The Problem With Liberals

Liberals would win more elections if they just weren’t so damn insufferable.

I’ve been enjoying “The Age of Acrimony” by Jon Grinspan. It’s a history of American politics between the end of the Civil War and 1915, when progressivism reached its height.

During most of that period politics was about the smoke-filled room and the back room deal. It was so bad that Americans who were well-educated and otherwise well off retreated from politics altogether. They considered it beneath them to even so much as vote. Between Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, America produced a parade of forgettable presidents.

Much like today, actual participation in politics was very high and yet so was cynicism about democracy itself. It does make you wonder if high turnout in elections is really so much a sign of health in a democracy or just a retreat into tribalism. Voting as a means of keeping the enemy at bay isn’t necessarily such a great thing.

In fact, when TR entered politics as a young man he was considered odd if not a traitor to his class. People like him were expected to remain well above the fray. But Roosevelt transformed American politics by combing high ideals with a willingness to get his hands dirty in the rough and tumble of street level politics.

TR connected — he didn’t condescend — to the American people.

What TR figured out was that reformers up to that point were getting nowhere because they were condescending know-it-alls, who turned off average Americans. They would rather live with corruption than be governed by prudes. To quote from Grinspan’s book:

(Roosevelt) ranted regularly about “the silk stocking reformer type” and mocked elite editors’ “snobbish worship of anything clothed in wealth.” This class of snooty parlor reformers made all anticorruption look bad, and even worse, they lost elections. Roosevelt was careful to distance himself from both their elitism and their “inefficiency.” “My business,” he said in his autobiography, was to blend high morals with low politics, to “combine decency and efficiency; to be a thoroughly practical man of high ideals who did his best to reduce those ideals to actual practice.”

Exactly. I haven’t found a better statement of what I believe today’s moderate politics should be about: be for good stuff, but know how to win elections. And that means not being what today’s liberals have become and it certainly means not speaking their awful language.

There’s something in the DNA of reformers that traces back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. These people are uniformly preachy, self-righteous, humorless, uncompromising and, because of all that, ultimately ineffectual. High principles seem to come in a package that is indigestible.

Today’s desciples of woke politics are the direct descendents of those “snobs” that TR railed against 130 years ago. It’s not so much that they’re wrong — a lot of the time I think they’re right about their causes; it’s just that they are so insufferable that it makes people want to oppose them just because nobody likes to be preached at. It’s what Republicans call “owning the libs.”

The whole idea behind Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos is that, in order to be successful, we need to “blend high morals with low politics.” Our theory here is that liberals lose more elections than they need to because voters who might otherwise be persuaded by their arguments are turned off by the attitudes of liberal know-it-alls. A lot of voters aren’t voting against liberal policies so much as they’re voting against liberals.

We would do better if we could combine high purpose with low politics; if we would get off our high horse and stop parading around our moral superiority, stop signaling our virtue so much and talk like normal human beings. Joe Biden is pretty good at this, but much of the rest of his party is not so much.

We cannot “educate” our fellow citizens. We can only talk to them as equals and see if we can find a connection. Then, maybe, we’ll make more progress.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “The Problem With Liberals

  1. In the last presidential election The New York Times took to calling Biden and Buttigieg liberals, and Sanders and Warren progressives. This practice made sense to me, although generally speaking no one seems to want to own the term “liberal.” Sometime it seems that “liberal” is a term defined more by right wingers than liberals themselves. Here you criticize liberals; in other pieces you use the term “hard left.” To mind mind, these are very different concepts. Liberals are the people trying to make free market economics work. They are tolerant of other people’s perspectives. They try to base their thinking on facts, science, rationality and compassion for disadvantaged groups. In other words, they lose a lot of arguments to people with sound bites and gotcha talking points. I think liberals play the role of moderates. I consider myself a liberal because I stand for governmental interventions such as Social Security and Clean Air. In the height of Black Lives Matter I read books by Black American authors and articles about police dept. management practices — shouting in the streets, not so much. I think it would be valuable to define your terms. It seems everyone needs a brand.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: