People like Thomas Addis Emmet, James Reynolds, William Duane and William MacNeven, along with allies like William Sampson and Mathew and James Carey, saw in America the possibilities of creating a pure republican democracy – the kind of government they had wished to bring about in Ireland.
They were, it turned out, more republican than some republicans. It was hard to tell whether they despised the aristocratic (and, in their view, pro-British) Federalists more or less than they despised fellow Jeffersonian republicans deemed too willing to compromise on their ideals.
What was clear, however, is some of the more radical Irishmen had little but contempt for conservative elements in American society – that is, people who disagreed with their point of view. Such people, some of them decided, were just too stupid to see what was self-evident.
Historian David A. Wilson, in his brilliant book, United Irishmen, United States, took note of this curious intolerance among the Irish exiles who had become active republicans in America.
Wilson noted that Duane, a newspaper editor based in Philadelphia, believed that about a third of the population was too stupid to make political judgments – or, as Wilson noted dryly, too stupid to “form political judgments that corresponded with those of more sensible, sane, stable and sincere figures such as Duane himself.”
These unworthy people, Duane wrote, were plagued by “ignorance, imbecility, instability and hypocrisy.”
Duane wasn’t the only ultra-Jeffersonian, anti-aristocratic Irishman who seemed less than enthused about, well, the ordinary people whose cause the republicans supposedly championed.
Denis Driscol, a former Catholic priest and United Irishmen in exile in Augusta, Georgia, couldn’t understand why so many people clung to traditional religions rather than his own creed of deism (which he shared with Thomas Paine). He dismissed such people as “tinkers, [peddlers], bellows-blowers, wire-drawers, Scotch cowboys and Irish [potato] diggers, who have the unparalleled impudence to open their mouths, judge and pass sentence on the best philosophers and the most enlightened men of ancient and modern times.”
If you were to substitute modern equivalents of some of Driscol’s categories of ignorant people (Scotch cowboys?), you’d pretty much have a ready-made commentator for Air America, the radio network for the most enlightened men, and women, of modern times.
Just the other day, I tuned in by accident to Air America. As a rule, I listen to neither liberal nor conservative talk radio – to my ear, the hosts are all, well, bellows-blowers.
But in the course of scanning the dial for a ballgame, I stumbled on an Air America station. I kept it on for a few minutes, enough to hear a promotional advertisement for another Air America program. This one features a host who railed against viewers of Fox News, the conservative-leading news channel. In essence, she described Fox viewers in the same general terms that William Duane used to condemn people who didn’t agree with him.
They simply are too stupid to see the truth.
Now, I don’t watch much Fox news, either. But I do know plenty of people who do (and plenty who don’t). And when I hear liberal talk-show hosts complaining that Fox News viewers are stupid, I hear the voices of some of those United Irishmen from two centuries ago, the ideologues who looked down at the masses even as they claimed to speak for their political concerns.
Of course, this sort of condescending talk exists all across the political spectrum. Many conservatives often seem to agree with the Irish politician Edmund Burke’s assessment of the masses – “a swinish multitude.” And, let’s remember, conservative bellows-blowers like Ann Coulter have gone beyond merely insulting the intelligence of her opponents. She condemned liberals and Democrats as traitors.
Still, there is something off-putting about so-called populist Democrats railing against the intellectual defects of ordinary people who happen to vote Republican, or who hold views deemed conservative. What they don’t understand, of course, is that most Americans (even, I’ll bet, those who listen to Air America or watch Fox News) hold a mixture of opinions.
Many Irish-Americans, for example, oppose abortion on demand. But they also support pro-labor legislation. They support vouchers for non-public schools – but then again, so do many African-Americans.
As long as prominent leftwing commentators voice such disdain for people in the center or on the right, Democrats will continue to lose elections. Conservatives, it seems fair to say, rarely express doubts about the intelligence of liberals – unless, of course, the liberals happen to be movie stars. They may regard liberals as traitors, but they don’t suggest that liberals are stupid (with the exception of Alec Baldwin, etc.)
One of the problems in American politics in recent years is the apparently inability of Democratic partisans and commentators to speak to ordinary Americans. Bill Clinton could, but Al Gore couldn’t. Mayor Martin O’Malley of Baltimore can. But John Kerry couldn’t.
If pro-Democratic commentators have decided that the concerns of ordinary Americans aren’t worth addressing because they’re watching Fox News and getting more stupid by the minute, they ought to study the history of the United Irishmen movement in America.
As author Wilson noted, the high-minded Duane wound up “forging documents or spreading lies for the higher purpose of winning an election.”
That’s what happens when you look down on the opinions and concerns of ordinary people.