Three years ago, Michael Anton, writing under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, wrote a much-debated essay declaring the Trump-Clinton contest to be the “Flight 93 election”. Using the analogy of the fourth plane on 9/11, Anton argued that Republicans were going to lose everything they loved about America if they didn’t seize the cockpit.
Rather mixing his transport metaphors, Anton wrote that, whatever they thought of Trump, “A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda.”
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
The essay was hugely controversial — and obviously deliberately provocative — but the analogy of acceleration was not unwarranted. For six decades, social values had been drifting Left, but from 2013 this dramatically stepped up a gear with the Great Awokening. There was genuine fear that the Democrats would ramp up their social radicalism, and a feeling that the stakes were raised; scared of an opposition they associated with student protests, Black Lives Matters activists and corrupt Hollywood actors, enough people put aside their doubts and voted for an extreme narcissist outside the boundaries of normal political life.
Britain’s polarisation might not have reached this level yet, but the election at the climatic end to the decade has the feel of a winner-takes-all contest. The two parties are now far, far apart in worldview, with a real undercurrent of nastiness and hatred, and a feeling that both would break the rules to win.
But one side is more justified in feeling that time is working against them, for even if the Tories do win a majority, they face serious future problems driven by demographic and social change. The sort of people who vote Tory are decreasing in number, ageing and not being replaced, while the lifestyle factors that lead people to vote for conservative parties are heavily in decline.
It has often been said that the young are dangerously Left-wing, and the received wisdom has always been that each generation becomes conservative as they grow wiser, or perhaps more jaded and cynical. Except with my age group and those younger, that isn’t true anymore; people in their 30s are not becoming more Right-wing as they get older, to quote Fr Ted; in fact, the reverse may even be happening, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The cohort currently set to move into positions of power, in the media, academia, medicine, law and other key professions, are far more liberal than any group before it, and not showing signs of changing. Not only that, but they are much less tolerant of conservative ideas than previous groups, and in the US at least far less tolerant of political ideas they disagree with. On top of this Brexit has radicalised a generation of even quite centrist graduates against the party.
While the Conservatives performed very badly among the very young in 2017, even with the 30-39 age group they were behind Labour by a disastrous 26 points. For those aged 18-24, the party lost by 35%, an unprecedented landslide for a group they actually won a plurality of in 1979 and 1983.
Knowing the generational gap in attitudes, one of the first things a Corbyn government would do is extend voting rights to all 16- and 17-year-olds, the largest expansion of the franchise since 1928 — and by a happy coincidence loading the dice against the Tories.
Labour would also grant the vote to all foreign nationals, increasing fears of a “gerrymandered” second referendum, while also ramping up American-style identity politics, something indicated by the party’s race and faith manifesto. While carried out under the sort of “equality and justice” motives which no one dares criticise, it would make race an even more salient issue in British life.
It would entail expanding the network of government-funded academics and activists driving home the message that racism is ubiquitous, and incentivised to pick at old historical wounds. The same would be true across a range of identity issues.
Labour might also further liberalise immigration — something Corbyn personally favours although it is not official policy — and this would also certainly favour their electoral interests, since across the world immigrants and minorities tend to vote for left-of-centre parties.
Just recently, for instance, Virginia turned Democrat, in part due to large-scale migration from Asia. As the New York Times reported: “Once the heart of the confederacy, Virginia is now the land of Indian grocery stores, Korean churches and Diwali festivals.”
The fear for Republicans is that other states will follow the path of California, where Democrats have benefited from the exodus of GOP-voting middle-class whites. California is never going back now.
Despite some well-intentioned initiatives to engage, Right-wing parties have trouble picking up large minority support across western democracies, ranging from a small disadvantage in Canada to enormous gulfs in France and the US. The obstacles are hard to overcome. Although rallying against ‘identity politics’ is a classic Right-wing grumble, conservatism is also by its essence a form of ID politics light — the Tory Party has a Union Jack as its logo, after all — which makes it unattractive to enough minority voters to matter electorally.
