Have we reached the peak in the culture wars between the populist right and the liberal left? The left accuses the right of manufacturing “culture wars” to divide and rule, while the right reduces every problem to left-liberal “wokeness”. Identity politics and culture wars have fractured not just the left and right but also our shared polity.
Joe Biden pins political polarisation on Donald Trump and the Republican Party, even though progressive policies of hyper-globalisation drove the Democrats’ traditional working-class electorate into Trump’s arms and won him the 2016 presidential contest against Hillary Clinton. It is rich for Trump to complain about Democratic “lawfare” impeaching him twice and now trying to jail him before the 2024 election, given that the Republicans are hardly immune from weaponising the judicial system to delegitimise political opponents. The Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 was just as much an exercise in partisan power as Trump’s own attempt to get Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to provide incriminating evidence against Joe Biden’s son Hunter before the 2020 election.
In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak blames “lefty lawyers” backed by the Labour Party for thwarting his policy of stopping the boats crossing the Channel and sending illegal immigrants who seek asylum to Rwanda. There’s the Tory tune about woke warriors attacking anything from free speech on university campuses to biological reality. Meanwhile, Labour’s leader Keir Starmer forgets that the left routinely plays to its own gallery by implying that Conservative politicians and voters are, deep down, bigoted, imperialist and xenophobic.
The fundamental drivers of identity politics are coming to the fore amid the escalating economic and social crisis that is engulfing the West. Since the 2008 financial crash, the disparities of wealth, power and social status between the top 20 per cent and the bottom 80 per cent have widened dramatically. The upper middle class of Wall Street and Silicon Valley has seen their real wages, assets and standing in society continue to rise, while the lower middle class and working class have further fallen behind. Their insecurity is partly economic: badly paid, precarious jobs; lack of affordable housing and poor basic social infrastructure, including expensive childcare. High levels of immigration combined with austerity put pressure on wages and public services, not least access to social housing, while providing cheap skilled labour – Polish plumbers and French au pairs – that disproportionately benefits the professional classes in London and the south-east. But they also suffer culturally: the loss of more traditional, small-c conservative ways of life rooted in family, community and country as a result of accelerating technological and cultural change.
[See also: Still fighting the history wars]
What underpins right-wing culture wars vs left-wing identity politics is a deeper class conflict, with cultural divisions largely mapping on to economic ones. Jobs are both a source of income to pay the bills – and a source of meaning and purpose. Housing provides physical protection and emotional stability. Far from pitting culture against economics, the class conflict is about both. And at its heart is a clash of two ideas of freedom. What the American writer Michael Lind calls the “metropolitan overclass” wants liberation from any limits on private consumer choice, whereas the lower middle class and working class want to lead a more secure life. In this light, right-wing culture wars and left-wing identity politics are two sides of the same capitalist coin. Capitalism is the new opiate of the masses, which covertly reconciles people to the loss of fundamental freedoms, agency and dignity at the workplace – in the locality and across the country.
To ensure electoral success in the coming years, the left needs to forge a cross-class, cross-cultural coalition between graduate progressives in cities and university towns, and social conservative voters in the forgotten places – the suburban, rural and coastal areas where people voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. To regain trust, the left would do better to emphasise the question of respect – respect for the dignity of labour and the “achievement of workers”. It was not righteous talk about social justice that won the German SPD the federal election in 2021 – but instead this theme of respect.
Of course, cultural change will be necessary to bring about better economic conditions. We need less individualism and corporate greed – and more lived solidarity and fellowship. Yet it is also true, as the American author Sohrab Ahmari has said, that “the material order – how we organise our political economy and class structure – bears heavily on the shape of our culture. Efforts to change the culture without reforming the economy are futile at best.”
Both the centrist and the populist right rail against wokeness even as they advocate spending and tax cuts that benefit the financial and tech oligarchy. This provides a political opening to the left. Instead of engaging in identity politics and fighting the culture wars that cannot be won, it should focus on the economic reality of our existence and propose models that reduce insecurity and support a greater sense of belonging.
[See also: The manosphere is poisoning conservatism]