June 9, 2022 - 2:00pm

The year 2020 can be seen as revolutionary moment in western politics. In response to Covid, the powers of the state were massively extended — and the magic of money printing allowed governments to spend without limit. This was also the year of the George Floyd protests, when the political positions inspired by Critical Race Theory went mainstream. 

But according to Noah Smith, something of a counter-revolution is now in full swing. In a thought-provoking Substack essay, he argues that ‘a lot of left-leaning folks have been starting to critically reexamine the direction the progressive movement is headed, and to pull back on a number of fronts.’

Indeed, he believes we’re living through a “reactionary moment”. Writing from an American perspective he focuses on two policy areas in particular — crime and the economy.

Over the last couple of years, America has discovered that defunding the police isn’t a very good way of maintaining public order. Nor is the effective decriminalisation of “minor” offences like shoplifting. The nationwide surge in violent crime and the breakdown of civilised norms in cities like San Francisco have made that abundantly clear. 

Meanwhile, on the economy, the free-spending Biden administration has been up-ended by runaway inflation. The progressive notion that money is no object is suddenly not quite so fashionable as it used to be. 

With voters making their displeasure clear, Noah Smith is quite right that Left-leaning America needs to put its house in order or face electoral disaster. However, he’s wrong to call this a “reactionary moment”. Firstly, there’s nothing “reactionary” about it — rather it’s a partial reassertion of common sense against a liberal establishment that’s lost its mind. Secondly, it’s not a mere “moment” but rather part of a much longer culture war in which the woke Left is fighting to impose a radically new social and economic settlement on the rest of us. 

Obviously, there are problems with terms like “culture war” and “woke” — but let’s not get so hung-up on the jargon that we fail to see the underlying reality. The fact is that we are in the midst of an ideological conflict — one which is every bit as significant as the struggle of the Left in the 20th century to achieve socialism. 

This first conflict also had its revolutionary and reactionary “moments” — for instance the far-Left protests of 1968 that were subsequently rejected at the ballot box by voters across the western world. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s and the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism, that the war came to an end — with a decisive defeat for the Left and the start of the neoliberal era that we’re still living through. 

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it was the overall direct of the ideological conflict, not its “moments”, that truly mattered. The same applies to the current culture war. Though we’re nowhere near to the end game, I believe the Left is once again heading for eventual defeat.  Furthermore, it will lose for the same reason: its ideas are at fundamental variance with reality. 

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