The Unbearable Smugness of the Enlightened Left


Well, it’s late summer time again, so it must be time for another round of internecine blog fighting here in Montana. Yesterday, I posted a call for increasing the minimum wage, and received a typically thoughtful response from JC from 4and20blackbirds:

Yawn. Typical liberal fare.

Smug “progressive” cynicism like that really pisses me off.

The minimum wage matters. Increasing it to the level it should be, if simply adjusted for inflation, would raise the standard of living for 28 million people. Abortion rights matter. Access to healthcare for millions of people who have pre-existing conditions, who are in college, or who simply cannot afford to pay for insurance matters. Any number of programs instituted by the federal government, even this administration, have immeasurably improved the lives of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the discriminated against.

Perhaps some of us are privileged enough to be able to ignore the incredibly difficult struggle of families who live on the minimum wage. Perhaps some of us can dismiss all incremental efforts to alleviate poverty and develop effective social programs, but that kind of privilege seems to blind some to the need for government action.

Dismissing the vital importance of critical government programs that alleviate the burden of poverty or protect the rights of women or ensure access to healthcare for our poor, sick, and elderly is …  It may be fashionable in some circles to smugly suggest that government policy is too corporate, too corrupt, too cynical to change the people’s lives, but absent a real alternative, that smugness helps to condemn real people to real poverty.

And the truth is that simply braying for radical change and condemning the current system isn’t an alternative. It’s intellectual onanism, empty and only satisfying for the person doing it.

Even worse, that smug self-righteousness alienates people who would work for the same causes. Had JC the intellectual honesty or decency to ask, he would have found out that I do indeed support the idea of a maximum wage. I’ve supported it since reading about it back in the mid 1990s, when people like Representative Martin Sabo promoted it in Congress.

But supporting a more radical reform of our economic system cannot be an excuse for cynically refusing to engage in incremental reform, especially when that incremental reform will make a profound difference in the lives of real people.

A friend recently posted a quote from David Foster Wallace, who wrote, “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

And I fear that’s the reality of those who seem only interested in criticizing from the outside. Those on the left who are more interested in being the smartest person in the room than in being agents of change, fitful though that change might be, do nearly as much to delay meaningful social progress as the powerful interests who oppose it.

I will not cede the ground of progressivism to those who refuse to acknowledge that it will require both a desire to work within the system to ensure economic and political rights for people today as well as a commitment to a more just future. Wishing for a future utopia while refusing to work for justice today is intellectually and morally bankrupt.

Policies matter. Let’s work to pass the ones we desperately need today, which will matter for millions of people, while dreaming of an even more just, more equitable future.

Is that so complicated to understand?

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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Rob KaileyThe Polish WolfJames ConnerIngemar JohanssonNamelessRange Recent comment authors
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One of your best posts on the subject.
“It may be fashionable in some circles to smugly suggest that government policy is too corporate, too corrupt, too cynical to change the people’s lives, but absent a real alternative, that smugness helps to condemn real people to real poverty.”

Larry Kralj, Environmental Rangers
Larry Kralj, Environmental Rangers

Well said. Pogie, I wish that you would write a guest column for the GF Spitoon on the minimum wage. We were treated to yet ANOTHER bullshit guest editorial today decrying the minimum wage by some moron named glen oppel of (get this) the montana policy institute. He is the “policy director” of the policy institute. The editorial itself is a bizarre mishmash of rightwing bullshit, but THIS is what passes for editorial comment now days in the Spitoon. If it isn’t from a Big Kockh brothers group, it don’t make the ed page at the Spitoon! The Spitoon exhibits… Read more »


economic trends like wage stagnation span decades going in the wrong direction. incremental reform is an allocation of crumbs, and a living wage will die on the lips of the few politicians left who would even dare whisper such a repellant idea to the obscene wealth that has captured our political system.


This is an excellent post, and I agree with HelenaInsider that, “that smugness helps to condemn real people to real poverty” is the crux of the issue. It was Voltaire that said, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien”- The perfect is the enemy of the good. There is more than one reason to support a minimum wage increase, even if doing so wouldn’t “solve” the underlying issues of poverty. One is the argument from pragmatism. Here is something that would immediately affect human beings we all interact with every day. It’s not too radical, and is realistic in its goals.… Read more »


like JC, I also don’t object raising the minimum wage. maybe if we elect more democrats to get that new magical number 60 in the senate, congress could pass a raise in the minimum wage. do you think the blue dogs will go for it? who knows. they’d have to survive a massive propaganda campaign with actual teeth of withheld campaign contributions if they went along with it. ’cause you gotta pay to play, dontchyaknow. meanwhile, Obama continues negotiating the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), so even if modest gains could be made, the framework for corporate overrides is being put in… Read more »

James Conner

It’s okay to use uppercase letters.

The Polish Wolf
The Polish Wolf

” congress could pass a raise in the minimum wage. do you think the blue dogs will go for it?”

They already passed one, five years ago. Remember that? I certainly do. That act by Democrats five years ago puts another sixty bucks a week into my bank account today. That’s what Democrats have done for me. Capping the salaries of executives may make me feel better about the money I have, but thanks to Democrats in congress I actually have more money, and that’s a much better feeling.

Rob Kailey

No serious offense meant Lizard, but it appears at the heart of Pogie’s complaint that it doesn’t seem like you’re fighting at all, much less ‘fighting like hell’. That’s one of the problems with political nihilism. It affords the easy comfort of a Doris Day song, while underpinning the mockery of those who are actually doing the work. Very much the style that another blogger has perfected, it is very easy to point fingers at others for being responsible for the misery in the world while claiming all credit for the comfort that one individual enjoys.

Ingemar Johansson
Ingemar Johansson

Doomed to repeat history.

Don’t cry for me America.

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