There are plenty of people on the left and right who get a kick out of egging on their opponents for giggles. That's bad news for our public discourse.

Reason Magazine’s Katherine Mangu-Ward, in a March 9 op-ed in the New York Times, ​addressed America's “tone” problem. Liberal culture, she posited, has grown insufferably smug, while conservative culture has become addicted to trolling it. There's no simple answer to how this got started, but there's plenty of blame to go around.


  • The weapons. The populist right has adopted into its playbook the practice of baiting political opponents. The left has embraced a tone of moral superiority.

  • The never-ending story. The two political tribes now fuel each other's worst tendencies. Liberal smugness is an easy target for conservative trolling, which in turn amplifies the feeling among liberals that they're the only ones taking things seriously.

  • The origin? Mangu-Ward offered a genesis story for this phenomenon. In 2004 Jon Stewart went on CNN's “Crossfire,” then hosted by Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. Rather than play along, Stewart used the platform to criticize the very show he was on. "It's not so much that it's bad," Stewart said about the show, "as that it's hurting America." For Mangu-Ward, this was the moment when liberal conceit went mainstream. (Worth pointing: Stewart didn't push a liberal agenda during his appearance on Crossfire. His criticism was that the show was mistaking sensationalization with real debate.)

  • Different moral taste buds. But why the smugness in the first place? Mangu-Ward offered NYU professor Jonathan Haidt's explanation. The two tribes have different moral palates, argues Haidt. What for conservatives counts as moral touchstones -- loyalty, respect, and sanctity -- gets perceived by liberals as “xenophobia, authoritarianism and Puritanism.”

  • Trolling the indignant. The young, usually populist, right adopted trolling as a technique to burst the left's sense of moral superiority. The more angrier the smug liberal's response, the happier the troll.

  • Legislative gridlock and substance-free debate. These tonal tensions, according Mangu-Ward, have ramped up in response to the fecklessness of Congress. As budgets and major policy issues like DACA get “hopelessly stalled”, it's no shock, she wrote, that “political squabbling... has become increasingly aesthetics-focused and content devoid.”


The smug. Late night talk show hosts seem to have now fully embraced the role of indignant liberal preachers. Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Jimmy Kimmel, and Samantha Bee, their style stronger than their arguments, will often cloak in smugness a host of unexamined assumptions.

Indeed, during the 2000-aughts, smugness has developed as an almost-heroic character trait in pop culture in general. Tony Stark, Dr. Gregory House, Alan Shore are but a few examples of small and big screen protagonists whose intellect is so manifestly superior they usually can't be bothered explaining why everyone else is wrong. 

The trolls. The reaction started on social media and invaded politics. Firebrands like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich became the faces of a real movement. This, of course, all leads to Trump, who to many seems as the ultimate troll, knowing effortlessly exactly where to poke liberals in order to get their heads to explode.

In March 2016, Yiannopoulos made a very similar argument on The Rubin Report.

The damage. This is not a positive sign for the American republic.

Smugness has alienated the left from much of the public, and handicapped liberals' ability to truly understand what drives people on the right. On the other side, the right's trolling penchant has become so pervasive that it's often difficult to discern what's a real line of argument and what's only snowflake baiting.

Between those two trends, the space for real conversation diminishes, and with it any hope of finding real, bipartisan solutions to the multitude of social and economic problems that desperately require immediate attention.

Reversing the trend? One group that's working to bridge the partisan gap calls itself the Better Angels. It brings red and blue Americans together in the same room in an effort to show that hated opponents are neither “libtards” and “racists," but real humans, Americans, who, like anyone else, just want a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

We need more of this.