And this voting gap will become starker as identity and attitudes towards globalisation replace economics as the main dividing line in politics.
It is not just diversity that proved fatal for conservatives in Virginia, however; density also plays a big factor in voting patterns, so the more people in an area, the more Left-of-centre it votes. Liberalism is a philosophy specifically designed towards living in large communities with a wider circle of trust, and has always been associated with urbanisation. As Russell Kirk put it:
“Innovation comes from the cities, where man uprooted seeks to piece together a new world, conservatism always has had its most loyal adherents in the country, where man is slow to break with the old ways that link him with his God in the infinity above and with his father in the grave at his feet.”
Some 98% of the densest US constituencies voted Obama, a pattern that is only becoming more pronounced. It echoes, too, in Britain where Corbyn’s seat of Islington North is one hundred times more densely populated than David Cameron’s former constituency Witney.
Britain’s population is rising quite rapidly, mostly due to historically very high immigration levels, and this means that England, in particular, is going to grow even more urbanised and liberal. This is a trend that also brings another, far bigger problem for conservatism — housing costs.
In the US, almost all the cheapest states for housing vote Republican, and all the most costly ones go Democrat. Increases in a neighbourhood’s house prices are associated with a corresponding rise in the Democratic Party’s vote share. Yet the whole Conservative economic model of the Eighties was built on house price inflation, with homes supposedly acting as a nest egg, a disastrous mistake that has led to a generation of renters – who heavily backed Labour last time. The main reason for this link is that housing costs prevent people starting families, and married people tend to be more conservative.
This gap is far bigger among women, who have undergone a huge political shift in the past six decades, with a pro-conservative bias among females born before 1955, turning into a heavily Left-liberal one among younger cohorts. In the US today around 40% of young women identify as liberal or far-Left, twice the early Eighties figure, a trend that has accelerated in the 2000s.
In Britain the Conservatives had an 11-point advantage among women in 1974, in an election they lost, reduced to 0 in 2017 in a vote they won; among women under 30, the Tories were behind Labour by a massive 55 points.
Marriage and childbirth both have a big influence on how conservative people become, and this effect is even more pronounced in secular Britain than in the US, and has a greater impact on highly-educated women. A single culture is a liberal one, because in essence liberalism is the politics of the individual (even if it paradoxically leads to people attaching themselves to group identities). Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that many of liberalism’s founding fathers — John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham among them — were childless men.
While American women have since the 1970s shifted massively to the Left, it’s especially true those of with a degree, which highlights another problem: the highly-educated in particular are repulsed by conservatism, and increasingly hold “across-the-board” liberal views.
Higher education pushes people to the Left. University attendance, massively expanded under previous Conservative governments, tends to install a set of particular values, and so as the graduate population continues to bulge, conservatism will be squeezed out.
This may in part be driven by the “purity spiral” in academia, a development that has seen the percentage of Tory-voting academics fall from 35% in 1964 to just 11% in 2015, only half that of the Green Party; similarly among teachers, less than 8% supported the Conservatives at the last election, compared to around 70% who backed Corbyn.
But that in itself is more symptom than cause, and across a range of professions conservatism is dying out, including among doctors, scientists, the civil service and even the leadership of mainstream churches. Since people’s political identity tends to be shaped by the individuals in their social circles, so the disappearance of conservatives in the professional middle class has a domino effect.
This is a disturbing trend; while the Tories are welcoming new working-class voters from Labour, historically faiths practiced by high-status groups tend to become adopted by the wider population. What the Today programme says today, even the Daily Mail and Sun will come to accept in 10 years’ time.
The Conservative Party will desperately need to win tomorrow’s election, but on top of untying the Brexitean knot, they have to start thinking about the social factors that drive conservatism, and what future the movement has in the long term. They can’t rely on a hapless Corbyn covering for them forever.
Small Men on the Wrong Side of History is published in March 2020.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe