Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 8 September 2021

 One Thing We Can Agree on Is That We’re Becoming a Different Country

Sept. 8, 2021

Credit...Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Thomas B. Edsall

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.

A highly charged ideological transition reflecting a “massive four-decade long shift in political values and attitudes among more educated people — a shift from concern with traditional materialist issues like redistribution to a concern for public goods like the environment and diversity” is a driving force in the battle between left and right, according to Richard Florida, an urbanologist at the University of Toronto.

This ideological transition has been accompanied by the concentration of liberal elites in urban centers, Florida continued in an email,

brought on by the dramatic shift to a knowledge economy, which expresses itself on the left as “wokeness” and on the right as populism. I worry that the middle is dropping out of American politics. This is not just an economic or cultural or political phenomenon, it is inextricably geographic or spatial as different groups pack and cluster into different kinds of communities.

Recent decades have witnessed what Dennis Chong, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, describes in an email as “a demographic realignment of political tolerance in the U.S. that first became evident in the late 1980s-early 1990s.”

Before that, Chong pointed out, “the college educated, and younger generations, were among the most tolerant groups in the society of all forms of social and political nonconformity.” Since the 1990s, “these groups have become significantly less tolerant of hate speech pertaining to race, gender and social identities.”

Chong argued that “the expansion of equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women, L.G.B.T.Q. and other groups that have suffered discrimination has caused a re-evaluation of the harms of slurs and other derogatory expressions in professional and social life.”


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The result?

“In a striking reversal,” Chong wrote, “liberals are now consistently less tolerant than conservatives of a wide range of controversial speech about racial, gender and religious identities.”


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Pippa Norris, a lecturer in comparative politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School — together with Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who died in May — has explored this extraordinary shift from materialist to postmaterialist values in advanced countries, the movement from a focus on survival to a focus on self-expression, which reflects profound changes in a society’s existential conditions, including in the United States.

In an Aug. 21 paper, “Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality?” Norris writes that “In postindustrial societies characterized by predominately liberal social cultures, like the U.S., Sweden, and UK, right-wing scholars were most likely to perceive that they faced an increasingly chilly climate.”

Using data from a global survey, the World of Political Science, 2019, Norris created a “Cancel Culture Index” based on political scientists’ responses to three question asking whether “aspects of academic life had got better, no change, or got worse, using the 5-point scale: 1. ‘Respect for open debate from diverse perspectives,’ 2. ‘Pressures to be “politically correct,” and 3. “Academic freedom to teach and research.”


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Using this measure, Norris found that “American scholars on the moderate right and far right report experiencing worsening pressures to be politically correct, limits on academic freedom and a lack of respect for open debate,” compared with the views of moderate and more left-wing scholars:

The proportion of those holding traditionally socially conservative values has gradually experienced a tipping point in recent decades, as this group shifts from hegemonic to minority status on college campuses and in society, heightening ideological and partisan polarization. In this regard, the reported experience of a chilly climate in academia among right-wing scholars seems likely to reflect their reactions to broader cultural and structural shifts in postindustrial societies.

Inglehart, in his 2018 book, “The Rise of Postmaterialist Values in the West and the World,” described how increasing affluence and economic security, especially for educated elites, has been

transforming the politics and cultural norms of advanced industrial societies. A shift from Materialist to Postmaterialist value priorities has brought new political issues to the center of the stage and provided much of the impetus for new political movements. It has split existing political parties and given rise to new ones and it is changing the criteria by which people evaluate their subjective sense of well-being.

Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at the University of London and the author of “Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities,” argued in a series of emails that the views of white liberals are shaped by their distinctive set of priorities. In contrast to white conservatives, Kaufmann wrote, “white liberals have low attachment to traditional collective identities (race, nation, religion) but as high attachment to moral values and political beliefs as conservatives. This makes the latter most salient for them.” According to Kaufmann, white liberals “have invested heavily in universalist ethical values.”


Credit...Matthias Jung/laif, via Redux

In Kaufmann’s view, a new, assertive ideology has emerged on the left, and the strength of this wing is reflected in its ability to influence the decision making of university administrators:

In universities, only 10 percent of social science and humanities faculty support cancellation (firing, suspension or other severe punishments) of those with controversial views on race and gender, with about half opposed and 40 percent neither supporting nor opposed. And yet, this does not appear to cut through to the administrations, who often discipline staff.

On Sept. 4, The Economist published a cover story, “The illiberal left: How did American ‘wokeness’ jump from elite schools to everyday life?” which argues that there is

a loose constellation of ideas that is changing the way that mostly white, educated, left-leaning Americans view the world. This credo still lacks a definitive name: it is variously known as left-liberal identity politics, social-justice activism or, simply, wokeness.

From another angle, Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at Harvard and a former Obama administration official, asks in “The Power of the Normal,” a 2018 paper,

Why do we come to see political or other conduct as acceptable, when we had formerly seen it as unacceptable, immoral, or even horrific? Why do shifts occur in the opposite direction? What accounts for the power of “the new normal”?

Sunstein is especially concerned with how new norms expand in scope:

Once conduct comes to be seen as part of an unacceptable category — abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment — real or apparent exemplars that are not so egregious, or perhaps not objectionable at all, might be taken as egregious, because they take on the stigma now associated with the category.

Sunstein is careful to note that “It is important to say that on strictly normative grounds, the less horrific cases might also be horrific.”

A key player in this process is what Sunstein calls “the opprobrium entrepreneur.” The motivations of opprobrium entrepreneurs

may well be altruistic. They might think that certain forms of mistreatment are as bad as, or nearly as bad as, what are taken to the prototypical cases, and they argue that the underlying concept (abuse, bullying, prejudice), properly conceived, picks up their cases as well. Their goal is to create some kind of cascade, informational or reputational, by which the concept moves in their preferred direction. In the context of abuse, bullying, prejudice, and sexual harassment, both informational and reputational cascades have indeed occurred.

Sunstein cites “microaggressions” as an area that “has exploded,” writing:

At one point, the University of California at Berkeley signaled its willingness to consider disciplining people for making one of a large number of statements,” including “America is a melting pot,” “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough,” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Opprobrium entrepreneurs can be found on both sides of the aisle.


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Jeffrey Adam Sachs, a political scientist at Arcadia University, has written about a flood tide of Republican-sponsored bills in state legislatures designed to prohibit teaching of “everything from feminism and racial equity to calls for decolonization.” In an article in February, “The New War On Woke,” Sachs wrote:

One of the principal criticisms of today’s left-wing culture is that it suppresses unpopular speech. In response, these bills would make left-wing speech illegal. Conservatives (falsely) call universities ‘brainwashing factories’ and fret about the death of academic freedom. Their solution is to fire professors they don’t like.

Sachs’s bottom line: “Once you let government get into the censorship business, no speech is safe.”

Zachary Goldberg, a graduate student at Georgia State, has researched “the moral, emotional and technological underpinnings of the ‘Great Awokening’ — the rapid and recent liberalization of racial and immigration attitudes among white liberals and Democrats” for his doctoral thesis.

Goldberg has produced data from the 2020 American National Election Studies survey showing that white liberals, in contrast to white moderates and conservatives, rate minorities higher on what political scientists call a thermometer scale than they do whites.

One of the less recognized factors underlying efforts by conservatives and liberals to enforce partisan orthodoxy lies in the pressure to maintain party loyalty at a time when the Democratic and Republicans are struggling to manage coalitions composed of voters with an ever-expanding number of diverse commitments — economic, cultural, racial — that often do not cohere.

