Mika Brzezinski's “real Americans” elitism

Mika Brzezinski's claims that “real Americans” are conservatives are not only wrong and offensive, but they indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of public opinion and suggest that Brzezinski exhibits the elitism she decries.

Even after landslide victories for the Democrats in the 2008 and 2006 elections (not to mention the fact that a Democrat has won the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections), MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski still insists that “real Americans” are conservative. Brzezinski says the fact that she is (nominally) progressive and works in New York makes her claim more credible. In fact, it may explain why she is so wrong. She claims to identify elitism, but she actually displays it.

During Monday's Morning Joe -- where, according to Howard Kurtz, Brzezinski provides liberal balance to former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough -- Brzezinski said of Sarah Palin:

BRZEZINSKI: People were coming to those rallies because they agree with her. Look at the polls out there. Look where people stand on life. Look where real Americans think and you will find -- no -- you will find that in the, you know, god I hate to say it, but in the cities where there are a little bit more liberal elite populations, you are not going to find what is representative of America. And there was a lot more to her than fascination.

That comment prompted a great deal of criticism of Brzezinski, which she dismissed on Wednesday: “If you guys don't understand what I'm saying ... please.”

The first problem is that Brzezinski apparently doesn't understand what she was saying. Describing rural conservatives who agree with Palin as the “real Americans” quite obviously implies that progressives, city-dwellers, and those who don't care for Palin are not real Americans. That isn't simply a random, inconsequential poor choice of words. For decades, liberals have been smeared and marginalized by conservatives -- and many journalists -- as insufficiently American, insufficiently patriotic, and insufficiently “normal.” Whether or not it was her intention, Brzezinski's comment played into longstanding stereotypes that are as inaccurate as they are mean-spirited.

Even if Brzezinski is somehow unaware of that history -- and it's hard to believe someone who hosts a three-hour television show about politics every day could possibly be unaware of it -- she certainly must be able to understand the problem with suggesting that urban liberals are not “real Americans.” After all, it's safe to assume she would never dare say that rural evangelical conservatives are not “real Americans.”

But Brzezinski repeatedly defended her comments by asserting that Palin's views are shared by many Americans. Of course they are. Nobody doubts that. Brzezinski wasn't criticized for saying many people agree with Palin; she was criticized for saying real Americans agree with Palin -- and thus implying that if you don't agree with Palin, you aren't a real American. Is it even possible that Brzezinski doesn't understand this?

And Brzezinski's justifications for her comments fail on their own terms as well. She suggests the size of Palin's rallies as a vice presidential candidate establish that her supporters are the real Americans. Even if one were to grant the dubious premise that the size of rallies for political candidates determines such things, Palin never drew 80,000 people to a rally like Barack Obama did.

Brzezinski talks about Palin supporters, rather than urban liberals, being “representative of America.” If that's the case, why is Joe Biden's smiling face featured on the vice president's web page? Sarah Palin and John McCain lost -- and lost badly. They lost among Americans as a whole, not just among Zabar's-shopping New Yorkers (who, to be clear, are every bit as “American” as Wal-Mart-shopping Kansans.) They lost in Indiana and in North Carolina. Why is this so difficult for Brzezinski to grasp?

Brzezinski ignores actual election results and says we should “look at the polls.” OK. Forty-five percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Palin. Seventy-two percent have a favorable opinion of Obama. Seventy-two is considerably more than 45, so if Brzezinski is looking for someone popular with a “representative” slice of “real America,” it isn't Palin.

As further “evidence” for her contention that real Americans agree with Palin, Brzezinski points to a recent Gallup poll that found more Americans describe themselves as pro-life than pro-choice, apparently unaware of the serious flaws with that poll -- flaws that completely discredit the poll's findings. (Don't take my word for it: Pollster.com's Charles Franklin calls the poll an “outlier.”) Brzezinski seems to think that poll results must be taken at face value. Most casual observers of politics understand that is not the case; you would think someone whose job is co-hosting a daily television show about politics would, too.

Brzezinski also pointed to (similarly useless) polling about whether people describe themselves as “liberal” or “conservative.” Her reliance on such polling about labels shows how badly out of touch she is. Labels like “liberal” and “conservative” just don't mean much to most people, both because most people don't think in terms of political science nomenclature and because the terms have been twisted and distorted by politicians and the media so much that they've lost much of their value. Poll questions asking people to describe themselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” are similarly flawed. Who isn't “pro-life”?

So, yes, Brzezinski can find a (badly flawed) Gallup poll that says more Americans self-identify as “pro-life” than “pro-choice.” But that poll confuses more than it clarifies. If Brzezinski focused on what people actually think about abortion rather than lazily relying on a flawed poll about labels in order to justify her contention that most Americans agree with Palin, she would find something quite different. Palin thinks abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape. That position is not only out of the mainstream among all Americans, it was convincingly rejected by voters in South Dakota -- one of the most conservative states in the nation -- just three years ago.

And, yes, Brzezinski can point to polls that show that more people self-identify as conservatives than liberals. Does that mean, as Brzezinski suggests, that most people share Palin's views? No. Most people disagree with Palin about gay rights, about health care, about just about every major issue -- often by huge margins. Yes, a plurality describes themselves -- as Palin does -- as “conservative.” But relying as Brzezinski does on such labels is lazy, superficial, and highly misleading. It is astounding to think that someone who covers politics for a living would not understand that.

Finally, Brzezinski -- and her co-host, conservative Joe Scarborough -- seem to think the facts that Brzezinski is nominally a progressive and has spent her entire life in New York and Washington, D.C., not only excuse her slurs against progressives and urbanites, they make her claims about “real Americans” more convincing. In fact, that may well explain why she is so out of touch.

Many people are convinced that their political views are not the majority view and draw comfort from that belief. Particularly since the Nixon years, many conservatives have clung to the belief that they are an oppressed minority, that they alone see things as they are while the rest of country goes astray, and have clung to that belief even when winning elections and controlling the government. By exaggerating the depravity of the rest of the nation, they get to feel their own views are righteous.

Likewise, there are some who like to think of themselves as more liberal than they are and the nation as more conservative than it is. By exaggerating the nation's conservatism, they get to feel more “enlightened” than the rest of the country.

And for the many national journalists who seem to possess this trait, there is an added bonus: They also get to believe that they are more aware of what real Americans think than their fellow coastal liberals. When they describe people like themselves -- as Brzezinski did this week -- as elites, they give the game away: They like to think of themselves as the elite. (That's the unmistakable implication of much of what you hear from the media about “coastal elites.” When a Candy Crowley suggests that simple Iowans don't know what green tea is, the subtext is that they aren't as worldly as she is.)

This is a key reason why reporters who may personally lean slightly to the left are so often responsible for news reports and commentary that advance conservative frames: they simply misunderstand where most Americans are, relative to their own views, and that misperception skews their reporting. Brzezinski's comments this week about “real Americans” -- and particularly her defenses of those comments -- seem to be a prime example.