One of the most regular conservative arguments about politics and culture, which has been around at least since Spiro T. Agnew but has had a huge renaissance in the Trump era, is that liberal elites clustered in big cities, especially on the East and West Coasts, look down on, or at a minimum don’t understand, the plain and mostly white folk of the Great American Heartland.
Some members of the liberal elite deny the charge, while others glory in it; most do make the point that if the 2016 presidential elections are any indication, there are at least as many Americans in one camp as in the other (though all those underpopulated red spaces are a problem for Democrats who would like to control the Senate or a majority of state governments someday). The distinguished liberal journalist Mike Tomasky is the latest to echo the charge. Let’s consider it on the merits at this particular — and particularly fraught — moment in American political history.
Tomasky’s point of departure is this:
All of these people in middle America, even the actual liberals, have very different sensibilities than elite liberals who live on the coasts.
Unlike coastal liberals, he continues, people in the heartland go to church; have things that interest them more than politics; are not averse to owning guns or admiring the military or global corporations; and are reflexively patriotic.
These are, as Tomasky knows, overgeneralizations, not just of “heartland” people but of the coastal elites that supposedly despise them. Although he self-effacingly places himself in the ranks of the clueless and the insensitive, Mike Tomasky is actually a native of West Virginia, probably ground zero for the estrangement of white “Middle Americans” from the national brand of liberal politics in recent years. I happen to know he has plenty of things other than politics he cares about, including college football; I know this because I share that passion. Indeed, as a Heartland native (though now living in the Central Coast of California), I avoid talking or even thinking about politics when I’m around folks who have nonpolitical day jobs; have no problem understanding why people, especially in rural areas, own guns, or why the biggest employer in many towns is as likely to be regarded as a benefactor as a villain. I even go to church very regularly. There are more people like Tomasky, and even like me, in the ranks of “coastal liberal elites” than he lets on.
And while you can always find professional or armchair liberal observers who have the attitudes Tomasky condemns, they are not really found that often among people in the business of running for office — you know, the liberal politicians Middle America is presumed to hate. I can’t recall ever hearing a Democratic politician spit contempt at people for being religious. Democrats have gone far out of their way to express support for the Second Amendment, and now regularly talk about “gun safety” rather than gun control. And conspicuous displays of patriotism and of respect for the military were as common at the coastal-elite-dominated 2016 Democratic National Convention as at the aggressively Middle American GOP confab.
Yes, contemporary liberals are sometimes inflexible and tone deaf, but the examples Tomasky cites are questionable:
A person can still be “on the team” even if they think the minimum wage should be raised only to $10, or don’t consider the placement of the crèche on the courthouse square for two weeks in December a constitutional crisis, or haven’t yet figured out how they feel about transgender bathrooms.
Intra-Democratic infighting on the exact level of minimum-wage increases subsided with the end of the Sanders/Clinton presidential nominating fight, and many culture-war “battles” are the product not of liberal dogma but of conservative efforts to find “wedge” issues. After all, it was the North Carolina GOP’s “bathroom bill” that ignited the transgender rights controversy, and we wouldn’t be arguing over municipal Christmas decorations if not for Fox News’ annual “War on Christmas” meme. You can’t really blame these sources of cultural tension on intolerant liberals who would generally prefer to talk about other issues.
While the disease Tomasky deplores may not be as all-ravaging as he suggests, I guess there’s nothing wrong with administering a particularly strong inoculation. There is a species of coastal-elite liberal media that writes and talks strictly for people like themselves and wouldn’t know Kentucky from Timbuktu, though it’s not as large a segment of the media as often imagined.
But there is another problem Tomasky does not address: There are sometimes reasons other than elitism, and the very opposite of indifference to Middle America, that dictate fighting the heartland’s political representatives vigorously.
The fight against Trumpcare is about many things, but none is so important as the fight to keep the state and local governments of Middle America from shirking the needs of their poorer and sicker citizens. If coastal elites really didn’t give a damn about anyone else, they’d probably accept a deal from Susan Collins and Bill Cassidy to let the states keep or kill Obamacare as they wished, and let those red-state African-Americans and hillbillies suffer the consequences. Similarly, there is probably nothing that would lower the cultural temperature of American politics more than some sort of grand bargain on abortion, such as letting different places have different policies. There have been liberals who have urged that kind of compromise for years. But it would be a betrayal of the reproductive rights of women who happen to live in inconvenient places — the very places liberals are thought to dislike and abhor.
It’s always a good idea to make some effort to understand people with different backgrounds, different views, different life circumstances, and yes, even different prejudices than our own. But to the extent that liberals genuinely believe their policies are best for the whole country — you know, the country they are suspected of loving too little — then arguing that the Heartland is worse for their absence is an act not of “elite” disdain but of communal affection.