A recent Washington Post op-ed accusing liberals of being condescending to conservatives couldn't have come at a worse time: Not only was it poorly argued, it came at the beginning of a week in which conservative media did everything they could to demonstrate that they should not be taken seriously.
The Washington Post picked the wrong week to run a lengthy op-ed excoriating liberals for being condescending to conservatives. Not that there would have been a good week to run University of Virginia professor Gerard Alexander's screed, which was filled with more holes than a donut shop.
Alexander began by asserting that "liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives" are condescending -- a claim about the relative quantity of condescension on each side that he never even attempted to support with anything beyond his own assertions that he is correct.
He then moved on to providing examples of liberal condescension that, well, aren't. Like President Obama's statement that some opponents of health care reform are peddling fear of a "Bolshevik plot." That is happening, and Alexander made no effort to explain why pointing it out constitutes condescension. Instead, he moved on to his next example: Obama's statement that he and his allies need to do a better job of "speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are" -- the kind of utterly unremarkable comment politicians of all stripes make whenever the political winds seem to shift against them. And those two examples -- neither of which is actually an example of condescension -- are the ones Alexander chooses to lead off his argument. That is not a good sign.
It was, however, representative of Alexander's argument, which consisted largely of identifying "four major narratives" liberals promote about conservatives -- narratives that Alexander seems to think are condescending, but which are not. Like this:
The first is the "vast right-wing conspiracy," a narrative made famous by Hillary Rodham Clinton but hardly limited to her. This vision maintains that conservatives win elections and policy debates not because they triumph in the open battle of ideas but because they deploy brilliant and sinister campaign tactics.
Yeah ... that isn't condescension. Neither is this: "It is now an article of faith among many liberals that Republicans win elections because they tap into white prejudice against blacks and immigrants." (And if Alexander is going to convince anyone that is a condescending belief for liberals to hold, he might want to have a few words with Ken Mehlman, who -- as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2005 -- admitted the GOP had exploited "racial polarization" for decades.)
In short, Alexander offers a series of liberal criticisms of conservatives, which he mistakes for condescension. Those criticisms can, of course, be made in ways that are condescending. But that isn't what Alexander argues -- he argues that they are inherently condescending. They aren't -- not unless we want to rob the word of all meaning.
And all the while, Alexander pretends that conservatives only rarely make condescending statements -- and even then, the statements tend to come from the movement's fringes. It's as though he's never heard the patronizing, mocking comments about "community organizers" and effete coastal elites -- or he thinks his readers haven't. As though he's never heard Rudy Giuliani give a speech. Or Sarah Palin. Or Karl Rove. Or seen Bill O'Reilly dismiss liberals as "pinheads."
So running Alexander's poorly-considered piece -- which, it should be noted, the Washington Post solicited -- would have been a mistake at any time. What makes this week, in particular, so bad? Well, it certainly doesn't help that it ran the morning after Sarah Palin's speech at the Tea Party convention in Nashville, in which she mockingly asked the 69 million Americans who voted for Barack Obama, "How's that hopey, changey stuff working out?" Now, that's condescending.
But the bigger problem is that Alexander's piece ran at the beginning of a week in which the conservative media did everything it could to justify every drop of condescension liberals can possibly muster. Some arguments are so brazenly stupid that to treat them as though they have merit is to participate in the dumbing-down of public discourse to an extent that can only lead to ruin.
And that's what the right-wing media narrative that a few days of snow in February disproves global warming is -- brazenly and willfully stupid. Not because it contradicts the overwhelming scientific consensus, but because of the way in which it does so. It pretends short-term weather is more meaningful than long-term climate changes. It privileges small sample sizes over large. It's like using a single baseball game to argue that Mark Whiten is the best hitter in the history of the game -- he had 4 home runs and 12 RBIs! Or pointing to the fact that Bill Gates doesn't have any money in his left jacket pocket as evidence that he's poor. Or flipping a coin, seeing that it comes up heads, and concluding that flipped coins always land heads-up. It's absolute nonsense.
And conservatives have been gleefully peddling this quackery all week.
Among the culprits: Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, The Washington Times, Sean Hannity, Andrew Breitbart's Big Government, Glenn Beck, and Human Events. Not to mention other conservative leaders like Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Jim DeMint, and Newt Gingrich.
Now, I'm sure that Gerard Alexander would try to argue that Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, the Washington Times, the Senate Republican Leader, and Newt Gingrich are not representative of the conservative movement. That's essentially what he did during a Washington Post online Q&A whenever anyone brought up examples of condescending conservatives: He stipulated to the examples, but asserted they weren't representative, often asserting by way of evidence that National Review doesn't engage in the tactics in question. So, apparently National Review is the only example he'll accept for his rigged little game. Fine by me. National Review's Deroy Murdock, Tom Gross, and Greg Pollowitz (again and again and again) have all dabbled in cold-weather-disproves-global-warming nuttiness.
The next time the Washington Post wants to promote an inane column asking "Why are liberals so condescending?" (and, sadly, I'm sure there will be a "next time") they should try it in a week in which the nation's leading conservative media voices aren't quite so busy demonstrating why liberals have reason to be more condescending.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.
- The Washington Post