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Now & Next: Should we be worried about the future of liberal democracy? – in partnership with The Economist

Posted on 23 September 2022

This film contains strong language from the start.

Politicians have become increasingly skilled at using fear and emotion to trump facts, exploiting grievances around identity to drive voter engagement. This rise in the hyper-polarisation of politics, often referred to as 'culture wars' has been gaining ground since 2016 in both the UK and the US. But where does it come from, and what are the consequences of this increased polarisation?

Tribalism.  Hatred.

For f*** sake.  F*** off.

Even violence.  Politics in America and Britain are now hyper-polarised online and on the streets. 

There’s much more heat than light.

From race and the environment to gender and abortion, important issues are making us more divided.  This kind of polarised politics has a name. 

The culture war.

In the culture…

Culture wars.

Culture wars are toxic.

So what’s fuelling today’s culture wars?’

Culture wars are in general good for political elites. 

The constant pressure of this manufactured outrage.

Are we as divided as we seem?

We see a lot of non-debate from the other side.

Get off.  Ow!

And how worried should we be about the future of liberal democracy?

Every time you hear a claim, you believe it a little more.



Culture Wars: how hate is fuelling politics


Chesterfield County Fair, Virginia

It’s the start of Labor Day weekend in America.  With the mid-term elections just over two months away…

Herb Jones
My name is Herb Jones, I’m running for Congress.

...a Democratic candidate for the House is out campaigning. 

Herb Jones
Herb Jones.  I’m running for office.  I’m running for Congress.  Ask Republicans what do they stand for and they really can’t tell you.  The previous President, I have zero respect for.  He’s a coward and a crook.

Even with a holiday in prospect, there’s no escaping the bitter divide between America’s two main political parties. 

Amanda Chase, Republican State Senator, Virginia
We have Democrats now who are far extreme Left, who are pushing an agenda that is completely un-American.

And here in Virginia, one factor inflaming the political debate is claims over teaching in schools of something called ‘Critical Race Theory’ or CRT, the idea that racial bias is baked into American society.

Amanda Chase, Republican State Senator, Virginia
I am concerned about critical race theory being taught in our public schools.  Nobody wants to be told that they’re an oppressor and that they should pay for what they did.

Herb Jones
Critical race theory is a red herring.  What happened last year is you had Republicans who manipulated this whole critical race theory up and they scare people, they use it to scare folks.

The row in Virginia over critical race theory exploded here.  In June 2021 angry parents stormed the school board meeting in Loudon County.  Complaining that their children were being brainwashed and taught to believe that white Americans are racist oppressors. 

You are not teaching my children that they are racist just because they are white. 

The problem I have is that my son was being taught propaganda.

They alleged this teaching was based on an academic idea from the 1970s called Critical Race Theory.

So critical race theory had its roots in cultural Marxism.  It should have no place in our schools.

Tamara Gilkes Borr, The Economist
Critical race theory basically asked the question “Why is it that individual racism is improving over time and yet racist outcomes persist?”  Critical race theorists look at if we don’t change the structures in the institutions and the policy that were built by racists then racism will never improve. 

Arguments in Virginia about teaching critical race theory helped catapult a once obscure academic debate…

Chris Rufo, Journalist
We have woken up millions of parents to the dangers of critical race theory.

…into a red hot national fight.  Republican politicians across the country started campaigning strongly against it and approved rules banning the teaching of CRT in seventeen states. 

Mr Cruz
Another book that is on the summer reading for Third through Fifth Grade, it asks the question, “Can we send white people back to Europe?” 

Dividing kids based on race, trying to say some are oppressors and some are oppressed.  Those things are poison.

The truth about what CRT really is quickly got lost and so did something else.  Although some schools do focus on racism in America, critical race theory in a traditional academic form has never been widely taught to American children.  So what’s really going on?

Tamara Gilkes Borr, The Economist
There is misunderstanding on all sides of this debate with critical race theory.  There isn’t enough empathy from progressives for understanding how uncomfortable and how worrisome conversations about race are to some families. 

My youngest looks very white so they would look at her and say, “You are an oppressor” and I don’t see how it’s not going to cause society to move further apart.

Tamara Gilkes Borr, The Economist
On the other side, there is the conservative distortion and the conservative distortion turns critical race theory into so many things.

It is school choice week in America and a lot of folks across the country are demanding change to our broken education system.

Tamara Gilkes Borr, The Economist
We have this group of concerted activists who are using the anti-CRT frenzy to move forward a different political agenda.

Part of that political agenda involves whipping up critical race theory into the latest front in America’s so-called ‘Culture Wars’, tapping into a fundamental conflict about America’s future and what it means to be an American. 

Why don’t Republicans want kids to know how to not be racist?

And deepening the political divide between Republicans and Democrats.  80% of Republicans believe that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity, compared with just 33% of Democrats.  The rage over CRT is a textbook example of how good politicians have become at exploiting these grievances around identity.  Republican politicians in particular. 

Tamara Gilkes Borr, The Economist
To this day, many Americans believe that we are the best country in the world so, critical race theory comes along and starts to challenge that and that can be very threatening, particularly if your identity as an American is a strong part of who you are.

Stoking the culture wars has become a highly effective political strategy, using emotions and fear to trump facts and reason.

