I recently wrote on here about how, contrary to what appears to be a widespread assumption, I believe the right are starting to win the culture war. A lot of people on the right resist this idea, at least partly because it rubs up against their game plan, which is to win the culture war by stealth. The way they are achieving this is by using some fairly obvious tricks, ones the left just doesn’t engage in or with whatsoever. I think that if the left of our politics could pick up on some of these methods, it would go a long way toward helping left-wing parties finally start winning elections again.
A big trick the right picked up a few years ago and has expanded its use of to great effect in the last couple of years is getting people nominally (and even more importantly, self-identifying as being) on the left to talk about how crazy their own supposed tribe is and how sensible, at least by comparison, the right is these days. The pundits in question will often paint themselves as dissatisfied liberals who are appalled by the left who nonetheless always seem completely blind to any faults of the modern right. At an extreme, they will even occasionally help portray those on the far right as simply mainstream conservatives, creating a narrative along the way that these figures are being unfairly targeted by the “loony left” just for being centre-right.
The left has helped this strategy along in several different ways. One is by muddying the waters on these things themselves, allowing the right’s own form of relativism to emerge. Let’s take as an example Jordan Peterson. I see Peterson as a mainstream conservative who likes to call himself a “classical liberal”, or even more annoyingly to me when it suits him, a completely non-political figure. I think the distinctions here are important and matter; Peterson often likes to discuss some his ideas as being not of any particularly political bent when in fact they are most definitively conservative in nature. That isn’t to say these ideas of his are bad, at least not all the time; it’s just that they are definitely conservative-leaning and explaining them as such is important to understanding them in context. Yet one of the reasons he gets away with this description of his own political leanings is because parts of the left have done so much to paint Peterson as “alt-right” or even “far right”. I disagree with Jordan Peterson on many things but the idea that he is some Nazi is totally and self-evidently insane. Like I say, I see him as a fairly mainstream conservative – maybe even in some ways, a slightly wet conservative. By labelling him far right, the left prevents any real discussion about Peterson’s true political stripes.
Yet this sort of activity from the left also does something far worse than that – it severely downgrades the effectiveness of terms like “far right” or even “fascist”, definitions that are more important now to make clear in their meaning than has been the case for the last forty years at least. By labelling everyone on the centre-right as “far right” – and sometimes even calling people who are solidly centrist or even centre-left “far right” – you essentially get yourself into a cry wolf situation. This has allowed figures such as Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson and Anne-Marie Waters to paint themselves as mainstream conservatives – particularly in America where they have less baggage – and to cry that they are unfairly targeted by leftists simply for being “centre-right”. Everything becomes unhelpfully relative, which as much as the right often bitches about this sort of thing as being post-modernist cultural Marxist bullshit, actually suits their purposes rather beautifully.
I don’t see why the left can’t adopt this tactic, and when I look round and see they are still aren’t using it, I find it bizarre. Until I think about the problems the modern left has, of course – too many in their ranks are obsessed with purity and want to increase as much as possible both the consensus around certain issues and then the passionate defence of those positions. This creates two major problems. One is that as a large portion of the left grows more and more zealous, that then creates a lot of people whose viewpoints are extreme – and the more extreme voices are the ones that tend to get noticed. This provides the right with ever more fodder for their “the left have gone crazy” talking point. The second problem is worse: it pushes out people who can’t go along with every single item in the left-wing check list and thus the pool of individuals the left appeals to gets ever smaller. Meanwhile, with the right trying as hard as possible to make liberals feel like they really belong on the right, all while those same liberals are being called conservatives by those on the left anyhow, quite logically we end up with a lot more people who consider themselves on the right than would otherwise be the case. This is one reason why Trump is running so hard on culture war issues; he knows it’s the one thing that can peel people off and make them vote Republican given how much better the right has been at handling this stuff over the last five years – despite Trump being such a turnoff for so many in the relevant cohort, I hasten to add.
