“The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action,” declared our new commander in chief from the north end of the Capitol on January 20. This action-over-talk motif appears to be a favorite of President Trump, who, in his first week in office, has wasted no time in introducing a flurry of executive orders and then making a point of flaunting them on Twitter and in his speeches.

At first glance, Trump’s attack on “empty talk” is just another iteration of the age-old truism, found in numerous forms like “walk the walk, don’t talk the talk” or “actions speak louder than words.” Unreflectively, we all accept this prescription, holding others to their word and, with any luck, embodying truism ourselves.

Yet, this directive has taken on particular political force in the mouth of President Trump. It has struck an unusually resonant chord in the hearts and minds of American voters. Yes, politicians and pundits persistently peddle in platitudes; this much is not new. And as a disclaimer, I have absolutely no taste for our new president, as both an elected official and as a man. Nevertheless, it would do us well to take a moment to consider why some of these clichés assume greater force at particular moments in our nation’s history.

I would conjecture that the ascendency of the talk-is-cheap rhetoric is in part a reaction to a rather strong tendency in contemporary liberalism towards what Emmett Rensin bluntly labeled as “smug” in his strikingly prophetic piece “The smug style in American liberalism,” published on Vox on April 21, 2016.

Rensin’s piece is worth a read all the way through, so consider this my recommendation. But in short, Rensin argues that between 1964 and 1980, demographic shifts within the American Democratic Party—shifts away from the working class and towards the academic and coastal elite—have brought about a change in liberalism’s “intellectual center of gravity.” Unable to comprehend why the white working class so rapidly abandoned the Democratic Party—which, after all, was its ultimate champion—liberals cultivated “the theory that conservatism, and particularly the kind embraced by those out there in the country, was not a political ideology at all,” but rather sheer stupidity.

“Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt,” Rensin writes. He rather aptly compares this dynamic to that of two recently separated lovers in the aftermath of a particularly nasty break-up.

The essence of this culture of contempt is “a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason,” and its primary symptom is knowing: “Knowing, for example, that the Founding Fathers were all secular deists. Knowing that you’re actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder. Knowing that those fools out in Kansas are voting against their own self-interest and that the trouble is Kansas doesn’t know any better.” The Democratic Party, in its own eyes, abides by “a politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts.”

Of course, when we know that we just know better than those misguided, unknowing hordes, we are wont to try to convince them of their wrongness—to plainly reason out, with no ideological spin whatsoever, why they are misguided. When they refuse to yield, they only cement their own stupidity.

I believe in the power of persuasion, and I believe that ideas matter. I would be a fool to write this column if I didn’t. Likewise, I shudder at the rise of “alternative facts,” and the prospect of a “post-factual world” seems like a terrible, terrible nightmare. Nevertheless, I am not enamored by the very-real smugness that pervades so much of liberal politics, even here (or, perhaps, especially here) on our campus.

The issue with smugness, aside from being intuitively repulsive, is that it makes us complacent. We content ourselves with knowing the facts, and tweeting about them, while doing little to realize our goals. There is a curious strand of gnosticism at play here, by means of which simply having superior knowledge lifts us above the fray of culpability and blame. So rather than enacting our ideal of virtue or descending into the political arena to work towards a solution, we sit back and virtue signal, waiting for the masses to finally come to their senses and “get woke.” Trump’s brand of action-without-thought populism is in part a reaction to this very attitude. Elite universities, especially rural liberal arts colleges like our own, are uniquely susceptible to the gravitational pull of smugness. Surrounded largely by like-minded students and isolated from national politics in any real sense, we spend four years immersed in ideas. This is a beautiful thing, and one of the most compelling and attractive aspects of our schooling. At the same time, it positions us to become terrifically smug.

“The smug recognize one another by their mutual knowing,” Rensin writes, and the knowing creeps up every so often at Bowdoin: when we know that Bowdoin needs to actively recruit more socioeconomic diversity, when we know that the College must divest from fossil fuels or when we know that “conservatism” is just a codeword for backward intolerance. The issue isn’t with having convictions but with thinking those convictions absolve you from action. A culture of gratitude might make us complacent, but a culture of knowing makes us contemptible. 

Rensin acknowledges that liberalism was the “American ideology hitherto responsible for a great share of the good accomplished over the past century of our political life,” and this is still true. But if liberalism in America is to continue to thrive in the 21st century, it must be rescued from its smuggest tendencies. To counter Trump’s doing-without-knowing, we must move beyond knowing-without-doing. So, having put down your copy of the Orient, do you feel acutely the injustice of the school’s socioeconomic homogeneity? Excellent, because I think the admissions office is seeking summer interns.