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The Future of the Culture War

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The Future of the Culture War

10 Blocks podcast February 11, 2022
The Social Order

Political scientist and MI adjunct fellow Eric Kaufmann joins Brian Anderson to discuss his new report on U.S. cultural conflicts, the emergence of “cultural socialism,” and the future of free expression in an increasingly divided country.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Eric Kaufmann. He's an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a professor politics at Birkbeck College, University of London and the author of several books. He's been on the podcast before. His work focuses on demography, religious and national identity and cultural politics.

In a recent report for the Manhattan Institute, "The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary America" he quantifies the nature and extent of the political divides over free speech, cancel culture and race essentialism in the US. It's a massive document with a ton of original research and analysis in it. And we're very glad to run a synopsis of its basic argument in City Journal and to have Eric on the podcast again, so Eric, thanks very much for joining us.

Eric Kaufmann: It's great to be back, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Your report contains some very striking findings. For instance, when they're asked what they consider the most important problem facing the United States, 10% of the survey respondents chose cultural war, cultural war issues. So political correctness, cancel culture as we've come to call it, wokeness, people falsely accused of racism and sexism. They ranked culture wars third just below COVID-19 and the economy and healthcare and ahead of other issues like immigration and the environment. So could you talk about some of the most significant top line results of your research?

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, I mean, this is, I think quite important because there is a debate over how important the culture wars are to the average person, to the average voter. And often it's suggested that this is just something that pointy-headed academics and journalists think about or think tank people think about. And actually what this sort of analysis, which is pretty standard in political science shows is that actually these issues are now actually have quite a bit of cut through for the average voter.

If I ask sort of people, their talk issue from a list of nine baskets, one of which was about culture wars issues to do with political correctness, cancel culture, wokeness and so on. And I think you need to have as many words in there as possible to sort of trigger that association for people. And what you see is essentially for Republican voters, 50% of them ranked it as a top three issue.

And that's just below, I mean, it's somewhat below immigration, but it's above religion and moral values. It's above things like foreign policy and so on. It's quite high ranking and even for Independents about a third of them put it in their top three and for Democrats about 15%.

So this issue is now above the midpoint and it is for Republicans a leading issue. And I think that starts to mean that it's going to swing elect, it's going to start swinging elections. This is not just an intellectual consideration. So I think that was the first thing that I was really trying to establish is to use this standard, most important issue question and try and put the culture war issues, which are very rarely included. Now they have been included on the Harvard Harris poll, which I cited, which shows a pretty similar result from a longer list of 24 issues. Political correctness, cancel culture was right in the middle. So this is actually quite an important issue now for US politics.

Brian Anderson: Very interesting. In your study, you identify cultural socialism and cultural liberalism as the rival forces in our current Western cultural conflicts. So how do you define these concepts? Because they're, especially when one talks about cultural liberalism in an American context, you're using that in a slightly different way or a very different way. And what does the survey tell us about these two categories you identify?

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, I think this is just a way of kind of making sense of all the results and putting them into a sort of larger frame. And I think what this is suggesting is that this newer, a newer culture war division is opening up that is somewhat of a shifting of the political access in American politics. And what this means is that you have on the one side, what I would call cultural liberals and liberalism used more in the sense of classical liberalism.

And this means support for due process for free speech, for equal treatment under the law, for scientific reason, scientific method, et cetera. And things which at one time might have been more associated with the left or with what Americans would think of as the term liberal, which reflects that idea of being politically on the left.

If we go back to the 1950s and 60s, for example, some of those issues are now kind of more associated with the right, something like free speech, equal treatment under the law, science and so on. So what we have is on the one side, people who are supporting free speech positions and sort of more scientifically rational positions.

And on the other side, we have what I'm calling cultural socialism, which is instead of equal treatment equality of outcome between identity groups. Instead of due process a presumption of guilt against members of an oppressor group, and also not necessarily support for the scientific method, so perhaps standpoint epistemology or feelings or other forms of knowing elevated above evidence and analytic logic.

So what we have is that juxtaposition, which I think is becoming increasingly central, and I think we'll define actually the politics of the US and other Western countries going forward.

And so instead of thinking about the Cold War, which was really a struggle between economic socialism or communism on the one hand and economic liberalism, the idea of a free market on the other, what we have is a cultural version of this Cold War, which is emerging. On the one hand, cultural freedom, on the other hand, cultural equality of outcome and protecting subaltern minorities from harm is juxtaposed against free speech and other kinds of freedoms.

So yeah, I think that's sort of how I make sense of a lot of the results is. And I think that this is going to be an emerging issue in particular because of the views of those under 30, which incline slightly more, I would argue in favor of cultural socialism than in favor of cultural liberalism.

Brian Anderson: About a quarter of Americans have had direct exposure to what we could call critical social justice ideology at work. Younger employees are most likely to have gone through various training programs in this area and support as you just suggested, what I would call illiberalism, progressive illiberalism and what you're calling cultural socialism.

Your data show that diversity training is linked both to being in favor of cancel culture and also having a greater fear of being subjected to cancel culture. So what explains that particular tension and what does this kind of youthful endorsement of what we're calling cancel culture these days mean for the future of free speech in America?

