“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Variations on this quote have been attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte and Woodrow Wilson among others. It is also the gist of an op-ed by Tyler Cowen for Bloomberg:
“Imagine the perfect political and intellectual weapon. It would disable your adversaries by preoccupying them with their own vanities and squabbles, a bit like a drug so good that users focus on the high and stop everything else they are doing.
“Such a weapon exists: It is called political correctness. But it is not a weapon against white men or conservatives, as is frequently alleged; rather, it is a weapon against the American left.”
Cowen cites research, unpacked on UnHerd here, showing widespread hostility to political correctness. Instead of focusing on issues that could rally widespread support, progressives are distracted by the obsessions of an unrepresentative minority:
“Of course there is a lot of racism out there, which makes political correctness all the more tempting. Yet polling data suggests that up to 80 percent of Americans are opposed to politically correct thinking in its current manifestations. Latinos and Asian-Americans are among the groups most opposed, and even 61 percent of self-professed liberals do not like political correctness.”
Woke politics has also ignited a series of civil wars on the Left – with identity groups and ideological tendencies fighting over claims and counterclaims of privilege and victimhood. Examples include tensions between radical feminism and transgender activism; or between free speech defenders and ‘safe space’ advocates, or between campaigners for secularism and campaigners against Islamophobia.
Far from lamenting the influence of political correctness, Cowen says that conservatives and libertarians should sit back and enjoy the show:
“Political correctness, as a movement, is a winning issue for you. It is disabling some of the ideas you don’t like. You might want to celebrate in secret, but celebrate you should.”
My problem with this approach is that it overlooks the corrosive effect that political correctness has on the Right. This takes a number of different forms:
Firstly, by fixating upon the antics of the woke Left at its most outlandish, the Right ignores the real discrimination still experienced by women, ethnic minorities and other parts of society. For instance, social conservatives might disapprove of something like a ‘SlutWalk‘ protest, but they should save 99.9% of their outrage for the harassment routinely experienced by women and girls while going about their business in public.
Secondly, rather than merely rejecting political correctness there are some on the Right who end up inverting it – adopting the language and attitudes of grievance and victimhood. Consider, for instance, the claim that men and not women are the real victims of modern society. Legitimate concerns, such as those over the rate of male suicide, are not helpfully addressed by folding them into a generalised narrative of ‘female privilege’.
What the Right gets wrong when the Left goes nuts
Thirdly, if PC can distract the Left from the issues that voters actually care about, then ostentatious displays of political incorrectness can do the same to the Right. Donald Trump thought that banging on about immigration would be enough to hold on to his working class supporters at the midterm elections. Strangely enough, they were more concerned with their continued exclusion from the benefits of America’s economic recovery.
Fourthly, aside from its content (and the inversion thereof) there is the PC style of politics: one that elevates feelings over facts and display over debate. It is a mode entered into as easily on the Right as on the Left. In place of ‘wokeness’ there is ‘soundness’ – the various slogans, poses, memes, pre-packaged opinions and even items of clothing one must adopt to demonstrate one’s loyalties. This isn’t campaigning, it’s brain death.
Finally, be careful what you wish for. Cowen quotes Tony Blair as saying “if you put right-wing against left populism, right-wing populism will win.” This may or may not be true, but either way, conservatism, which is the temperamental opposite of any kind of populism, loses.