Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 10 July 2021


The Culture War Is a Leftist Offensive

Democrats have become more extreme on social issues, and they aren’t prepared for the backlash.


The word now is radicalized. So many people feel pushed to the edge and are pushing back. Go to social-media sites and search “school board meeting” adding descriptors like “explosive,” “outrage” and “chaos.” Parents are rising up. New York Democrats just picked an anticrime former cop as their mayoral nominee. Other signs that suggests a spirit of having been radicalized: Longtime alliances based on natural affinity are loosening. Conservatives by nature support and respect the military. That’s changing among some of them, or at least becoming less reflexive, under the pressure of charges of political correctness and a woke brass. Conservatives have begun detaching from traditional support for corporations over the idea they’re too woke, too big, and feel no particular loyalty to America, which made them, when the China market beckons.

There’s a sense in America of a continuing political realignment, that it didn’t all start and end in 2015-16. I think that what happened last summer, when the streets erupted and statues toppled, is being answered now with a pushback—a quieter one but no less consequential.

In connection with that, a small but possibly telling piece from a man of the left, journalist Kevin Drum, a veteran of Mother Jones and Washington Monthly, who posted some thoughts on July 3 on his blog at What he said is the obvious, but it wouldn’t be obvious to all his readers, and those to whom it is obvious wouldn’t want it said.

He titled the piece bluntly: “If you hate culture wars, blame liberals.”

“It is not conservatives who have turned American politics into a culture war battle,” he writes. “Since roughly the year 2000, according to survey data, Democrats have moved significantly to the left on most hot button social issues, while Republicans have moved only slightly right.”

He cites data on issues from abortion and religion to guns, same-sex marriage, immigration and taxes. The numbers suggest “the obvious conclusion that over the past two decades Democrats have moved left far more than Republicans have moved right.” He’s not personally unhappy with this, but Democrats should be concerned they’re moving further away from median voters.

He refers to the work of David Shor, “a data geek who identifies as socialist but is rigorously honest about what the numbers tell us.” Mr. Shor told New York magazine a few months ago that Democrats in 2020 gained roughly 7 points among white college-educated voters. Support among blacks declined by a point or two, and Hispanic support dropped by 8 or 9. This followed last summer’s defund-the-police movement. The Democrats had, in Mr. Shor’s words, “raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on.”

In the past four years, Mr. Shor said, “white liberals have become a larger and larger share of the Democratic Party.” But whites are “sorting on ideology” more than nonwhite voters. “We’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of ‘racial resentment.’ ”

“Black conservatives and Hispanic conservatives,” Mr. Shor notes, “don’t actually buy into a lot of these intellectual theories of racism. They often have a very different conception of how to help the Black or Hispanic community than liberals do.” His conclusion: “If we polarize the electorate on ideology—or if nationally prominent Democrats raise the salience of issues that polarize the electorate on ideology—we’re going to lose a lot of votes.”

Mr. Drum agrees: However those on the left feel about the Democrats’ “leftward march,” the party “has been pulled far enough left that even lots of non-crazy people find us just plain scary. . . . Democrats have stoked the culture wars by getting more extreme on social issues and Republicans have used this to successfully cleave away a segment of both the non-college white vote and, more recently, the non-college nonwhite vote.”

Why, then, is it still conventional wisdom on the left and in the mainstream media that it is conservatives who are culture warmongers? Because “for most people, losing something is far more painful than the pleasure of gaining something of equivalent value. And since conservatives are ‘losing’ the customs and hierarchies that they’ve long lived with, their reaction is far more intense than the liberal reaction toward winning the changes they desire.”

Mr. Drum speculates that “the whole woke movement in general” has turned off many moderate voters. “Ditto for liberal dismissal of crime and safety issues.”

The white activist class won’t like hearing this, he says, but moving to the left, while galvanizing the progressive base, “risks outrunning the vast middle part of the country, which progressive activists seem completely uninterested in talking to.”

He ends: “And for God’s sake, please don’t insult my intelligence by pretending that wokeness and cancel culture are all just figments of the conservative imagination. Sure, they overreact to this stuff, but it really exists, it really is a liberal invention, and it really does make even moderate conservatives feel like their entire lives are being held up to a spotlight and found wanting.”

Good on him for speaking truth to rising power.

The cultural provocations that are currently tearing us apart do, certainly and obviously, come from progressives. And the left seems to have no prudent fear of backlash. They don’t seem to believe public opinion counts for much anymore.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, made this clear in her big speech this week to union members. She said parents who are rising up against the teaching of what is called critical race theory aren’t opposing, as they perceive it, a radical and destructive theory in which they fear to see their children indoctrinated. No, they are bullies, “culture warriors” who are trying to stop teachers “from teaching students accurate history.”

It was a very aggressive speech. It threw a match in the gasoline. You wouldn’t give it unless you thought a big political party is fully with you and fully has your back. That of course is the Democratic Party, of which the teachers unions (though not all teachers) are a major subsidiary, and in which they have major power, including financial power.

That may be good for the teachers unions. I’m not sure it will prove, in a time of pushback, an unalloyed good for the Democrats.

I end with what I think is the left’s misreading of its position. They act as if they’ve got everyone on the run, including those who show their movement the greatest respect in corporate suites and private offices. But I think something unspoken is going on. As a journalist based in New York, you meet a lot of executives, corporate leaders, people in the arts and education. They publicly support the woke regime, speak the lingo, are on board with the basic assumptions, and much early support was sincere. But they have grown indignant at and impatient with the everyday harassments of woke ideology. Deep down, many of them would like to see the left knocked back on their feet. I think the left is overplaying its hand.

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