Eric Kaufmann: I think it's a very negative finding in a way for the future of free speech. It suggests there is a sort of package of beliefs, which fit under the label cultural socialism, which a large number of millennials have bought in into millennials and Gen Z. And that sort of deal if you like, that social contract is one that says, I am scared of being canceled, so I'm fearful of losing my job or reputation for something I've said online.

This is one of the questions that I put in this, and this question has been asked, a different version of it has been asked by the Cato Institute and similar kinds of findings, levels have been reported. Roughly 35, 36% of Americans are afraid of losing their job or reputation for things they've said or posted online in the past or in the present. It goes up to close to 50% amongst those under age 40, so it's higher.

But what's interesting is those younger people are much more likely to say, "Well," in fact, a majority of those under age 25 would say, "Well, this is an acceptable price. My fear of being canceled is more or less an acceptable price to pay to protect minority groups." So they're buying into an ideology, which is a pretty sort of, it's a pretty tough ideology that they're willing to accept the risk of being canceled in order to uphold what they see as social justice.

So they're buying the loss of freedom. They're willing to sacrifice their own freedom to uphold their vision of cultural socialism. And that's quite interesting to me, it kind of shows. Because a lot of the questions in the past have simply shown that yeah, people are scared of being canceled and yes, that they support free speech and they're against hate speech, but none of these questions really force people to choose and make trade offs between these values. And when you do that, what you really see is that the older generations tend to prioritize free speech over cultural socialism. The younger generations, if anything, put cultural socialism slightly above free speech.

So I think as that generation enters organizations, they enter that become the median voter. They're going to change the culture of organizations and probably even law to make it essentially to restrict free speech in the name of social justice.

Brian Anderson: And where are, I guess they're absorbing these values from their education from growing up with like-minded friends? Where is this stuff coming from?

Eric Kaufmann: Well, it's interesting. I mean, you can see the use of a lot of these critical social justice terms begins in the academy. And I've seen other data, which is not in this report, which shows that as early as the 1980s, we start to see an uptick and rise, steady rise in the use of these terms in academia.

And then sort of starting in around 2010 to 2015, you start to see what's called the great awokening, a big spike in the use of these terms in the media. And I think it's really the media, social media influencers. That's really where this influence is coming from for younger people. It's also true. They're getting it to some degree in school and they're getting it at university, but a lot of the research does sort of suggest that people's views aren't shaped that much by schooling and university.

So it's heavily through peers, which is in turn heavily influenced by social media and pop celebrity culture and so on. So I think that's, it's really that sort of elite pop culture that's kind of shaping the information environment that's giving rise to these beliefs. And of course, if you look at the views of American students as outlined in other surveys by FIRE, for example, I mean, something on the order of 70% of students think that if a professor says something that offends them people should report, the students should report the professor to the authorities.

You've got something like between 70 and 85% of students say that students who say that Black lives matter is a hate group. I think it's like 85% say that such a person shouldn't be allowed on campus to speak. You can very, very, on some questions, almost overwhelming support for the cultural socialist position. And so yeah, I think really the free speech culture as Greg Lukianoff would say is very much on the back foot amongst this generation.

Brian Anderson: Now people tend to choose where to live and work in a way that results in a significant political segregation, what you term the big sort. So according to your survey data, more than 50%, 56% of Trump and Biden voters are employed in workplaces that are dominated by people who generally share their own political views, their political tribe. And this may account for the fact that Trump voters worry about being politically discriminated against at the rate of 27%, which isn't as high as you might think it.

As those in ideologically homogeneous areas and workplaces, they're not as worried about being canceled because they're surrounded by their friends. So does this herald a future in which the only way to really obtain the freedom of speech is to surround yourself with the like-minded people? What might this imply for the nation's civic and social health?

Eric Kaufmann: Well, I think you're right that to some degree, and particularly for Republicans and Trump voters being in a milieu where I say a workplace which is majority Republican, is going to increase your freedom substantially maybe by up to 20 points. And when I say freedom, your freedom to, for example, express your political views to a colleague. That is, it's under 30% in a left leaning or yeah, left of center leaning workplaces, a Trump voter fewer than 30% would express their political views, whereas in a Republican majority workplace, 75%.

So that's a 45 point gap. If we take Biden voters in Republican leaning institutions and Biden voters in Democrat leading institutions, that gap goes from 45 points to something like 20 something point. In other words, they feel a lot less constrained. They are still somewhat constrained, but they're less constrained.

And yeah, I think the pattern of, it's like the geographic sorting, what Bishop and Cushing called the big sort where central cities and urban areas are increasingly Democrat and exurban and rural areas, increasingly Republican and congressional districts the same. That pattern we also see with workplaces so there are most Republicans are working in Republican workplaces to the extent as well, that people are older are working in smaller firms are more rural. All of those things correspond to a more Republican workplace.

And because Republicans tend to fit those categories, older, more rural, smaller size of organization, more Republican organization, they tend to be insulated to some degree from the speech restrictions and chilling effects that exist in the larger, more Democrat leaning organizations. Now, what that means, one of the things that that means is that this is actually, we saw that statistic about 36% of both Biden and Trump voters saying they're worried about being fired or having their reputation lost due to things they posted.

