Can We Be Done With the “Annoying Liberals Caused Trump” Narrative?

This is a response to this article:

A friend of mine shared this article the other day, and while I think his intentions were to comment on how liberals’ use of shaming turns away potential allies, there are issues with this article that go far beyond a disagreement on how activists should behave.

The central argument of the article is that Democrats supposedly judge too harshly on the personal choices of every day people and in doing so turn off potential supporters. He calls this the “hamburger problem:”

“Suppose you’re a middle-income man with a full-time job…Suppose it’s a Sunday in the early fall, and your plan for today is to relax, have a burger, and watch a football game…But you may find that liberals have a fewpoints of concern they want to raise about what you mistakenly thought was your fundamentally nonpolitical plan for the day. Liberals want you to know that you should eat less meat so as to contribute less to global warming. They’re concerned that your diet is too high in sodium and saturated fat. They’re upset that the beef in your hamburger was factory-farmed.”

Barro goes on to give a few more examples of Democrats supposedly commenting on the personal choices of the everyday person, and accuses Democrats of “moral busybodying.” The problem is, all of his examples have one or more of these three problems:

1. They aren’t issues that Leftists or Democrats generally deride people for. Telling people they shouldn’t eat meat, criticizing people for not buying electric cars, shaming people for having too many children because it’s bad for the environment, getting upset over most viral videos, and telling people not to watch football are not actually things most liberals, Democrats, or Leftists do. As someone who very much runs in all three of the above circles, I can assure you that these are not mainstream issues. Sure, vegans and/or vegetarians might choose to proselytize with environmentalist and health-centric arguments on occasion, but they hardly make up the majority of Democrats, Leftists, or liberals, and certainly this does not happen enough to cause people to be turned off to the Democrats entirely. Electric car sales were around 150,000 last year, mostly in California. Most liberals don’t even own and/or can’t afford a hybrid car, let alone an electric one. There’s no way there could be enough assholes with electric cars to make shaming someone for not having one a common occurrence.

The irony of Barro using liberals arguing that football is problematic as an example is that he is correct, but the article he cites to support his argument talks about a completely unrelated reason. He cites a Sports Illustrated article about Malcolm Gladwell thinking football is barbaric. Malcolm Gladwell alone hardly represents any large group let alone liberals as a whole, nor is Sports Illustrated a mouthpiece for liberals of any sort. The actual reason some liberals take issue with the NFL (specifically the NFL as an organization, not football as a sport) is because it has such a large viewership despite many star players having a history of domestic abuse, and also because the league often doles out half-hearted punishments when they find out a player is a domestic abuser. But of course, Barro doesn’t mention this, as he likely knows even his readers probably won’t look favorably upon him for asserting liberals should be less concerned about domestic abuse. 
 2. Barro conflates social justice issues with Democrat issues. The mainstream issues pushed by Democrats and the social justice issues pushed by activists often don’t actually intersect. Of course most social justice activists will agree with Democrats on a lot of ballot issues such as abortion, better access to healthcare, and raising the minimum wage, but Barro is citing examples that occur more in the personal sphere, like man-spreading, gendering children from a young age, and the racism of the Washington Redskins. Democratic candidates don’t generally adopt most super social justice-y issues that people find “annoying,” probably because people find them annoying. You didn’t see Hillary rally the Democratic troops around issues like mansplaining.

Still, it is possible that when Barro states that this is his advice to “Democrats,” he means the everyday party member, not candidates. In which case, there is still a problem, because the social justice issues he’s citing are often pushed by people who don’t identify as Democrats and might not even support democratic candidates. People leftist enough to talk to people about the issues mentioned above often take issue with the New Democrats’ neoliberal economic policies. In sum, social justice advocates and Democrats often aren’t the same people and don’t always push the same issues.
3. Barro de-legitimizes social justice issues to appeal to those who already don’t believe they are real problems. Man-spreading may not be a big deal, but it is real, it’s very annoying, and it is a good example of men literally taking up space they shouldn’t be. Turning an indigenous group of people into a mascot is racist. If Barro and “working class white voters” don’t want to see these issues as legitimate then no one can stop them, but telling liberals/Democrats/social justice activists (who knows who he’s actually talking to) that they’re just “moralizing busybodies” to downplay issues they are concerned with without giving any reason as to why these issues aren’t valid isn’t effective.

