Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks’ projected all of his anxieties about class in America onto one ill-fated visit to a “gourmet sandwich shop.” This week, Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro followed with his own lamentation on the left’s “hamburger problem.” A sure-fire way to heal America’s politically polarized culture, apparently, is through our stomachs.
Suppose you're a middle-income man with a full-time job, a wife who also works outside the home, and some children. 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.
Conservatives will say, "Go ahead, that sounds like a nice Sunday." (In the Trump era, they're not going to bother you about not going to church.) But you may find that liberals have a few points 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.
I guess “don’t be a condescending asshole” is now a legitimate political strategy that all Democrats — politicians, pundits and civilians alike — can employ to convince their Republican and independent friends and families to vote for Democratic policies, which according to Barro are actually winning, unlike Democrats themselves.
“As I see it, Democrats' problem isn't that they're on the wrong side of policy issues,” he writes. “It's that they're too ready to bother too many ordinary people about too many of their personal choices, all the way down to the hamburgers they eat.”
I have no idea if Barro is right about burgers. He’s certainly the expert on the topic, while I haven’t eaten one in 15 years, a fact I usually try to downplay as much as possible. In my experience as a person who eats every day in a Red State, not in Manhattan, meat lovers are way more eager to unload their unsolicited meat feelings onto me than the other way around. But Barro is wrong about the fundamental premise of his “be less annoying” thesis: that liberals are now the morally judgmental ones and conservatives aren’t — at least not anymore, now that Donald Trump is president.
It’s likely that in some affluent communities Republicans and Democrats sort themselves primarily through petty consumer choices — the Escalade vs. Prius divide — and the biggest culture wars revolve around spats between in-laws over the fat content at the Fourth of July cookout, homeowners’ association brawls over gas-powered leaf blower use and school controversies over insensitive Halloween costumes. (“[A]nything but blackface” should be acceptable, Barro suggests, to my predictable confusion and amazement.) But Barro’s claim that “in the past few years, conservatives have made a strategic retreat from telling people what to do in their personal lives” is pretty disingenuous:
They have accordingly shifted from trying to impose their moral vision on the whole society to trying to carve out a space to live under that vision within a private sphere.
You can see this even in the nomination of Trump. Trump is full of gross judgments of people based on who they are, but he's less inclined than past Republican candidates to judge people based on what they do — in part because Trump wants to preserve social space for his own gross behavior.
Trump's gross behavior is tolerated by his culturally conservative supporters because he is willing to support many of the policies they care about in exchange for their votes. He made that very clear on the campaign trail. But as Barro sees it, a vote for Trump is a vote against manners snobs, not a divide between cultural progressives and those who feel their cultural power is waning because of gains made by others.
Americans “have come to favor same-sex marriage by 30 points,” Barro writes, omitting how much work it took on the part of cultural advocates and activists, including two landmark Supreme Court cases, to make same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Does Barro really believe that two years after Obergefell, conservatives in the hold-out states have just forgotten how much distaste they have for LGBT “lifestyles?” Has he asked them?
Hell, most Americans voting in the last presidential election “came to favor” Hillary Clinton by November 8, but last time I checked, all that (plus an undisclosed sum from Simon & Schuster) got a Democrat was on the pre-order list for a new collection of inspirational essays.
“Nondiscrimination laws to protect gay people are even more popular,” Barro points out helpfully, and most Americans “oppose requiring transgender people to use bathrooms that match their sex at birth.”
And yet as of the end of 2016, fewer than half of the states have laws preventing discrimination against LGBT people. Meanwhile, 16 state legislatures in the 2017 session considered bills that would restrict transgender bathroom and locker room use. That doesn’t sound like a “strategic retreat from telling people what to do” at all. Rather, it looks like exactly what it is: a strategic pivot toward attacking the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community, those who have less cultural clout and organized money behind them than same-sex marriage proponents. To suggest that fighting against this kind of harmful legislation is tantamount to sniffing at a neighbor’s refusal to bring his own reusable tote bags to the grocery store is absurd. I know, it is super annoying of me to point that out.
Maybe Barro’s burger eater won’t get any static from his conservative neighbors for skipping church, as long as it’s not because he’s a Muslim or an atheist, but that doesn’t mean Christian conservatives, a key part of Trump’s constituency, are too busy wringing tax breaks for Biblical theme parks out of gullible state agencies to still mix it up in a culture war battle or two. The Southern Baptist Convention — the second-largest Christian denomination in the U.S. — approved a resolution in 2014 to “oppose steadfastly all efforts by any governing official or body to validate transgender identity as morally praiseworthy” and “oppose all cultural efforts to validate claims to transgender identity.” These aren’t merely recommendations for how conservative Baptists might “carve out a space” for their private moral visions, they’re strategic policy resolutions for the membership and polity to pursue, which, by the looks of the last legislative session, they have.
“And universal background checks to buy guns are even more popular than that,” Barro continues. So the NRA was totally out of touch with its constituency when it released that “clenched fist of truth” ad last month? That was just a good old-fashioned raspberry to the schoolmarms on the Left?
Barro does admit that the wedge that won’t budge is abortion rights, “a closely divided issue on which public opinion has barely shifted since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973,” but he downplays the significance of the issue for actual women who live in states where Republicans continue to work tirelessly to restrict our rights. In Kentucky, for example, the only abortion clinic left open is suing the state government to keep its doors open after the “unapologetically pro-life” Gov. Matt Bevin made it a mission to close all abortion facilities down in the state over the past year. Can someone please tell Matt Bevin about the strategic retreat?
Look, we Americans are annoying, period — on both sides of the aisle. But getting distracted by personal acts of rudeness isn't going help the Left win any major battles, and we still have battles — be they economic, scientific or on racial and gender justice — to fight. Cultural pressure, both gentle and aggressive, does work to move the dial on public opinion. But it's naive to think that being less eager to mock what strangers choose to eat — inclusive of whatever broad cultural sins of the Left this burger shaming's supposed to stand in for — will clinch the vote next time, just as it's condescending to suggest that what conservative voters care about the most is what a snotty colleague thinks about lunch.