It's not a difference between the two sets of voters. And I think one of the reasons for that is because Republicans are somewhat insulated in workplace that very only about a quarter of them work in Democrat majority workplaces. And so for that reason, I think, there's a big debate over how, again, how important is cancel culture and the culture war?

I think it's less important than some think, particularly those of us who work in heavily left-leaning sectors such as academia or media. We think that everybody feels what we feel and I don't think that's actually correct. I think to some degree, the skeptics are right, that a lot of Republicans are insulated from cancel culture to some degree, but on the other hand, 36% of people worrying about their jobs is also quite a significant number, and just for reference in certain sectors. So for example, amongst Trump academics fewer than one in 10 would actually reveal their political views to a colleague. So in some sectors, there is a very high degree of self censorship, but in general, more Republicans are, because they're working in Republican workplaces they're not as chilled. They're expression is not as restricted as it might otherwise be and that might be one of the reasons why personal experience of being canceled is not really a very good predictor of the vote in this sample.

Brian Anderson: Your report is based on original data from a large scale survey. It provides a kind of grounding for some of the more philosophical discussions about the culture wars, which have really, of course been going on for decades now. What in your view should lawmakers and politicians take away from this research and more specifically, what kind of recommendations that the policy or political level do the results you've uncovered council?

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, I mean, I asked quite a number. I polled quite a number of policy questions as well. And what you really see is more people support restrictions on, for example, university's ability to fire professors for politically incorrect speech, or even the ability of tech firms to sort of ban people for legal speech. I mean, those sorts of things if you look at the data, more people would support government regulations preventing that kind of behavior by these organizations that are either public or monopoly.

So that's one public policy takeaway. I mean, here in Britain, we have the Academic Freedom Bill, which again, would very strongly regulate university's ability to engage in those actions. So that seems to have support. The other thing in terms of political diversity, I asked about academia and media, which have both gone from a ratio of about one and a half left to one right in the mid sixties to about between four and six to one left to right today.

And what you saw was kind of bipartisan consensus that actually in favor of as much, if you like emphasis on political diversity as on racial and gender diversity. So as, or more emphasis should be placed on political, getting more political diversity as is placed currently on gender and racial diversity in academia and the media, so that got bipartisan support.

And again, so there's some indication in both the regulation of organization's ability to cancel and also support for political diversity alongside, that you should be emphasizing political diversity as much or more than race and gender diversity in these organizations. I mean, that was getting much more support than the other. And I think that's kind of telling because these are both directions that I think in my view anyway, I think that governments need to be moving in because I guess I'm less of the view that the marketplace is going to sort of drive out the universities that are canceling people and support the universities that back free speech.

I'm more skeptical that that process can happen in a lot of spheres in society. I'm sort of more of the view that governments need to take an active role in regulating what certainly public institutions are allowed to terms of canceling and disciplining people for speech or some of the equity and diversity policies, which pay absolutely no attention to viewpoint diversity allow for political discrimination and only focus on race and gender. So I think those takeaways, I think, are important for policymakers.

Brian Anderson: Yes, I remember we discussed some of these issues the, the last time you were on 10 Blocks. A final question. The report's been out for a little bit now. I'm wondering what kind of feedback you're getting, what kind of reaction it has provoked? What has the social media response been like?

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, I mean, I think that the City Journal piece certainly got picked up very widely and commented upon. And I think that was sort of the, that piece, which was really talking about the idea that cancel culture is not going away. That actually we're just at the beginning because the younger generation is really significantly more supportive of cultural socialism and less supportive of cultural liberalism that we need to be prepared for a future in which there is much more of a battle over the entire liberal system which underpins the law, that that is actually something that we're going to have to fight for.

And I think that is sort of something that got picked up the most and people commented on the most. I didn't get a whole lot of pushback. I mean, there is always the game of trying to interpret the meaning of words like free speech that people who are kind of more of the cultural socialist bent will try and interpret liberalism as meaning smuggle in a lot of egalitarianism.

In other words, well, if people don't feel safe, then they don't feel free, therefore we have to prioritize safety of minorities over the freedom of majority. I mean, that kind of logic, which I think is actually a distortion of the meaning of the terms liberalism and so on.

So I think actually that is the only push back I had but I wouldn't say that there's been a ton of pushback and also likewise, the findings that, and which we didn't go into as much, that these issues split left wing or Democrat voters and unite Republican voters, meaning that this is a very good wedge issue for the Republicans and a very dangerous issue for the Democrats. I think that also has not received a great deal of pushback. So I guess broadly I'm encouraged by that. I haven't heard a whole lot of arguments trashing it, so I guess that's a good thing.

Brian Anderson: Okay. Well, that's good to know and it's really a terrific piece of work, Eric. It's called, the report is called "The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary America." Very interesting discussion today. Don't forget to check out Eric Kaufmanns's work on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. Will link to his author page in the description, and you can find all sorts of fascinating material there.

You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. So Eric, great to have you on again, and thank you very much for your time today.

Eric Kaufmann: Thanks very much, Brian.

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