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Why does the left care more about politics in America?
Richard Hanania has written a fascinating article in which he tries to explain why so many large organisations (corporations, universities, the ACLU) have gone woke. Given that roughly 50% of Americans vote for the Republican Party, you’d expect to see about as many openly right-wing organisations as openly left-wing ones, but of course that isn’t what you see. In recent years, large organisations (including ones we traditionally associate with the right) have been tripping over themselves to show how much they care about “social justice”.
Hanania’s explanation begins with the distinction between ordinal preferences and cardinal preferences. He notes that elections only take into account ordinal preferences: when you cast a vote, you’re simply saying which of the two or more candidates you prefer. You’re not saying how much you prefer that candidate to the others. But other forms of political expression are different. They take into account cardinal preferences. And where these forms of expression are concerned, the balance is far from 50/50.
Compared to their counterparts on the right, left-wing Americans are more likely to donate to political causes, to attend political rallies, and to be active on social media. They’re also more intolerant of their political opponents, which means that right-wing Americans often keep their political views to themselves, lest they end up getting cancelled.
All these observations suggest that the left simply cares more about politics than the right. And this could explain why corporations and other large organisations pander to the left. When a corporation comes out in support of BLM, conservatives may grumble a bit, but they’re unlikely to stop doing business there. Yet if a corporation came out against BLM, they’d receive a torrent of abuse on social media (“raaacist!”), and would probably have to deal with (mostly peaceful) protestors outside their buildings.
I suspect there’s a lot of truth to Hanania’s explanation, even though it’s not the whole story. (The last decade’s Great Awokening likely has several causes.) However, what I want to discuss in the remainder of this article is why the left cares more about politics in America. In particular, I want to suggest that this is due, at least in part, to the left’s secularisation.
In recent decades, there’s been a dramatic decline in religiosity among Democrats and liberals, which greatly exceeds any corresponding decline among Republicans and conservatives. According to data from the General Social Survey, this decline began in the late 1980s, but did not gather pace until the mid 2000s. Could it be that political activism now serves the role that religion once served for many left-wing Americans, and that when such individuals attend protests, shout slogans and share hashtags, they are engaged in a kind of secular evangelism?
A recent survey by Pew Research found that conservatives are more likely to find meaning in religious faith, whereas liberals are more likely to find meaning in social and political causes. The latter tendency was particularly pronounced among “very liberal” Americans, 30% of whom said that such causes provide “a great deal” of meaning to them (only 12% of “very conservative” Americans said the same). And while conservatives are known to be more religious, liberals are more likely to hold “New Age” beliefs, such as that “spiritual energy can be located in physical things”. This suggests that, despite their loss of religious faith, left-wing people’s willingness to entertain the supernatural may be largely undiminished.
Several commentators have already entertained some version of this theory. For example, Andrew Sullivan has argued, “we’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion. It has merely led to religious impulses being expressed by political cults.” In Sullivan’s view, there are two main political cults in American society: “the cult of Trump on the right” and “the cult of social justice on the left”.
Likewise, James Lindsay has written about the ways in which “social justice” activism is like religion: it seeks to liberate people from oppression; its work is never finished; those who disagree with it are branded heretics; etc. However, Lindsay maintains that “Social Justice isn’t a substitute for religion; it’s a roughly religious structure that services the same human needs that religions do”. On the other hand, John McWhorter – who first opined on the subject back in 2015 – has gone so far as to say that “modern antiracism” actually is a religion. He notes, “The parishioners are now not even pretending.”
Yet another commentator who has drawn parallels between “social justice” activism and religion is the historian Tom Holland. In an interview concerning his book Dominion, Holland argues that “social justice” activism has a number of similarities with one religion in particular, namely Christianity. This is no coincidence, says Holland, since “social justice” activism ultimately derives from the West’s Christian inheritance.
Woke activists accuse people of having “white privilege”, which is another way of imputing Original Sin. They insist that there must be “equity” across all groups, a form of Christian universalism based on Paul’s declaration that there is “neither Jew nor Greek” before God. And they revere those who are “oppressed” or “marginalised”, a tendency rooted in the Christian notion that the meek are blessed and “they shall inherit the earth”. One could go further, and point out that “social justice” activism has much in common with a specific strand of Christianity, namely Puritanism. This is perhaps not surprising, given that New England – the region of the United States where left-wing views are most entrenched – was settled by Puritans in the 17th century.
One objection to the theory I have just outlined is that it doesn’t explain why liberals are more likely than conservatives to act on their beliefs. Indeed, one might ask: if a quasi-religious belief in “social justice” has inspired left-wing Americans to bring activism into formerly neutral domains, why hasn’t an actual religious belief in Christianity inspired right-wing Americans to do the same?
The obvious answer is that, because Christianity has been part of Western culture for so long, society has evolved ways of curbing its excesses and confining it to its proper sphere. For example, most Western societies (and many non-Western societies) have the concept of the separation of Church and state. While the concept itself dates back at least to the Reformation (and perhaps even to the New Testament itself) the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State” was first used by the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.
In addition, most Western countries have laws that guarantee freedom of religion. These are designed not only to ensure citizens can express their own religious beliefs without undue interference, but also to prevent individuals or organisations from imposing certain religious beliefs on others. Given the speed at which the Great Awokening has unfolded in America, perhaps the country now needs laws to guarantee “freedom of politics”.
Image: John Trumbull, Declaration of Independence, 1756
I’ve written three more short posts since last time. The first argues that “we have to compare Sweden to its neighbours” isn’t a convincing argument. The second notes that people tend to overestimate the risks of COVID-19, and this may explain their high level of support for lockdowns. And the third notes that the age-standardised mortality rate in England dropped 26% from February to March.
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