The People Don’t Want Culture Wars
This is the Real Lesson of the US Midterms
In light of the Republican Party’s unexpectedly poor results in the US Midterm elections, there has been much soul searching on the Right. Many hypotheses have been made as to why the Republicans performed poorly. Some Republicans have said that they wished their party would drop the culture war issues and focus on economic policy. In response, the usual culture warriors wasted no time in defending the ‘need’ to continue fighting the culture wars against the ‘woke’, and how other factors (e.g. Trump, poor candidates like Dr. Oz, poor campaigning) are to blame instead. It seems to me that the culture warriors on the Right want their fellow Republicans to blame everything but the culture wars, which they insist are very popular.
However, this simply doesn’t line up with reality. The polls show that culture war concerns are not among the top priorities of voters. The Right has turned up the culture wars all through this year, and it has led to poor performance after poor performance in elections across the West, in France, Australia, Britain, and now America. In Australia, more than half a dozen seats long held by the conservative Coalition have now gone to climate-focused independents, and in Britain, the Conservatives have lost several of their traditionally prized local councils. I’ve also witnessed people finding reason to ‘walk away from the Right’ every time the culture wars heat up, whether we are talking about abortion, LGBT issues, or indeed, free speech. The evidence is clear: the reactionary culture war stances increasingly taken up by ‘anti-woke’ activists and politicians are unpopular, and they are alienating more and more people.
Part of the reason why anti-woke culture war politics has become unpopular is because it has gotten more and more authoritarian and regressive. The fundamental reason for this, in turn, is because the 2010s woke wave is now in recession. I first made the observation late last year, but more recently, even staunchly anti-woke culture warriors have begun to notice the change. Meanwhile, many people out there have been talking about a ‘vibe shift’ throughout this year. Even President Obama has become bolder on pushing back against extreme wokeness. I mean, cancel culture still exists and is still a problem, and woke voices will always be part of the cultural landscape absent attempts at censorship, but the ideological movement has met great resistance, and support appears to have somewhat collapsed, at least for now. With high profile ‘woke’ incidents becoming less and less common, the ‘anti-woke’ energy among classical liberals has diminished. A void has been left behind, and it has been taken up by hardline right-wing forces aligned with movements like National Conservatism, Christian Reconstructionism and Catholic Integralism. To be honest, much of recent ‘anti-woke’ culture war politics just sounds like 1990s and 2000s religious conservatism repackaged, and most of us certainly don’t want that.
So where do those of us who were opposed to 2010s wokeness go next? There are two options, basically. Given that the original criticisms about ‘woke’ cultural changes were rooted in classical liberalism, we could simply rebuild the classical liberal consensus, and move on from the ‘woke vs anti-woke’ disruption of the previous decade. This would prove that our intentions in pushing back against the ‘woke’ were noble after all, and that social justice minded people really have nothing to fear from our victory over wokeism. Or we could allow the ‘anti-woke’ movement, now dominated by reactionaries, to continue to drive the conversation, pushing the pendulum way to the other direction, and discrediting the original premise on which we opposed wokeism in the first place. History is actually full of these over-corrections, and allowing them to proceed is certainly not a good idea. Indeed, the 2010s ‘woke’ wave are sometimes thought to be due to the overreach of the Religious Right in the 1980s to 2000s. If we don’t prevent over-correction towards the reactionary side, there will certainly be another, perhaps even bigger, ‘woke’ wave in the not too distant future.
We should also note that the ‘woke recession’ won’t last forever, or even for a long time. Much of Generation Z still agree with those ideas. And they are still dominant in certain social movements, for example LGBT activism. Therefore, we only have a limited window of time to establish a better alternative, to convince people to abandon postmodernism and critical theory, so that there won’t be a total takeover by these ideologies in the future. As I previously analyzed, postmodernism and critical theory are anarchic, anti-order ideologies, built on the idea that hierarchy and norms are inevitably oppressive. The best way to argue against this view would be to demonstrate that an ordered liberty works well in practice, especially in terms of inclusiveness and fairness. Therefore, what we need to do urgently, is to rebuild the classical liberal consensus, bring about good order via free speech and good faith discussion, and create room for rational debate so that controversial social issues can be resolved. We must stop the anti-woke backlash from going all the way towards creating a bad order based on reactionary culture war politics. Otherwise, it will end up reinforcing critical theory’s arguments, and destroy any hope of resurrecting classical liberal norms in the future.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for the West.