The Liberal Imagination 

September 15, 2022 Updated: September 29, 2022

Commentary

When President Joe Biden took the step of casting MAGA citizens as the enemy within, writers and tweeters on the right—the former president included—registered shock and anger, and rightly so.

But I’m willing to bet that a whole lot of conservative Americans without an audience had a different reaction: “I knew this was coming.” After all, a version of this demonization has been happening for decades.

Think of the father in “Footloose,” played by John Lithgow, an uptight tyrant religiously motivated to deny free and healthy expression. Or the murderous gun-toting homophobe in “American Beauty” who is, in truth, repressing his own same-sex desires. Or the sexist husband in “Thelma and Louise,” arrogant and stupid, putting down his wife (while never pleasing her in bed).

These characters are what liberals see when they imagine attendees at a Trump rally. The MAGA voter exists to them only in far-out stereotypes. They don’t find out who the real people are. Images do the work for them, images of Bull Connor, Archie Bunker, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Joe McCarthy, and Mr. Burns in “The Simpsons.”

The MAGA phenomenon exploded in 2015, surprising liberals so much that one day before the 2016 election, liberals leaned back and smiled in blithe joy at the foolish losers on the other side. That Donald Trump would win was laughable. That he did win should have caused them to reconsider their assumptions, to question whether they really understood their adversaries.

But they couldn’t do that. They knew too well how hidebound and primitive was and is the MAGA crowd. Other reasons had to be found (Russia). Liberals are too smart to misjudge their lesser brethren. Trump merely reignited a shameful and all-too-familiar strain in American society, one that goes back to the bad old days of Jim Crow, women in the kitchen, and nativism.

Liberals didn’t need to heed what MAGA thinkers and policymakers had to say. They’d heard it all already. One merely had to translate “America First” into more accurate terms of racism, sexism, …

Academics call this collective sense of social matters a “social imaginary.” It resides precisely in the imaginations of people, what they ordinarily envision people and things to be without looking closely, and how they feel about them, their value, and goodness. People don’t reason their way to these assumptions. It’s not a logical or empirical process.

The imaginary has formed in their heads through hundreds of hours of exposure to “All in the Family,” “Laugh-In,” and “The Daily Show,” films such as “Love, Actually” that pretend to be funny stories but are, in fact, cheap propaganda, news shows such as the one hosted by Bill Moyers, whose solemn air covers up the bilious ideologue underneath, and public art and architecture that scoff at tradition, extol the edgy and controversial (for the thousandth time), and mock the ordinary American who responds to a new installation in the civic plaza, “I don’t get it.”

After 10 years of consumption, the conditioning has settled into the individual mind. Stereotypes have formed; attitudes have congealed. A social imaginary is in place. People experience it unconsciously. It appears to them as truth and fact, not as opinion, and it’s swiftly activated.

Liberals don’t examine Steve Bannon and conclude that he’s a renegade bigot. He appears that way from the very first second.

They don’t judge a Trump supporter a nasty yokel; the perception works faster than that, less inferentially. He just is a nasty yokel. Their imagination tells them so, though they believe they actually see the nasty yokel with their own eyes.

It’s instantaneous; I’ve observed it happen.

The moment a Trump crowd passes on the screen, gasps of disgust follow. Each person in the crowd has an individual story, a unique life, but our liberal groups them into a few handy caricatures that come from the social imaginary and have authority. The imaginary prevails over the reality. Contrary facts don’t disrupt it.

Trump himself brings agreements to the Middle East that every peace-loving liberal should cheer, but none of them can. Years of acculturation don’t dissipate because of a few exceptions. It’s easier to deny one of them than it is to confront a constitutive ingredient of one’s worldview.

This is what MAGA conservatives are up against. Biden’s speech drew upon the imaginary in his demonization. He’s a conduit, not a source.

The Democratic Party in its current state is but the political side of a socioethical vision that media, architecture, academia, and technology have put together for a long time, longer than I’ve been alive.

When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, in fact, professors talked and wrote about this process all the time. It went by the name of “Othering,” whereby a discourse or outlook treated a group or a culture in a dehumanizing way, casting it as “the Other.” The impersonal title was taken as a fair representation of the denial of full humanity to the Other, for instance, the treatment of slaves in proslavery arguments.

The concept carried a lot of weight in 1990. One could rise in a question-and-answer period and accuse a speaker of Othering an individual or an identity, and the charge made the speaker nervous. You weren’t supposed to Other anyone. Don’t strip the Other of agency and subjectivity, the professors insisted. Though they didn’t use the word “stereotype,” it really marked but another turn of the screw, made more academic and theoretical, and no less culpable.

At the same time, however, as academics forbade the Othering of non-mainstream identities and figures of victimhood, academia proceeded to Other any representative of traditional, bourgeois, American life over and over.

Their defense of the native suffering under colonialism and the woman forced into becoming a Stepford wife was balanced by their contempt for conservative types. They de-Othered some and hyper-Othered others, the latter, of course, being white, heterosexual, Christian males. Those bad guys Othered women, minorities, and Third Worlders for long enough. Time for karma. Turnabout is fair play. Revenge is sweet. That was the rationale. They had their time, and now it’s our time. Here, stereotyping had a moral sanction, and it felt very, very good.

This dynamic continues today. Conservatives, in their political contests, face not simply a debate over civics and mores. They also confront a powerful emotional investment liberals have in the Othering of conservatives. They enjoy it; they savor it.

To battle a caricature may be a mode of false consciousness, but the more a liberal demeans a conservative, the higher a liberal rises before the engagement even begins. The pleasure they get in insulting a right-winger shines on their faces. They don’t want to give it up. The joys of superiority are powerful, the position of the prosecutor exhilarating.

In this situation, conservatives aren’t going to overcome their foes by words, facts, and ideas. Liberals will abandon their emotional commitment only when it produces emotional costs. Someone who regards you as a demon, and likes doing so, stops only when he experiences different, unpleasant emotions: fear, embarrassment, and exasperation.

Don’t debate liberal adversaries who won’t treat you fairly. Laugh at them; highlight their weaknesses. The old public square of democratic discussion and competition is over. America is now an ideological-psychological-emotional war zone.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.