The problems I have outlined above are reason enough to question the legitimacy of Barro’s claims. To anyone within liberal, Democrat, or social justice circles (supposedly the people he’s supposed to be advising), he’s already proven himself to be completely out of touch with what issues they push and who pushes them. But on top of this, Barro makes claims that are vastly unsupported.

Firstly, Barro claims “Most of the discussion of this trend has focused on non-college-educated white voters, who have swung heavily toward Republicans; but Democrats should also be worried about their disconnect with non-college-educated nonwhite voters, whose turnout declined precipitously in 2016.” Sure, a lot of people of color weren’t enthused about Hillary, but 80+ percent of black voters still voted for her. According to Gallup, it is actually uneducated white people who support Trump, while people of color do not. Barro doesn’t actually provide any link between the slight dip in support from people of color for Democrats between 2012 and 2016 (which can pretty easily be explained by the fact that Obama rallied the support of people of color like no candidate before for obvious reasons) and the “moral busybodying” he’s complaining about. I find it gross that he tries to pretend that people of color in general share his complaints about “moral busybodying” and that it is causing Democrats to lose favor with them. It comes off as a rather feeble attempt to make it seem like it’s not mostly white uneducated men who find social justice issues annoying. 
Secondly, Barro states that poor people should agree with the Democrats’ economic agenda: “Democrats believe they have an economic agenda that would help you — for example, by relieving your substantial childcare costs. You’re not particularly religious, and you’re not thrilled about Republican complaints about gay marriage and marijuana. You don’t make enough money to benefit much from Republican tax-cut proposals.” In actuality, The New Democrats neoliberal economic polices may be a big reason why the working class feels abandoned by Democrats. Bernie Sanders’s rhetoric about sticking it to the one percent and criticisms of free trade were a huge reason why he became so popular. Trump supporters are very anti free-trade, and Hillary very much represents that brand of neo-liberal democrat for a large part of the working class. It seems Barro’s assertion here is opposite reality.

Thirdly, Barro states “Objectively, you would think the groups most substantively exposed to risk from the Trump presidency are low-income people who face benefit cuts and members of minority groups against whom he whips up and indulges negative sentiment. Yet, as the Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini has pointed out in his analyses of turnout in House special elections, the “resistance” surge in Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout is occurring almost entirely among college-educated whites.” The tweet he cites shows that the percentage of college educated people in a district could predict higher Democrat and Independent turnout, but not Republican. This hardly proves that resistance to Trump is only within college educated white people. The “resistance” shows itself in so many ways other than Democratic turnout in special elections. This is an incredible jump to make from the data he cites.

Finally we come to the most glaring issue about Barro’s argument: there’s actually no evidence that the “moral busybodying” he accuses liberals and Democrats of had literally any effect on how people voted. In fact, based on the findings of Pew Research, the economy was the main reason people voted the way they did across the board. It also finds that Trump supporters simply don’t care about how LGBTQ+ people and people of color are treated while Democrats do. That’s differing priorities, not people being annoyed by “moral busybodying.” The “cultural disconnect” that Barro describes between Democrats and uneducated white voters is at least, in part, racism and xenophobia.

Admittedly, the concept of “moral busybodying” would be a difficult issue to poll since it’s a fairly abstract and amorphous concept, but this research shows that despite his claims that Democrats aren’t concerned with actual policy, Democrats voted based on the candidates’ stances on specific ballot issues.

