Matthew Goodwin: cancel culture is a gift to populists

April 29, 2022
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Political scientist Matthew Goodwin has argued that today’s volatile political environment has spawned new issues for populists to campaign on. The University of Kent lecturer told Freddie Sayers at an UnHerd panel discussion that populist leaders “don’t need immigration anymore” because growing concerns over cancel culture and free speech. These issues, he added, “cut across Left and Right,” making them a potent electoral weapon:

Matthew Goodwin: Social media did not create this volatile political environment; it was well on its way for those of us with memories of the 90s and early 2000s, pre-Facebook and Twitter. It has certainly been an accelerant, but it has certainly not been a cause. And I think this debate is going to go on and on. I think Elon Musk certainly plays into it.

But I’m always struck by some research that I read a few years ago, which found that if people perceive that their ability to speak freely was being constrained, they tend to backlash, even harder, politically. A nice experiment in the social sciences, which found that if people feel that communication is being shut down by politically correct norms, they become much more likely to backlash. And if we’re not careful, that’s basically where we end up. That mini experiment is telling us a lot about global politics, which is why personally, I’m a big supporter of places like UnHerd. And why I think Aaron and I have actually a lot of things in common, in that we can all feel that the public square is becoming a little bit narrower, quite stifling, dogmatic, quite shrill, and very moralistic.

I think that that is actually going to play into the populist mood. They don’t need immigration anymore. Actually, Jean Marie Le Pen talked about communism, and they talked about the Holocaust. They didn’t need those issues. Now, they’ve got free speech, right? They’ve got cancel culture, they’ve got these issues around expression. And I think that that too, actually cuts across Left and Right, just as powerfully.

Lastly, on taboos eroding. I do think this is very important. Dan Stone’s book ‘Goodbye To All That’ which came out a few years ago, I found very convincing. He argued that the key point about Europe today is actually the social norms that were once there in the 50s, 60s and 70s, are actually now rapidly eroding. And you saw that with the French election when you have 25-year-olds, 30-year-olds, young women, actually, especially voting for Le Pen, you realise that the power of being accused of being a racist, of being a Nazi.

Ivan Krastev has made this argument powerfully this week in saying that Ukraine has, in some ways eroded the taboo of Nazism, because we’re now talking about Nazis in today’s world and being in Ukraine, however misleading that claim is by Putin. We’re now talking about Nazis in the here and now and Ivan’s argument is essentially that too is contributing to the erosion of these taboos in our public domain. And I suspect outsiders will end up being partly the benefit of those tribal loyalties breaking down. And who follows Macron and how does he entrench his succession? These are all open questions.


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