Jonathan Rodden, a Stanford political scientist, elaborated in an email:

For issue activists and party leaders in the United States, management of internal party heterogeneity is a central task. In order to get what they want, the core of ‘true believers’ on issue x must develop strategies for managing those with more moderate or even opposing views, who identify with the party primarily because of issue y. One strategy is persuasion on issue x via messaging, from social media to partisan cable television, aimed at wayward co-partisans. Another is to demonize the out-party on issue y in an effort to convince voters that even if they disagree with the in-party on issue x, the costs of allowing the out-party to win are simply too high. A final strategy is to relentlessly enforce norms by shaming and ostracizing non-conformists.

I asked William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings who has written extensively about Democratic Party conflicts, what role he sees white liberal elites playing in the enforcement of progressive orthodoxies. He wrote back:

You ask specifically about “while liberal elites.” I wonder whether the dominant sentiment is guilt as opposed to (say) fear and ambition. Many participants in these institutions are terrified of being caught behind a rapidly shifting social curve and of being charged with racism. As a result, they bend over backward to use the most up-to-date terminology and to lend public support to policies they may privately oppose. The fear of losing face within, or being expelled from, the community of their peers drives much of their behavior.

For some white liberals, Galston continued,

adopting cutting-edge policies on race can serve as a way of enhancing status among their peers and for a few, it is a way of exercising power over others. If you know that people within your institution are afraid to speak out, you can get them to go along with policies that they would have opposed in different circumstances.

Instead of guilt, Galston argued that “this behavior is just as likely to reflect leadership that lacks purpose and core convictions and that seeks mainly to keep the ship afloat, wherever it may be headed.”


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“Amidst this sea of analytical uncertainties, I am increasingly confident of one thing: a backlash is building,” Galston wrote:

The policies of elite private schools reported on the front page of The New York Times will not command majority support, even among white liberals. As awareness of such policies spreads, their conservative foes will pounce, and many white liberals who went along with them will be unwilling to defend them. The fate of defunding the police is a harbinger of things to come.

Jonathan Haidt, a professor at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, contends that a small constituency on the far left is playing an outsize role:

Progressive activists make up 8 percent of the U.S. population, and they are the ones who frequently use terms like “white supremacy culture” and “power structures.” This group is the second whitest of all the groups (after the far right), yet they give the coldest “feeling thermometer” ratings to whites and the warmest to Blacks. In this group there does seem to be some true feelings of guilt and shame about being white.

Haidt contends that “the animating emotion” for acquiescence to the demands of this type of progressive activist by those with less extreme views

is fear, not guilt or shame. I have heard from dozens of leaders of universities, companies, and other organizations in the last few years about the pressures they are under to enact D.E.I. (diversity, equity and inclusion) policies that are not supported by research, or to say things that they believe are not true. The vast majority of these people are on the left but are not progressive activists. They generally give in to pressure because the alternative is that they and their organization will be called racist, not just within the organization by their younger employees but on social media.

How do things look now?

“The First Amendment on Campus 2020 Report: College Students’ Views of Free Expression,” a study produced by the Knight Foundation based on a survey of 3000 students, found strong support for free speech. The report noted that “68 percent regard citizens’ free speech rights as being ‘extremely important’ to democracy” and “that 81 percent support a campus environment where students are exposed to all types of speech, even if they may find it offensive.”

At the same time, however, “Most college students believe efforts at diversity and inclusion ‘frequently’ (27 percent) or ‘occasionally’ (49 percent) come into conflict with free speech rights” and “63 percent of students agree that the climate on their campus deters students from expressing themselves openly, up from 54 percent in 2016.”

Similarly, according to the Knight survey, trends on social media from 2016 to 2020 were all negative:

Fewer students now (29 percent) than in 2016 (41 percent) say discussion on social media is usually civil. More students than in the past agree that social media can stifle free speech — both because people block those whose views they disagree with (60 percent, up from 48 percent in 2016) and because people are afraid of being attacked or shamed by those who disagree with them (58 percent, up from 49 percent in 2016).

It’s not too much to say that the social and cultural changes of the past four decades have been cataclysmic. The signs of it are everywhere. Donald Trump rode the coattails of these issues into office. Could he — or someone else who has been watching closely — do it again?

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