It’s not just Barro’s argument of what the problem is that doesn’t make sense, but also his solution. Thankfully Barro does admit that white racial resentment played a part in Trump’s election. But he suggests: “I should mention the important role that white racial resentment played in Trump’s rise…when Democratic politicians talk about it, they should be careful not to sound like they’re telling white voters they should feel guilty about their choices. Certainly, there were ugly preferences among many voters, nearly all of them white, that animated Trump’s rise. Trump’s vilification of Mexicans and Muslims, his portrayal of black neighborhoods as hellish, his sexist attitude toward women — these appealed to an uncomfortably large number of white people. For a substantial number of voters, a vote for Trump was a vote to restore white cultural power. Many liberals have looked at this and thrown their hands up: Clinton was right about Trump’s voters being deplorable, and there’s no way to meet them halfway on “culture” because that will ultimately mean indulging bigotry. I think it makes more sense to think of Trump’s voters as being like any heterodox coalition, which you seek to defeat by splitting it. Offer what you can to win some of them over without conceding on what you hold dearest.

But if you’ve already admitted that white racial resentment is what is causing them to vote for Trump, then how is “meeting them halfway” not appealing to white racial resentment? Should we let it go that they threw more than half the American population under the bus because of their racism and xenophobia? Why would it be good for any of the minority groups that liberals are trying to advocate for to compromise on white racial resentment? Sometimes making people feel guilty is good. That’s how people know they have acted wrongly. Should we label them as deplorables and leave the conversation there? Of course not. But catering to people who are essentially racist but not necessarily as racist as other people isn’t the answer either.

What we can take from Barro’s article is that, as we’ve been told before many times, a lot of white moderates and conservatives find liberals smug and annoying. And that’s about it, because if we accept that there’s a difference between social justice activists and Democrats, then his advice is basically meaningless. There isn’t a whole lot less “moral busybodying” that democratic candidates can do, therefore this article boils down to complaining that activists are too annoying and that they should calm down because they are turning people off. We should all be aware by now that this is a tired argument that has been woefully repeated in lazy think-pieces again and again and again.

Perhaps the most useful part of this article is that it shows that people who don’t like liberal ideas are ignorant about the basic issues they are concerned with and like to conflate Democrats with social justice advocates because it makes for a more cohesive narrative when deriding things like political correctness.
What commentators like Barro don’t seem to realize is that social justice activists are very much aware that the issues they bring up annoy people, especially moderate and conservative white men, and they don’t care. Throughout history the opposition has always told progressives that they are going “too far,” that they are too extreme, and that need to sit down and shut up and be happy with whatever strides they’ve made already. This is the same idea Martin Luther King Jr. responded to over fifty years ago in the Letter From Birmingham Jail. Social justice activists expect people to get annoyed and want them to stop when they tell someone there’s a problem with what they’re doing, what they’re saying, their culture, or what they believe. Does that mean social justice advocates should stop? Obviously not if they think that these problems are still problems.
Lastly, let’s entertain the idea that maybe some people voted for Trump because they were so sick of liberals telling them that things they like or do are problematic. In my opinion, if they honestly voted for Trump because they were so annoyed by liberals or political correctness that they were willing to sacrifice the rights, freedoms, and safety of womyn, LGBTQ+ persons, people of color, immigrants, and Muslims, then absolutely no one should change for them even if it would get their vote.

Barro asks “You’re not particularly religious, and you’re not thrilled about Republican complaints about gay marriage and marijuana. You don’t make enough money to benefit much from Republican tax-cut proposals. But are you going to entrust the power of government to the side of the debate that’s been so annoyingly judgmental about your life choices? Do you trust those people to have your best interests at heart?” The answer is yes. Absolutely yes. I’m a staunch atheist, but if a super religious candidate who thinks you should stay a virgin til marriage and believes I’m a heathen going to hell proposes universal healthcare and regulations on banks to prevent another recession, I’m going to vote for them over the libertarian candidate who agrees with me that god doesn’t exist but proposes further tax cuts on the rich and getting rid of civil rights regulations on states. Why? Because I’m not a petty person who is going to sacrifice important issues because someone’s judgments on my personal choices annoys me. Barro’s explanation for moderate Trump supporters is that they’re so petty and immature that they’ll vote against most issues that actually affect them because they find liberals annoying.

Barro’s explanation behind why people supported Trump is simply insufficient. When it comes to actual data, we don’t have much reason to believe that people voted for Trump as a fuck you to liberals. We have reason to believe that they voted for him because they believed in and agreed with him. These people voted for Trump, not against “moral busybodying.”