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What the Right gets wrong when the Left goes nuts

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October 12, 2018   3 mins

Just how polarised is US politics? With a two-party system and an ongoing ‘culture war’ between liberals and conservatives, you might think America a nation rent asunder.

Certainly there are some deep social, economic and cultural divides – for instance, those I peer into here and here. But that’s not the whole story.

In a must-read for the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk administers a much-needed dose of nuance. He draws upon a new study, published by More in Common, which demonstrates that Americans really do have more in common than one might think:

“According to the report, 25 percent of Americans are traditional or devoted conservatives, and their views are far outside the American mainstream. Some 8 percent of Americans are progressive activists, and their views are even less typical. By contrast, the two-thirds of Americans who don’t belong to either extreme constitute an ‘exhausted majority.’ Their members ‘share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.’”

Significantly, one of the things that unites most Americans is a dislike of political correctness:

“Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that ‘political correctness is a problem in our country.’ Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74 percent ages 24 to 29, and 79 percent under age 24…

“Youth isn’t a good proxy for support of political correctness—and it turns out race isn’t, either… it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to oppose political correctness.”

But if this antipathy for woke culture is so widespread, why aren’t Republicans, and the conservative movement more generally, not attracting similarly widespread support?

The report and Mounk’s article contain some important clues. For instance:

“…while 80 percent of Americans believe that political correctness has become a problem in the country, even more, 82 percent, believe that hate speech is also a problem.”

America’s public discourse is dominated by the most extreme tribes – the “progressive activists” (which is the only tribe that doesn’t think that political correctness is a problem) and the “devoted conservatives” (the only tribe that doesn’t think that hate speech is a problem). That leaves the majority of Americans – who are concerned about both PC and hate speech – unrepresented.

Another key factor is that political correctness is at its strongest among the cultural elites:

“Compared with the rest of the (nationally representative) polling sample, progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year.”

Of course, the Republican/conservative leadership is also part of the cultural elite – but that’s what’s messing them up. They can’t see past their immediate social context, and therefore see themselves as an embattled minority – with everything they believe in under sustained attack from all direction. That may well be true within academia, the mainstream media and other elite institutions, but beyond the war within the establishment, there is a world full of  potential allies.

Trapped by their siege mentality, elite conservatives believe they have one of two choices: either to give ground to elite liberalism (as in western Europe) or to go completely bezerk against it (as in America) – for instance, opposing good causes that liberals support for that reason alone (environmentalism being a prime example).

Both approaches – absorption into orthodox elitism or retreat into heretical elitism – are dead-ends. And so is the Trumpist variation on the heresy (i.e. theatrical anti-elitism).

Conservatives need to stop obsessing about the elites altogether. Instead, they must rebuild conservatism around the needs and concerns of the moderate, if exasperated, majority. They must be a voice for people who have principles, but are tired of ideology.

This will require the development of a whole new mode of politics – and there’s no reason why it has to be conservatives who get there first. But whoever does get there first will win – and win big.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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