Commentary: Liberal ignorance explained

News & Politics

A common perception on the left holds that conservatives are simply uneducated, ignorant, and uninformed and, for that reason, are prone to buying into all manner of disinformation and wacky conspiracy theories. And, like it or not, the highly educated are overwhelmingly left-leaning.

But “highly educated” is not the same as highly informed. On that score, the numbers and a bit of common sense tell us the real story.

In dealing with my liberal friends, however, I’ve noticed the exact opposite of the common perception that conservatives are information-challenged. While conservatives are usually familiar with mainstream narratives and alternative narratives, the vast majority of my liberal brethren are only familiar with the mainstream media’s take on the issues of the moment.

Name virtually any topic. It could be the Ukraine War, COVID-19, collusion between the Biden administration and big tech to censor speech, the Trump indictments, the events of January 6, 2021 or the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020. Liberals can confidently parrot the propaganda they are fed, but they are missing big chunks of information.

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This is part of what makes communicating with liberals about politics so challenging: They think we are ignorant rubes. In reality, most of us know what they know and additional facts about which they are wholly unaware and which they reflexively dismiss. If they didn’t hear about it on MSNBC, is it even real?

Consider the war in Ukraine. Liberals seem entirely unaware of the specific, aggressive steps the United States took under President Obama to support the overthrow of the democratically elected, pro-Russian president of Ukraine in 2014 and install a handpicked pro-Western president in his stead. The coup was made to look like a spontaneous democratic uprising, but Russian President Vladimir Putin perceived it as a threat. That led directly to Russia’s seizure of Crimea almost immediately afterward.

Nor do liberals know of the very specific and concrete steps that longtime Putin-hating war hawk Joe Biden took soon after assuming the presidency to extend to Ukraine membership in NATO. Biden knew full well that inducting a nation with a deep ethnic, historical, linguistic, and geographic bond with Russia into NATO — an alliance hostile to Russia — was a red line for Putin and would almost certainly lead to war. He and his administration did it anyway.

They are unaware, too, that Russia and Ukraine agreed to a tentative peace deal back in April 2022, not long after the war began, under which Russia would withdraw to its pre-war positions and Ukraine would agree not to join NATO. But the United States and Great Britain scuttled the deal, as both countries had an interest in seeing the conflict continue.

Finally, liberals appear unaware that the war, which is heavily favored by the military-industrial complex, is driving a massive increase in demand for weaponry and thus represents billions in earnings for U.S. and allied defense contractors. Meanwhile, billions in aid to Ukraine spent on the public’s dime contributes to runaway inflation.

Of course, none of this is to say that Putin is a great guy for launching the brutal Ukraine invasion. But it is to say that the invasion didn’t happen on the anti-interventionist Donald Trump’s watch for a reason. War began soon after Biden and his team of neoconservative and neoliberal war hawks seized the reins of power once again.

When I say that liberals are unfamiliar with these facts, I am not suggesting that most conservatives know all or even some of this specific information about this particular issue. The fact that conservatives are far more likely than liberals to oppose our continuing role in arming Ukraine and prolonging the conflict suggests they may be more up on the general category of information critical of our intervention.

What I am saying, rather, is that due to the greater range of information to which they are exposed, conservatives are far more likely to come across these facts in one of their right-leaning sources, as you just have. Notably, even when a Democrat such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. makes some of these same points, it is often in interviews with the likes of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.

The same pattern largely holds for numerous key facts concerning the COVID pandemic. Liberals are far more likely to trust “the science” rather than examine the real scienceand facts on COVID’s origins, lockdowns, masks and vaccines. That’s also true for other issues ranging from illegal immigration to big tech’s censorship of speech.

So why are these ostensibly “highly educated” liberals often so ignorant, exhibiting a knee-jerk reaction against reality?

First, research has shown that education today actually crystallizes political prejudices and correlates with intolerance towards one’s ideological opponents. Education results in especially misinformed perceptions of Republicans among Democrats. As the More in Common Project’s “perception gap” research shows, Democrats’ distorted views of Republicans and what they believe increase with every additional degree earned. The researchers speculate that part of the effect may be due to the fact that as education increases, a greater percentage of those with whom Democrats (but not Republicans) associate have pretty much the exact same political views.

In other words, higher education plunges liberals into a leftist ideological monoculture. In fact, as a different survey by the American Enterprise Institute shows, many liberals — liberal women in particular — are active about plunging themselves further into that monoculture: Twice as many liberals (20%) as conservatives (10%) have ended a friendship over political differences, with liberal women (33%) leading the way in taking this ignominious step. Anyone who has had the experience of dealing with the typical outspoken, intolerant, and herd-minded liberal woman who thinks anyone outside her bubble is Nazi-adjacent would not find that last data point all that shocking.

Significantly, the More in Common research also shows that those who consume the most media have the most distorted (read:uninformed) views of the “other side.” So much for the media contributing to our enlightenment! But the more important point here is that if the media and everyone with whom you associate are echoing your own views back to you, you are inherently far less likely to approach those views with anything like open-minded skepticism. This, in turn, drives ignorance of accurate information from alternative sources.

Ironically, a Marxian line of argument known as “standpoint theory,” stemming from the work of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács and advanced in various forms by feminist thinkers and others, such as the Brazilian Marxist educator Paolo Freire and the far-left critical theorist José Medina, does a decent job of accounting for the disparity in a related but slightly different way. The main idea behind standpoint theory is that while everyone has access to mainstream information, various “oppressed” groups — the poor, women, minorities, etc. — by virtue of the life experience yielded by their outsider perches (standpoints) on society’s margins, have access to additional information not available to those “privileged” persons whose experience is solely of mainstream life. They may, for example, be proficient in multiple dialects — both the standard common tongue and various patois, pidgins, and creoles — and may be plugged in not only to pop culture but also to street culture.

The theory itself has its blind spots, as the reality is that members of “oppressed” classes are far less likely to be proficient in the general domain of high culture than at least a subset of the dominant group. But the point remains and applies with special force in the case of liberals and conservatives: Because mainstream media is dominated by liberals and the left, pretty much everyonegets schooled in prevailing leftist views. But conservatives are necessarily conversant both with those views and with conservative alternatives. Their vantage point also instills a healthy skepticism about dominant narratives, which results in an open-mindedness to other people’s ways of seeing the world — exactly what today’s intolerant liberals often lack.

And that is how we get to a nation in which those who think themselves the most educated, enlightened, tolerant, and open-minded among us in fact routinely embody the exact opposite of all those virtues. To fix these common liberal afflictions will require a liberal dose of humility.

Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney in New York specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a writer of poetry, fiction, drama, essays, and polemics.

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