When Senator Bernie Sanders recently dropped out of the 2020 presidential race, many wondered how, despite his initial surge in the polls, he was defeated by Joe Biden, a gaffe-prone moderate with a spotty political record, in this age of viral videos, populist extremes and demands for structural change. In the beginning, it was Sanders who seemed to offer the more robust challenge to Donald Trump’s brand of working class heroism by directly addressing the material interests of Americans by promoting redistributionist policies and social democratic principles of equality, fairness and universal dignity. Yet, in the end, not only did Bernie fail to build a broad enough coalition to overcome the former vice president but fared worse in the primaries than he did in 2016. In Minnesota and Oklahoma, for example, Super Tuesday states with heavy white rural populations, Sanders went from winning nearly all their counties to losing nearly all of them. So what happened?
A number of think pieces have recently emerged, attempting to explain why the economic left keeps losing important elections, despite the apparent popularity of many of its policies: a phenomenon reflected in Jeremy Corbyn’s historically resounding defeat to Boris Johnson last year. Zach Beauchamp argues that a misguided theory of class politics and solidarity cost Sanders the nomination because he failed to take into account the pull of negative partisanship, identity politics and demographic cleavages in determining how people vote. Alexander Blum argues that it was Sanders’ willingness to cozy up to Democratic elites—which conflicted with his own populist rhetoric—coupled with the fact that the revolutionary sentiments of the Democratic Socialists defied any semblance of American normalcy, which did the most damage. For the pro-Sanders organ Jacobin, his defeat was due to generational divides, unfair media coverage and the party’s last-minute convergence around Biden.
But there is another consideration. In one of the early Democratic primaries, Sanders proclaimed that Donald Trump was a racist. Whether true or not, this was intended less as a relevant statement of fact than the reflexive signaling of allegiance to a moral identity that formed a central theme of the Sanders campaign: a commitment to anti-racism and an alignment with the cultural left on identity issues only tangentially—if at all—related to Sanders’ class-oriented agenda. Even more telling was Sanders’ shift on the immigration issue. He went from criticizing globalism to defending universal health coverage for undocumented immigrants within a single election cycle. And, although there were rifts between the Sanders camp and the more culturally progressive Elizabeth Warren supporters, the tone of his campaign clearly shifted left on cultural issues in accordance with a growing Social Justice orthodoxy that is wildly unpopular among the wider population.
Donald Trump is a racist, a homophobe, a sexist and a xenophobe. But we will we defeat him. Because we won't allow him to divide us up. pic.twitter.com/szFJ7Y02yI
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 5, 2019
The 2018 Hidden Tribes study, which used nationally representative polls, interviews and focus groups to unearth the roots of political polarization, found that a whopping 80% of Americans are explicitly averse to political correctness (described as an inability to express oneself honestly without being censured). More tellingly, the political tribe in which PC norms are the most popular—progressive activists—is completely out of alignment with most of the country in economic, demographic and cultural terms. They are better educated and have higher incomes than any other group. Numerous polls have shown that most Americans are against the idea of the country becoming more politically correct, though the exact meaning of the term is rarely clearly defined. A crisper definition of political correctness is in order.
PC culture is characterized by the tendency to take offense at any perceived slight towards a marginalized group and to punish the offender, regardless of her intention, in order to set a precedent. But the issue also involves how we Americans relate to our past as a nation. Since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, an institutional imperative to dissociate ourselves from our history of oppression has become embedded in our social fabric. To account for asymmetrical historical power relations, it has become normal among cultural gatekeepers in media and academia to deride American traditionalism and white American identity as complicit in evil.
But the problem with collective guilt is that it goes against human nature. Most of us don’t feel guilty for things that happened before we were born and don’t like being stigmatized for things over which we have no control—however cosmically unjust they may seem. Furthermore, the Social Justice narrative has become self-replicating and increasingly removed from the conditions it was generated to combat. It now operates through stigma and social shaming rather than reflecting genuine remorse for past sins.
This contrasts starkly with the fact that a clear majority of Americans feel that wealth inequality and the corruption of the elites are major issues. A recent Pew poll found that 61% of Americans say there is too much economic inequality in the country, and a full 75% reported that corruption was widespread in the government. These trends are accelerating within the younger generations. Such positions are not as overtly partisan as they once were, since the laissez-faire free marketism of the Reagan era has come under heavy fire from national and populist figures on the right in recent years. As a social and economic breakdown of the 2016 electorate showed, libertarian economic and socially liberal views was the least popular ideological combination by a mile.
Libertarianism is a fringe ideology. That is all. pic.twitter.com/u2m6S4zrKM
— Tyler Fagan (@TylerAFagan) May 3, 2020
With the third way neoliberal consensus—which was economically right and culturally left-leaning—of the 90s in palpable decline, a photonegative consensus is emerging, pushing us leftwards on economics and rightwards on culture.
If the left were able to tame its identity politics excesses, which inculcate ideas of privilege, implicit bias and structural oppression as it exclusively pertains to formerly marginalized groups, without forgoing its economic principles of redistribution and while refusing to stigmatize dissent, a more spacious middle ground would be opened up, upon which an economic and cultural consensus might converge. On the other hand, were a figure to emerge on the right who advocated left-wing economic policy without forgoing cultural conservatism, there’s a good chance that he’d find success. If a new third way existed, this is how it would look.
Of course, this is pure speculation. People on the left and right have different reasons for supporting state intervention: the former want to mitigate inequality and the latter want to foster community around traditional institutions. As long as the culture war overshadows politics, it’s not obvious that citizens would be willing to make concessions to their opponents. It is identity that separates us, not policy views. As polarization worsens and negative partisanship propels our hatred of each other to new heights, it’s going to become progressively harder to elicit any desire for compromise.
But fatalism can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there is an emerging consensus in the population as to how society should improve, one that does not show up in our politics, then it should be reflected in public discourse until it does. We need a new moral vision for the country, a vision that compels us to place common interests and values over identitarian differences. Otherwise, nothing will get done and we will be unequipped to contend with the problems that face us.
What might this new consensus look like? Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang stands out as an example of the new third way. His flagship proposal of allocating $1000 a month to all Americans, funded by a value added tax designed to fall heavily on big tech—a plan that would enable the gradual dissolution of our dysfunctional welfare system, could never be confused with free market fundamentalism. In his refusal to denigrate Trump and his supporters, his self-deprecatory jokes about Asianness and his forgiveness of comedian Shane Gillis for using racial slur against him, it is hard to accuse him of Social Justice warriorship or politically correct repressiveness. Yang even wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about the need for Asian-Americans to embrace their Americanness in the face of racist hostility provoked by the Coronavirus—not very woke at all.
Although few people had heard of Yang leading up to the race, he did astoundingly well. He will probably be a force to reckon with in the next election cycle, if he chooses to run, and his success may portend a new cross-partisan approach in the future.
Most Americans don’t like political correctness because it’s convoluted, judgmental and divisive. And most Americans see inequality and the disconnectedness of elites as problems—because they clearly are. We won’t get anywhere if we can’t forgive each other for past sins, and we can’t feel united in a society with such massive gaps in wealth, geography, cultural and social capital and power. It’s only a matter of time before more public figures, politicians and journalists come around to that fact and make the requisite adjustments.