The Left and the Right finally agree on something:
‘‘Liberal’’ has long been a dirty word to the American political right. It may be shortened, in the parlance of the Limbaugh Belt, to ‘‘libs,’’ or expanded to the offensive portmanteau ‘‘libtards.’’ But its target is always clear. For the people who use these epithets, liberals are, basically, everyone who leans to the left: big-spending Democrats with their unisex bathrooms and elaborate coffee. This is still how polls classify people, placing them on a neat spectrum from ‘‘extremely conservative’’ to ‘‘extremely liberal.’’
Over the last few years, though — and especially 2016 — there has been a surge of the opposite phenomenon: Now the political left is expressing its hatred of liberals, too. For the committed leftist, the ‘‘liberal’’ is a weak-minded, market-friendly centrist, wonky and technocratic and condescending to the working class. The liberal is pious about diversity but ready to abandon any belief at the slightest drop in poll numbers — a person who is, as the folk singer Phil Ochs once said, ‘‘10 degrees to the left of center in good times, 10 degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.’’ The anonymous Twitter account ‘‘liberalism.txt’’ is a relentless stream of images and retweets that supposedly illustrate this liberal vacuousness: say, the chief executive of Patagonia’s being hailed as a leader of ‘‘corporate resistance to Trump,’’ or Chelsea Clinton’s accusing Steve Bannon of ‘‘fat shaming’’ Sean Spicer.
This shift in terminology can be confusing, both politically and generationally — as when baby boomers describe fervent supporters of Bernie Sanders as ‘‘very liberal,’’ unaware that young Sandersistas might find this vomit-inducing. It can also create common ground. Last year, the young (and left-leaning) writer Emmett Rensin published a widely read piece on Vox deriding liberals for their ‘‘smug style’’; soon enough, one longtime adept of the right, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, was expressing his partial approval, writing in Bloomberg View that what contemporary liberalism lacked most was humility. Here was a perspective common to both sides of the old spectrum: that liberals suffered from a serene, self-ratifying belief in their own reasonableness, and that it would spell their inevitable defeat.
When it comes to diagnosing liberalism, both left and right focus on this same set of debilitating traits: arrogance, hypocrisy, pusillanimity, the insulated superiority of what, in 1969, a New York mayoral candidate called the ‘‘limousine liberal.’’ In other words, the features they use to distinguish liberals aren’t policies so much as attitudes. The profane hosts of the popular podcast ‘‘Chapo Trap House,’’ prime originators of the left’s liberal-bashing, spend a good deal of airtime making fun of liberal cultural life, with one common target being fervor for the musical ‘‘Hamilton.’’ ‘‘Nothing has represented them more: a hagiographical musical where they can pretend to be intersectional and pretend to be multicultural,’’ said Felix Biederman, a co-host, on the second episode of the show. ‘‘They have no policy. They’re all cultural signifiers.’’
And now we know what to call moderates…. However, after much reflection, I think I may have finally landed upon a useful rhetorical term: spectator. Mull it over and try it out the next time you happen to have a moderate cluck-clucking and waving his finger at you.