Liberal Failure and the Hazards of Armchair Psychoanalysis

A quite intelligent liberal progressive friend of mine recently shared this cute little test by Reza Aslan comparing the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei to Rick Santorum. It is a quiz wherein you are supposed to guess which quote came from the Ayatollah and which came from Santorum. You can take it here: Grand Ayatollah or Grand Old Party?

I found it depressing. I know it’s supposed to be cute, although a lot of people will take it very seriously. Even though I would never vote for Rick Santorum, I found it ludicrously easy. I got it 100% right on the first go, and only wavered for a few seconds on one of the questions.

It doesn’t help that the layout of the test is inherently confusing, which one suspects may have been on purpose. On each page, the answer to the previous question is found, so if you’re not looking carefully you’ll misread it. But otherwise, it’s easy.

While I dislike Santorum considerably, I find the test symptomatic of the deep-seated inability of today’s American Liberals to even understand American Conservatives. I find this troubling because I believe this is a huge weakness for progressives that makes it harder for them to win arguments and, more important, win elections. If you fundamentally misunderstand your opponent, you are far more likely to lose to him.

Your average Santorum supporter does not believe she wants women subjugated, does not believe that she opposes higher education, and does not believe we need to undo democracy. Nor does she particularly want to create a theocracy in America. If you describe her this way, you have just cut off meaningful communication because all you’ve done is insult her.

Whenever I read the more infuriating right-wing web sites and commentators, they are filled with people who create ludicrous stereotypes of liberals and spend a ridiculous amount of time psychoanalyzing them in a way that probably vaguely describes maybe a quarter of the world’s liberals at most. There are certainly whole segments of the right-wing press and web sites that are like that. Whenever I see them I think, “OK, they’ve got it a little right, but these people are mostly stupid and it’s going to cost them elections.”

And this stupidity does, by the way, often cost right wingers elections. But only in certain parts of the country.

On the other hand, if you spend some time looking, it doesn’t take long before you can start finding sane conservative voices who don’t do that, who understand their liberal opponents’ arguments very well, and who comment with the respect that comes from such understanding.

Furthermore, when I look to the progressive/liberal commentariat, I am even more aghast: they’re frequently as bad or worse than the most rabid right-wingers at understanding their opponents, and that blindness, to my eye, looks entirely mainstream within the liberal community. As someone who cannot stand Rick Santorum, I am aghast that any progressive would be so ignorant of how the modern populist American conservative thinks that he would have any trouble at all passing that test.

Maybe if you know nothing of significance of Iranian politics, maybe that would excuse getting one or two of those wrong, but really? On the whole? The only excuse for not being able to immediately spot the difference is that you have been too intellectually lazy to to try to understand your conservative opponents’ arguments and points of view.

And this is the most important point: If you do not understand your opponents’ arguments and point of view, you are much less likely to win arguments or votes from people who do. And in some other parts of the country, this blindness has caused progressives to lose huge numbers of votes. Worse, given that conservative-minded thinkers do outnumber liberal-minded thinkers nationwide, when it comes to Presidential elections it frequently leaves liberals in gape-jawed horror as they watch someone like George Bush or Ronald Reagan get elected and ask themselves “how can this be?” (And are often left with really unbelievably arrogant and stupid answers like “people would rather have a beer with him.”)

The real answer to why conservatives often win when you think they’re too stupid or extreme to win: it’s because you did not work hard enough to really make yourself understand the conservative frame of mind. Bill Clinton did and he won; Barack Obama did and he won too. Obama may lose re-election this year, but if he does, it won’t be because of his failure in this area. But it might be because his supporters fail to understand it.

I can make you a long list of reasons why I would never vote for Rick Santorum. But I would never knowingly quote him out of context, or accuse him of thinking things he probably doesn’t think or confuse his point of view with that of dictatorial theocrats in Iran. Making such comparisons may fill the progressive mind with delicious contempt for the “stupid rubes” and “crazed zealots” who voted for Santorum. But here’s a little hint: those “stupid rubes” and “crazed zealots” know you think that way about them, and that contempt you feel for them just makes them more convinced than ever that the Santorums of the world have it right and that liberals are nasty, stupid, pompous elitists.

You want to be really effective at persuasion and winning votes? Do the intellectual tough work of learning and respecting the real mindset of those who don’t think like you, starting with the assumption that they are at least as bright as you are. Then go even further and try to understand their arguments from multiple angles and not just your own or theirs. So by all this I don’t mean you put yourself into your prejudiced stereotype of their worldview, but really truly try to start with the assumption that these people are potentially every bit as bright as you are and just see things differently. Your goal being to try to see it that way too, as best you can, so you can have a reasonable shot at understanding it.

Yes it’s a lot of work. No it isn’t easy, although the more you do it the less work it becomes. Your reward on the other end is that you may even have your own mind changed on some things but, more important, you can more effectively make your points to people who don’t think like you do.