How Political Correctness on Race Fuels Polarization

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.


Craig Frisby usefully points us to the way moral innovators and “virtue-signaling” corporate imitators have stretched the meaning of racism beyond where objective social science and common sense would place it.

Leftist commentators retort that high-profile firings and de-platformings are few and far between in statistical terms. They’re right: these affect fewer than 1 in 1,000 academics. But this neglects the chilling effects that radiate out from such incidents, well beyond academia. For instance, according to a Cato/YouGov survey, 6 in 10 Republicans with graduate degrees feared for their jobs or job prospects if their political views became known.

The progressive approach to complaints about the policing of free speech downplays injustice against conservatives and threats to their expressive freedom as minor issues. I wonder if they would say the same if we were talking about “a few incidents” of discrimination against women or black people.

Nevertheless, even if the naysayers were right that speech policing and self-censorship is no big deal, few could deny that polarization, mistrust, minority achievement gaps, crime, and homelessness are “real” problems. What they fail to realize, however, is that concept creep in the meaning of racism sets us back in all these areas and corrodes social solidarity and political stability.

My work focuses on populism and polarization. When the ideology I term left-modernism—today’s dominant elite credo which blends influences from individualist-anarchism and cultural-leftism—takes hold in institutions, it steers policy away from the median voter in a culturally left-wing direction. Mainstream right parties, who tend to care about little beyond economics and foreign policy and dutifully obeyed left-modernist taboos prior to 2014-15, have grossly neglected education and culture.

Faced with this institutional failure, populism becomes the only way for voters to push back. This in turn sparks a liberal backlash against the upstart masses, bringing forth a further right-populist counter-response, setting in motion a spiral of deepening polarization. The Voter Study Group polling series shows that, for both Republicans and Democrats, the share saying “it is justified for [my party] to use violence in advancing political goals” has risen steadily, from 8 percent in November 2017 to 12 percent in October 2018, 15 percent in December 2019, 30 percent in June 2020 and 35 percent in September 2020.

Political correctness (PC) is a major reason for the surge in populist right support in Europe and America since 2014, as well as the growing partisan polarization we see even in Western countries like Canada where national populism has been weaker. The expanding definition of racism shuts down debate over immigration levels, creating a market opportunity for populist entrepreneurs because mainstream parties won’t deviate from the approved script on immigration. Imagine a Soviet department store only selling one color of pants but consumers demanding several. The end result is to create space for black marketeers to sell what the government store won’t.

PC contributed to narrowing what political scientists call the Overton window of acceptable debate. For example, Barack Obama’s tough talk on border security and illegal immigration, not to mention his lack of support for same-sex marriage, are now well outside the Overton window in the Democratic Party. Donald Trump’s willingness to make immigration his central focus during the Republican primary in 2015 also violated a bipartisan taboo that had held for decades—including within the Republican Party and right-wing media such as Fox News, where fusionist RNC Republicanism reigned.

In my recent book Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, I looked at the data on populist right voting across the West. Trump was the only one of 17 primary candidates willing to break the taboo around making immigration the focus of a campaign, and, as multiple  surveys show, this was the key reason why he won the nomination, and why some Obama voters switched to Trump in 2016. Trump’s attacks on political correctness strongly resonated with many voters. In my models of primary voting, attitudes to PC were second only to immigration views in predicting a Trump vote. In social psychology, there is an established phenomenon called reactance, in which people may respond to finger-wagging injunctions by reacting against being told what to do or think. A number of studies show that when people read about the importance of political correctness, or hear Trump’s policies or confederate statues called “racist,” they respond by increasing their support for Trump or confederate symbols.

In Germany, the populist right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) shot up under the new anti-immigration leader Frauke Petry during the 2015 Migrant Crisis. In Sweden, Jimmie Äkesson’s Sweden Democrats enjoyed a similar ascent in 2014. In both cases, mainstream parties shied away from opposing liberal policies, and when the Swedish interior minister broached the subject in 2013, he was attacked by the media as a racist. This left a gap in the market. A year later, the Sweden Democrats won 13 percent of the vote, and reached 25 percent at the peak of the crisis. Without elite pressure in favor of high immigration, there would be no space for the Sweden Democrats or AfD. Once the populists made it an issue, the center-right parties changed their tune and started talking about controlling immigration.