The centre-left needs to start using this trick for its own purposes. For instance, imagine if someone like Dominic Grieve had a twice weekly column in the Guardian. Constant criticism of the government from someone who was a Tory minister would carry a lot of weight if it got more space in left-leaning outlets. It would also gets a hearing from people who have voted Conservative in the not too distant past, slowly chipping away at the Tory base. Why don’t we see more independent left-wing outlets interviewing ex-Tories appalled at the current government? There are scores out there. Why don’t left-wing donors fund outlets to highlight the reasonable sides of the left while detailing the wrongs perpetrated by the crazy wing of the modern right?
A big reason why the Corbyn project failed so spectacularly is that it just didn’t understand the basic concept that you must convince a lot of sceptical people if you want to win in politics. This doesn’t mean you have to change your values a single millimetre – but you do have to find some way of selling what you’re trying to achieve to the people who at the very least don’t care either way. I don’t know if the left is capable of pulling the same trick as the right has been pulling for a while now. Yet if they did, they would make an electoral resurgence of left of centre parties a whole lot more likely.
I have a book out now called “Politics is Murder”. It follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. There is also a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters thrown into the mix while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Dave Chapman says
In specifically the contemporary era, I’m not certain how to articulate a genuine left-right split in terms of policy ideals. I have no personal attachment to either side and wouldn’t aver to the UK centre either.
At the moment and for some years, I’m hearing no real ideas. No shortage of stunts and little push-button soundbites designed to sound impressive for five minutes on Newsnight but I’m hearing noting from Starmer, or from Davey and naturally Johnson is an empty vessel. Blair was overloaded with glitzy superficiality and his actual programme was considerably emptier than his fanboys wish to concede. Both Major and Cameron had little in the way of a programme to offer, Brown spent all those years undermining Blair to find he also had no recognisable programme to offer. May just a temporary emergency replacement for Cameron.
We could – that’s ‘could’ – have a blank canvas in front of us now to paint an entirely different course for the UK now that we’ve left the EU. But half of the political landscape wants us back in it (but is too frit to discuss that openly) and the other half hasn’t got the remotest credible future course in mind. To top that, a Government which thinks it has the leeway to openly suggest they’re happy to break the law. And haven’t got the remotest self-awareness to conceive that will come back to bite them on the collective backside mightily, again, and again and again.
I think what is failing both left and right at the moment – if those terms can be satisfactorily identified – is their own politicians. I genuinely believe that MP selection on the basis of Jury selection couldn’t give us a worse DNA pool of MPs as we do currently. It’s an overworn cliche but I see Parliament as the problem. Giving us a different kind of voting system to elect exactly the same kind of MPs won’t change a thing. PR is a cul-de-sac. We need the electorate to raise their expectations of what to expect from their respective representatives, and greater levels of accountability from Parliament. In short a restoration in trust in democracy and the establishment of a more tangible link between electorate and elected.
I recently wrote on here about how, contrary to what appears to be a widespread assumption, I believe the right are starting to win the culture war
The right are winning on the battlefield of popular opinion; the left are winning (have already won?) on the battlefield of elite, high-status opinion.
I suppose which side you think is winning the war depends on which of those you think is the key battlefield. Sure, the right wins all the elections; but in between the elections the left has almost unanswered sway. So you can see why each side thinks it is losing.
Brilliant analysis and completely correct. I am at a very liberal elitist university where the Conservatives come a distant third electorally, in many ways exactly for the reasons that Nick Tyrone gives. Virtue signalling rules! I am actually a politically progressive social conservative so can understand both sides and the failure of my fellow elitists to understand ordinary people is the UK equivalent of that famous book What’s The Matter with Kansas. The Labour Party used to be more Methodism than Marx (I have Welsh Calvinistic Methodist ancestors!) and until it becomes that coalition again it won’t have a hope of winning, especially if Scotland gets independence.