Why liberals should not take a side in the Culture War

For a brief period in the mid-late 2010s, it looked like the Culture War might be an environment in which liberalism could thrive. Take the now-ridiculed ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, a group of thinkers from the progressive Left, conservative Right, and everything in between who united around shared liberal values like freedom of speech and racial colour-blindness in response to the growing authoritarianism and race-essentialism of the Left.

The prospect of people like Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, and Bret Weinstein uniting to defeat the illiberal Left was enticing. Shapiro, a prominent American socially conservative commentator, even dropped his opposition to legalising gay marriage, so long as he was free to voice his religious objections. I thought the end of history was upon us, with people across the political spectrum acknowledging that the state has no right to police words, sexual preferences, or any other type of peaceful social activity.

Fast forward to 2023. Shapiro has recently argued that local governments should be permitted to ban individuals dressing in the clothes associated with the opposite sex. While arguing in favour of a law passed in Florida censoring classroom instruction about LGBTQ+ identities, Shapiro reneged on his support for Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court case underpinning equal marriage. The Culture War that erupted in the intervening years made this U-turn inevitable.

The modern Culture War is being broadly fought between two illiberal teams. No liberals seriously argue that we should ally with the Left. But some liberals, including my colleague Kristian Niemietz, do argue that an alliance with the Right is a viable option. The problem is that far from simply opposing the Left’s ideology, the Right have an increasingly illiberal agenda of their own.

The Right is currently split between into two broad camps, with reactionary populists such as Calvin Robinson and Laurence Fox representing one side, and the moderate, ‘serious’, and ‘sensible’ side which most Conservative MPs subscribe to. The former group clearly wish to use state coercion to facilitate their preferred social ideals in areas like immigration or trans rights. As soon as issues like these become prominent, their pretence of liberal anti-wokism evaporates. Examples include stirring up moral panics about drag queen story hour or endorsing ID cards and weakened due process rights to curb Channel crossings.

The moderate group are less objectionable, but not particularly liberal. They accept almost every cultural idea peddled by the Left of ten years ago. This was epitomised by Kemi Badenoch’s proposal to amend the Equality Act 2010 to clarify that protections for women apply to biological females. This proposal does nothing to roll back the Leftist principles underpinning Britain’s equality law.

But the argument goes that the Right is not as bad, often arguing to conserve and restore liberal values in discussions about issues like racial equality or free speech. This is true on some issues, but there are a few objections.

Firstly, the direction of travel on the Right is clearly leans towards its reactionary, illiberal side. Evidence for this came from an event hosted by Reasoned, where the young right-wing audience welcomed the likes of Calvin Robinson but were actively hostile to liberal voices like Daniel Hannan and Steve Baker.

As the American Culture War goes, so go the Culture Wars of most Western countries. If that rule holds true, we are about to see a more muscular, openly authoritarian Right come to prominence. That brings me back to my anecdote about Ben Shapiro – it is only when the Right are nowhere near power that they seem palatable. If they get the impression that reactionary social ideas can be converted into policy, they will argue for it and defend it to the hilt. We have already seen how anti-woke energy can be harnessed by government to trample on our liberties, whether through the Public Order Bill inspired by environmentalist protests, the proposed amendment to the Equality Act, or the government’s attempts to ‘stop the boats’. They might seem small-scale thus far, but momentum can do a lot for a political movement.

Secondly, conservative liberalism is not enough. Too many of our liberal institutions and laws have already fallen victim to the Left and many more were never particularly liberal to begin with – drug prohibition being one example. We need to proudly state the case for liberalism again and I see no evidence that there is much advantage in relying on the Right to help us.

Finally, there is an argument that the reactionary populist Right is not a strong force in the UK, that unlike the Left, they are low-status and lack power. For now, that is true among social, political, and media elites, but status can change rather quickly. Yes, liberal and right-wing views will get you abuse on Twitter, but having those views is not nearly as low-status, unpopular, and isolating as being, say, a Conservative voter in working-class constituencies like Blyth Valley was as recently as 2010. By 2019, Blyth Valley was one of a cascade of loyal Labour-voting seats to be represented by a Conservative MP.

Besides, we can’t have it both ways. Either the Right is condemned to permanent low status, or they could return to prominence with a groundswell of support for a sinister brand of populist nationalism or communitarianism. Either way, alliance with them doesn’t further our cause.

My fear is that liberals making long-term alliances with other political groups tends to lead us to dilute our principles more than it leads others to accept our way of thinking. In both the United States and United Kingdom, liberals got some wins on economic policy in the 1980s due to our ‘fusionist’ alliance with conservatives but were too slow to see the rising tide of statism on the Right until the rise of Donald Trump and the failure of Liz Truss. How much cultural authoritarianism are we prepared to let slide in our latest quest to ‘own the libs’?

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