Erik Larson

Mar 19, 2010

Joe versus The Liberal

Put this in the “off the cuff observation” bucket:

Like many of us, I discuss politics fairly frequently with friends and colleagues, many of whom are left-leaning or liberal (they are pro-choice, for universal health care, worried about global warming, sceptical about corporate America, and so on).

Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern of subtle (sometimes not so subtle) snickering with regard to “Tea Party” types, or what we used to call the “Nascar crowd”. I’ll admit to enjoying a little snickering about “them” myself. Why? Because—so the stereotype goes—they’re the types that forward stupid chain emails about how Obama’s not a U.S. Citizen, who have goofy bumper stickers about the inferiority of Ford on the back of their Chevy pickup, who work the blue collar jobs and get WAY too excited about football games, beer drinking, and BBQ. They think Palin would be a good President. They’re all about patriotism (defined mostly as America the Strong Military, the “Ass Kickin’” America), plain speaking folks, SUVs, baseball games on the weekends for the kids, and country music. They distrust egghead intellectuals (“He can talk, but can he change a tire?”), government bureaucrats who want to raise their taxes, and, above all, anything that smacks of what “liberals” might say or do.

So, The Liberal tends to snicker at these types (which makes a certain sense, since these types don’t like him much, and The Liberal knows it). But what is the meaning of the snicker? The snickering—and scoffing, harumphing, and guffawing—is damn peculiar, actually, because if we remove the political differences, many of the Tea Party/Nascar folks are not rich, well-to-do types who might feel targeted by liberal social or economic policy changes. They’re Joe the Plumber types, making a modest income, having less than the best health care, and less than the best opportunities for higher education, and on and on. Many of them would stand to gain, in fact, from the very policies that The Liberal espouses: less taxes on working folks, more on rich folk. Health care for little Johnny. Tax credits for education, and so on. Somehow, though, Average Joe American doesn’t seem to want any of it, and he receives a snicker from The Liberal as his reward.

So, the situation is peculiar, on its face, because Average Joe American seems to despise policy that, ostensibly at least, would seem beneficial to him, and The Liberal is caught snickering at the very common folk type about which he professes such concern. The Liberal in fact talks incessantly about Americans who are not rich, and who don’t have all of the opportunities that well-to-do Americans have. The Liberal seems worried half to death that CEOs are getting all the attention, not the common worker. But who is Average Joe American, the object of his snickering? He’s a plumber, or a truck driver, or he works down the road at the Walmart. He’s not a CEO. He doesn’t know squat about Wall Street. He owns a pickup truck with 150 thousand miles on it. He has no 401K, lives in a modest four bedroom house, and has two kids in the public school system because he and his wife, a manager at Target, couldn’t even begin to afford private school. So, why does The Liberal snicker (and why doesn’t Joe like The Liberal)? It’s damn peculiar.

One explanation we can reject is: The Liberal snickers because Average Joe American is conservative (he’s pro-life, for low taxes, hawkish on defense, thinks global warming is “fishy”, and so on). We can reject this idea, because The Liberal does not snicker at educated conservatives; he just disagrees with them. He might even get mad and flustered at them. But he doesn’t snicker.

And so the plot thickens. If it’s not the substance of the ideas, the difference in the ideas between The Liberal and Average Joe, what is it? A possible—if painful—explanation is that The Liberal snickers because, deep down, he doesn’t think Average Joe American is in his league. He’s not as educated, he’s probably not as smart, and he shouldn’t be in charge of anything—except perhaps the weekend little league tournament. This is, of course, a very strange posture for The Liberal, because it’s flatly in tension with the self-absorbed, perpetual concern he has for those-who-have-less. It’s the plight of the working stiff that infuses The Liberal with her energy, her sense of moral indignation. The Liberal is “all about” those that are less fortunate, whether in monetary or educational or other terms. “She didn’t have an opportunity to go to college”, “He can’t afford health care for his children”, “Why doesn’t the CEO give his bonus to his share holders?”, and on and on. The Liberal is talking about Average (or below average) Joe American on the one hand all the time, while snickering at him on the other.

So, to return, what is the meaning of the snicker? As I’ve explained, it can’t be that Average Joe American has conservative views. Many people have conservative views, and those with liberal views are happy to engage them in endless intellectual debates, with nary a snicker, or guffaw, or scoff. It must be something about Joe. But what is it? Joe’s a guy: are men to be snickered at? Not really (The Liberal might be a “guy”, too). Joe’s white: are white people properly snickerable? Well, no, it’s more complicated, we hear. He’s not so rich: So? He’s one of the have-nots, a “damn shame”, in a country with such wealth. So that’s not it. But wait, Joe didn’t go to college! Ha! That must be it! He’s uneducated! Snicker away! But not so fast again. We don’t ridicule people for their lack of education; we expand access. We make college more affordable. We educate people about its benefits, and so on.

And on and on. We’re still nowhere explaining the snicker. What could it mean? I don’t know, really. But I’ll be mischievous and offer up the maarvelously scaaandalous possibility I suggested earlier. Suppose that The Liberal—so publically concerned about those with less education, and less money, and less opportunity—really thinks, deep down, privately, that those kinds of folks suck ? In this case, is the meaning of the snicker: don’t you realize, you idiot, that you’re an uneducated working class stiff? Why don’t you shut up, and let us help you and your kind? (They are, you know, so fragile, but so noble, in their plight. Didn’t you read Rousseau? Oh no, of course you didn’t.) This view, so cynical of course, would have the virtue of “making sense of the data”, as some scientifically-minded chap might say, receiving no doubt a suspicious look from our Joe (who would never call anyone a “chap”). Mmmm, dataaa , muses Joe, moments later. Ha!