually experiencing appears to be a closing off, digging in, and shutting down.

It appears that liberal political discourse has been stripped of every last vestige of empathy for dissenting opinions. More and more I am seeing contrary political viewpoints being discounted as ignorance or stupidity, and demonized as moral failings.

From my own (admittedly limited) perspective, it has been presented to me time and again that liberals are educated and knowledgeable, while conservatives are dumb hicks.  I have seen it so much I didn’t even really question that narrative, and have probably even participated in propagating it at some point.

Liberals present themselves as intellectually superior, which often comes through in their attitude and communication. The rise of this smug style of American liberalism coincides with the profound shift in American political demographics in the latter half of the 20th century, as the number of working class voters who supported the Democrats dropped from 66 to just 35 percent.

And I see this smug style reflected in the interactions I have been observing in my own experiences. The assumption of the ignorance and/or stupidity (“Did you even read the article?!”) of anyone who presents an opposing viewpoint, is a common, if really elitist stance. (Because obviously anyone who knew what the poster knows would be on board with their ideals.)

Maybe it is time to check some privilege on that. The irony of highly educated, progressive liberals denigrating the intelligence and motives of the “working class” people whose well being they purport to defend is not lost on me. The implication of an entire group of people not knowing enough to vote in their own best interest is more than a little condescending.

Most people’s “opposing” stances on issues actually occur not on one side or other of a solid line, but rather on a continuum. The majority of people want some defense spending, some immigration controls, some regulation on abortion, some level of social safety net, and so on.  It is where we draw our own personal line that differs, and that is what informs our political choices.

Yet issues are often presented as black or white, good or bad. You are with us or against us, and if you are against us, you are wrong. Any deviation from the chosen viewpoint is portrayed a reflection of your deficient morality, or a defect in your character. The dreaded “xxxx-phobe” is often thrown in for good measure.

What is often forgotten is that the origin of “-phobias” themselves encompass “fear” for a reason. We don’t have to believe that someone’s fears are valid in order to empathize and acknowledge that they are, for that person, real. And we can condemn and combat the actions, beliefs and policies that arise from those fears, without denying their existence. Fear is not a moral failing.

Maybe allowing, or even encouraging, people to actually voice their fears without ridicule and derision, however invalid we believe them to be, would prevent them from festering and being expressed as anger and hatred.

There has been some conflicting research into the impact of social media on empathy, but we know that most humans are good at empathizing with individuals, and less good at empathizing with groups. Social media, especially Facebook, by catering to our likes, amplifies this effect—by increasing empathy with one’s “group,” we sap our empathy for those outside of it.

So while it isn’t entirely clear if social media perpetuates or merely reflects this political trend—it certainly provides a platform for it. It provides a buffer—a disconnect—between us and the target of our passive aggressionWe now have ubiquitous attack ads, directed not towards candidates or policies, but rather at each other, in the guise of easy to post memes, or 140 character snippets.

This little gem popped up on my feed several times during the last Canadian election. Of course, given that my husband is a conservative, my reaction to the “joke” that he was stupid enough as to be dangerous, and should be “approached with caution”, was to really pause and think about my own choices. It gave me the push I needed to really delve into the policies in question.

Just kidding. My reaction was actually more like: Insulting my man? Fuck you! – I am just gonna go ahead and vote conservative as well then. Mature, I know. But my point is that insulting someone’s intelligence and character doesn’t really lend itself to openness and dialogue.

For what it’s worth, he immigrated here from a third world country, and spent much of his childhood in poverty. But the outside circumstances of our lives tell only a fraction of the story anyway, and no one else can understand their effect on us. How we process, interpret and internalize events and circumstances is what shapes our personalities, beliefs and worldview—including our priorities. Which in turn carries over to our political beliefs and affiliations.

I am not suggesting we abandon our ideals. Or the belief that our way is the right way. But having empathy for those with different experiences also means empathizing with the dissenting opinions that were forged by those experiences. Even if the priorities and ideals expressed are not in alignment with our own.

Or—we could just continue along the aforementioned “smug liberalism” path, and discount dissenters as not worthy of engagement. And while I think that empathy is important regardless of ideology, and across party lines, the impact of intellectual and character based dismissal has few practical implications when dealing strictly with the liberal/conservative dichotomy.

It becomes dangerous however when those same elitist attitudes are directed towards the dissenting opinions of those whom we consider allies, even within the same party. If liberals can’t even cultivate empathy with each other, that does not bode well for a unified Democratic party coming together to defeat Trump.


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Gail Jankovski

Gail is a certified hypnotist, life coach, and aspiring writer and poet. Her approach to personal development is pragmatic: baby steps are OK—and small changes can add up to big rewards. She also keeps busy as an admin assistant, wife, and mom to three grown children.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon B. July 24, 2016 at 4:16 pm

Great article, Gail! I’ve had some similar thoughts, and you’ve expressed and expanded on them nicely here.


DB August 23, 2016 at 1:02 am

You state, “Maybe it is time to check some privilege on that. The irony of highly educated, progressive liberals denigrating the intelligence and motives of the “working class” people whose well being they purport to defend is not lost on me. The implication of an entire group of people not knowing enough to vote in their own best interest is more than a little condescending.”

Condescending, or just accurate? Thomas Franks book – What’s the Matter with Kansas – makes the case that this is in fact what large numbers of Republicans in Kansas do.

The book, a New York Times bestseller, was praised by reviewer Molly Ivins as, “hilariously funny . . . the only way to understand why so many Americans have decided to vote against their own economic and political interests”


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