This, of course, went down badly with the rising liberal-left metropolitan graduate class, based in the knowledge industries, the 8 percent of the U.S. population which the Hidden Tribes report labels Progressive Activists. Such voters had come to view the immigration issue as sacrosanct. When first populist parties, then center-right parties, campaigned to control it, this was viewed as nothing short of blasphemy. Surveys I conducted showed that most Democrats considered Trump’s Wall racist, when it is simply a barrier to illegal entry similar to numerous others around the world. Trump’s victory produced the so-called “resistance” in the U.S. and a mobilization of “mainstream” media outlets like CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times against the president. Liberal—especially white liberal—opinion on race issues, immigration, and other cultural topics turned dramatically leftward. They championed slogans such as “abolish ICE (border control)” and, later, “defund the police.” Black Lives Matter protests and riots, along with a statue-toppling campaign, signified a more assertive anarchist phase to the movement.

Likewise, in Britain, the victory of the Leave side in the referendum on EU membership produced the “People’s Vote” campaign in response, which attracted large numbers of liberal urbanites to marches, agitating for a second referendum to overturn the Brexit vote. The #FBPE hashtag went viral and liberal graduates used their weight on social media and in elite institutions to declare their resistance. Some civil servants refused to work for Brexit. Leavers in turn accused those pushing for a second referendum of opposing democracy. The rise of the Greens and Liberal splinter parties in continental Europe is also a reaction to the populist surge and mainstream parties’ rightward shift on immigration (the mainstream’s tougher stance on immigration includes center-left parties, especially in Scandinavia).

At the core of the immigration battle lies a fundamental misperception, driven, in my view, by ideologically motivated reasoning, especially on the left. This involves eliding the fundamental distinction between two separate concepts: attachment to the majority in-group and hostility to minorities. Is it racist for ethnic majorities to wish to defend their group’s demographic interests? In Shadi Hamid’s terms, is racial self-interest racist?

This gets at a vital distinction in social psychology between attachment to in-group and hostility to out-groups. Some assume that the one entails the other. But if you think about it, do people who love their families hate their neighbors more than those who are cool toward their families? Social psychology tells us quite clearly that unless there is a zero-sum clash—especially violent conflict—in-group love and out-group hate are different and uncorrelated dispositions. Attachment to an in-group grows out of an early attachment to one’s mother, with hostility to outgroups developing later.

I noticed this in the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES). White Americans who feel warmer toward whites on a 0-100 thermometer do not feel colder toward blacks or Hispanics than whites who feel cooler toward whites on the thermometer. This contrasts with partisanship, a zero-sum relationship, where warmth toward Democrats is highly correlated with coolness to Republicans, and vice-versa. InWhite Identity Politics (2019), Ashley Jardina shows how the white identity and racism scales are both associated with a Trump vote but not much with each other.

Broadly speaking, progressives feel that it is legitimate for minority groups to defend their demographic interests but that it is racist for majorities to defend theirs. Survey experiments I conducted in late 2017 sought to probe this further. I asked American and British respondents the question: “a white American [British] woman wants to reduce immigration to maintain her group’s share of the population. Is this a) racist, b) racially self-interested, which is not racist or c) don’t know.” I then manipulated the categories, asking, for example if a Hispanic American who sought to boost her group’s share of the population by calling for increased immigration was being racist. Net of the undecided, the share of white Democrats (Clinton voters) who called the first form of behavior racist was 73 percent, but just 18 percent said the second formulation was racist. For white Trump voters, the effects were the reverse, with a mere 11 percent calling the first racist and 40 percent labeling the second as such. Minority Clinton voters (58 percent), and minorities overall (45 percent) were considerably less likely to call the white woman racist than white Clinton voters (73 percent). Importantly, a bare majority of Clinton voters also thought it was racist for a black or Japanese American to want less immigration to maintain her group share.

