The Liberal Cocoon
It’s comfortable living in a cocoon — associating only with those who share your views, reading journalism and watching news that only reinforces them, avoiding those on the other side of the cultural divide.This kind of liberal cocooning explains how a bunch of Marquette professors can sign a letter attacking Paul Ryan’s budget. The problem with the letter is not that they disagree with Ryan. It’s that they simply can’t argue the case. Their letter entirely refuses to discuss specifics, and assumes that the concept of “solidarity” requires one to believe in ever increasing government spending, ever more generous welfare programs, and ever increasing dependency on government. Views at odds with this simply aren’t heard, and therefore are never contemplated.
Liberals have been doing this for a long time. In 1972, the movie critic Pauline Kael said it was odd that Richard Nixon was winning the election, because everyone she knew was for George McGovern.
Kael wasn’t clueless about the rest of America. She was just observing that her own social circle was politically parochial.
The rest of us have increasingly sought out comfortable cocoons, too. Journalist Bill Bishop, who lives in an Austin, Texas, neighborhood whose politics resemble Kael’s, started looking at national data.
It inspired him to write his 2009 book “The Big Sort,” which describes how Americans since the 1970s have increasingly sorted themselves out, moving to places where almost everybody shares their cultural orientation and political preference — and the others keep quiet about theirs.
Thus professionals with a choice of where to make their livings head for the San Francisco Bay Area if they’re liberal and for the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (they really do call it that) if they’re conservative. Over the years the Bay Area becomes more liberal and the Metroplex more conservative.
But cocooning has an asymmetrical effect on liberals and conservatives. Even in a cocoon, conservatives cannot avoid liberal mainstream media, liberal Hollywood entertainment and, these days, the liberal Obama administration.
They’re made uncomfortably aware of the arguments of those on the other side. Which gives them an advantage in fashioning their own responses.
Liberals can protect themselves better against assaults from outside their cocoon. They can stay out of megachurches and make sure their remote controls never click on Fox News. They can stay off the AM radio dial so they will never hear Rush Limbaugh.
The problem is that this leaves them unprepared to make the best case for their side in public debate. They are too often not aware of holes in arguments that sound plausible when bandied between confreres entirely disposed to agree.
We have seen how this works on some issues this year.
Take the arguments developed by professor Randy Barnett of Georgetown Law that Obamacare’s mandate to buy health insurance is unconstitutional. Some liberal scholars like Jack Balkin of Yale have addressed them with counterarguments of their own.
But liberal politicians and Eric Holder’s Justice Department remained clueless about them. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asked whether Obamacare was unconstitutional, could only gasp: “Are you serious? Are you serious?”
In March, after the Supreme Court heard extended oral argument on the case, CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin was clearly flabbergasted that a majority of justices seemed to take the case against Obamacare’s constitutionality very seriously indeed.
Liberals better informed about the other side’s case might have drafted the legislation in a way to avoid this controversy. But nothing they heard in their cocoon alerted them to the danger.
Another case in point is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s law restricting the bargaining powers of public employee unions. The unions and the crowds in Madison, which is both the state capital and a university town and which with surrounding Dane County voted 73 to 26 percent for Barack Obama, egged each other on with cries that this would destroy the working class. No one they knew found this implausible.
The unions had an economic motive to oppose the laws and seek to recall first Republican legislators and then Walker himself. The law ended the automatic checkoff of union dues, which operated as an involuntary transfer of money from taxpayers to union leaders.
But voters declined to recall enough Republicans to give Democrats a majority in the Senate, and Walker currently leads Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in polls on the June 5 recall election.
The Madison mob seemed unaware that there were attractive arguments on Walker’s side.
Why should public employee union members pay less for health insurance and get fatter pensions than the taxpayers who pay their salaries? Why is it a bad thing for property taxes to be held down and for school districts to cut perks for union members enough to hire more teachers?
Beyond the Madison cocoon, in Wisconsin’s other 71 counties, which voted 55 to 44 percent for Walker in 2010, such arguments are evidently proving persuasive. Maybe liberals should listen to Rush every so often.
We’ve run across this kind of insularity among our own political science colleagues — and political scientists are very far from being the biggest yahoos in academia. Compared to psychology, sociology and the humanities, the discipline is a refuge of sanity.
But during the 2008 election season, we had a colleague going on about how Sarah Palin had supposedly labeled the Iraq War a “mission from God.” This was, he believed, a terrible thing to say, although we wonder why Julia Ward Howe is never condemned for writing a song declaring that another war in American history was a mission from God. Anyway, our colleague did not seem to know who Julia Ward Howe was.
Having seen this debunked on Fox News, we corrected him and send a YouTube link putting the Palin remark in context. He relented on this issue, and we advised him that he needed to look at a broader range of media. He was offended, and demanded an apology. We, of course, will never apologize for giving somebody good advice, and didn’t in this case.
We likewise have a colleague who apologized to a class of students for showing them an interview that was broadcast on Fox News. It was an interview with an important policy maker, and it actually mattered little what outlet broadcast it. But he felt he needed to be apologetic for showing an interview on a channel that liberal academics consider to be outside the pale.
If this sort of thing happens in political science, imagine how bad things are in the humanities. But actually, we don’t have to imagine. We have blogged on multiple cases.