A similar if less pronounced (40-points rather than 60-points) difference separated British Leavers and Remainers on this question. Importantly, over 90 percent of white Democrats with postgraduate degrees delivered the “racist” verdict while only 5.5 percent of non-graduate white Trump voters and zero percent of non-graduate UK Leave voters agreed. The “racist” verdict is very much a minority opinion. In an 18-country international sample, just a quarter of respondents in most Western countries gave the “racist” response, with three-quarters saying the woman was being “racially self-interested, which is not racist.” The U.S. and Canada had the highest share—35 percent—replying “racist”, but even here, 65 percent said this was “racial self-interest, which is not racist.”

Political Intolerance

The left-modernist expansion of the meaning of racism is not just a threat to academic and expressive freedom, or merely a matter of injustice for those who are fired or live in fear of their jobs. It has also resulted in the rise of an increasingly intolerant left, who moralize political problems. “Myside Bias” is one of the few biases not correlated with intelligence. In addition, political intolerance rises with education. Finally, highly-educated progressives, compared to either non-graduate progressives or graduate conservatives, are most likely to misperceive the median beliefs of their political opponents, in part because they have considerably fewer social contacts with those of opposing views.

This results in progressive fundamentalism in spheres dominated by liberal graduates. Once they dominate an elite institution, this intolerant group moralizes political positions into Manichaean binaries, silencing debate. This cocktail results in institutions which are unresponsive to democratic preferences, creating increasing alienation and populism in the wider society. This sets a polarizing spiral in motion, of backlash and counter-backlash, leading to the dangerous trend of growing approval of partisan violence.

Our goal must be to de-sacralize political ideology and extract the sanctimonious moralizing out of our policy conversations, increasing political toleration. The world is complex, not binary, and a totalizing worldview—”Republican supporters are all racist”—will only increase conflict. Governments should raise political discrimination and diversity to an equal footing with established forms of diversity and inclusion. They need to push back against the conceptual stretching of terms such as racism or transphobia through tighter legal definitions and policy guidance. Executive and legislative oversight of organizational activism, as exemplified by Trump’s executive order on critical race theory or the British government’s new guidance from the Department of Education on cancel culture and critical race theory, must move from the fringes to the center of conservative politics going forward.

The problem has grown too large for conservatives and classical liberals to leave the direction of the culture in the hands of the progressive left activists who set the tone in our elite institutions. Failure to address this metastasizing problem will not only endanger liberty and justice, but will lead to a failure of social policy in many areas while spawning mistrust of elites and widening affective polarization.


Image: Clay Banks, Public Domain

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Eric Kaufmann

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. His new book is "Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities."

4 thoughts on “How Political Correctness on Race Fuels Polarization

  1. “6 in 10 Republicans with graduate degrees feared for their jobs or job prospects if their political views became known.”

    Of those who got a job in their field — the untold story is the number of people with graduate degree(s) they know they will never use, along with an even larger number who never bothered to finish.

  2. I have always considered it dishonest (and a bit disgraceful) to call white Americans racist for wanting to keep America a white-majority country. Do the people making the racist claim think Koreans are racist for wanting to keep their country majority Korean? I’m going to say no. Someone needs to explain why white people are apparently the only ones not entitled to a majority country.

    1. Maybe they are racist in those countries, maybe not. Korean identity is based in an ethno-national state; without that basis, I’m not sure what it would mean to be Korean. Or Polish or Hungarian or Israeli, perhaps (though the latter is very much complicated by the presence of large non-Jewish minorities, including Christians and other religious groups).

      I would say America is different, and always set out to be so, despite the well-known severe flaws in living up to the ideals of our history. How are we different? Well, there’s nothing in the Constitution about restricting things to whites (and slaves). Nothing about being a Christian country. The Declaration of Independence is even more all-embracing. “All men are created equal…”

      When should America have stopped admitting “aliens”? When the Germans starting arriving? The Irish? Many groups that are now considered “white” were treated as anything but when they first arrived.

      Coming from a mixed religious background, from non-Anglo ethnic stock, with mixed-race relatives, and with some of my closest non-familial personal and professional relationships having been with non-whites, I have come to regard an inclination toward preserving (against all realistic possibility now) a white American ethno-state as, well, un-American. And yes, as racist!

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