Professor David Rand, Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
We have evidence that shows every time you hear a claim, you believe it a little more, even if it’s a crazy claim and even if it’s something at baseline you didn’t believe at all, just hearing it makes it more believable.  These kinds of culture wars are in general good for political elites, it helps mobilise people and helps pull people in.

And it’s not just politicians who profit from fuelling the grievances of the culture wars.  The media do too. 

Dr Seuss went from being a beloved childhood author to ‘worse than Hitler’ in just a matter of days.  On eBay you are allowed to shop for copies of Mein Kampf, you can buy all the racist filth you want if it’s about white fragility…

Between 2016 and 2020 Fox News primetime viewership increased from just under 1.9 million to just under 3.1 million.

Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.

And sections of the liberal media have also profited.  By the end of Donald Trump’s term as President, subscriptions to The New York Times had increased from 3 million to 7.5 million.

So how did we arrive at this kind of divisive politics?  The term ‘Culture Wars’ goes back to nineteenth century Prussia.  It was first popularised in America as a struggle between conservative and progressive world views in a post-civil rights era and observers agree that 2016 was a turning point, not only with the election of Donald Trump but also Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.  Political beliefs became more closely intertwined with identities.

Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos, Visiting Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute
People view themselves through these issues, like what you stand for is who you are.  The political is personal.  So it would be quite usual in the years after Brexit to be in a, in a dating app like Tinder and you would see people saying, “Oh if you voted for Brexit, swipe left” or today you see people say, “If you are vaccinated, swipe left, I don’t want anything to do with you.” 

This shift is also reflected in the loyalty of American voters towards their political parties.  That loyalty has increased over the last four decades but the rise since 2016 is particularly sharp.  In the run up to the last presidential election, 89% of Donald Trump’s supporters believed a victory for Joe Biden would cause lasting harm and 90% of Biden’s supporters felt the same about a Trump win.  In this kind of personalised politics, hatred of your opponent fuels a desire to defeat them at all costs.

The Left has decided to try to destroy our culture.

You have many, many Republicans who are kind of giving up on democracy and want to move us into an authoritarian form of society. 

Sociologists call this ‘affective polarisation’.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Policy Institute Director, King’s College London
It’s very easy to see the other side as completely alien from you.  You end up with what the academics call ‘mega identities’ and it’s a zero sum game that the other group has to lose in order for you to win.  That becomes really difficult to move societies forward together.

Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos, Visiting Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute
The root of the problem is that fewer and fewer people think that they have the capacity to understand the world with their own judgement.  These big narratives of socialism, of capitalism had the positive view about the future.  The ideal was, follow us and we will bring you to a society of plenty, of justice, of meritocracy.  So as these big ideologies wither away, now it’s more of a defensive battle.  They fall in this tribalistic kind of conflict where they view the world through the prism of hating the other group.

In this era of tribal politics, genuinely complex problems of identity are feeding into the culture wars and in Britain this is playing out in a vigorous debate about transgender rights.

Do you understand?  Well, let me finish, let me ask you a question…

Perhaps the most intractable culture war issue.

They are legitimate areas of concern.  You can’t just call everyone, who disagrees with you, transphobic. 

At this Pride event in England, proud expressions of transgender identity are on show. 

Police fraternise with Pride parade.

Cleo, who campaigns for transgender and gay rights is joining the festivities but she is also mindful of a backlash. 

Cleo Madeleine. Gendered Intelligence
We are almost experiencing a crisis of visibility.  There are conspiracy theories that trans people are taking over because people feel like they see more trans people around them.

Like many in the transgender community, Cleo says negative media coverage is one reason the issue of transgender rights has become so noisy and divisive in Britain. 

Cleo Madeleine. Gendered Intelligence
There is a sort of cyclical relationship between the media and the political establishment.  It just shifts copy.  It’s almost soapy, in a very grim way.  At the heart of this ‘culture war’ are individuals, people who just want to get on with their lives and instead they are having to deal with the constant pressure of this, this manufactured outrage.

The media may be a factor but transgender rights have become a uniquely toxic and polarising issue.  So what else explains why the opposing sides feel such animosity?

You are dinosaurs.

Lesbians don’t have penises.

Can we get these TERFs off this campus.

Perhaps no other issue speaks more to a fundamental sense of identity and self on both sides.  On one side, are transgender rights activists who insist on an unqualified legal right to be recognised as the gender or sex with which they identify.

Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner, Peter Tatchell Foundation
It’s a culture war between those who believe that trans rights are human rights and those who believe that they are not human rights or that those rights should somehow be restricted or controlled.

We are a sex under the Equality Act 2010, like it or lump it. 

On the other side many so-called gender critical activists say this argument is disingenuous and point to the fact that transgender rights are already protected by law, something they are not opposed to.  What they oppose is a change in the law to self-identification whereby anyone can be legally recognised as the sex with which they identify without any medical gatekeeping.  They say this would allow any biological man into any women’s space and override hard-won women’s rights.

Kathleen Stock
The argument is not about whether there should be legal protections for trans people, there should be.  The argument is whether we should change these existing legal protections to as soon as a male says, ‘I feel like a woman,’ according to this idea, they should have access to all the spaces and resources and rights that a woman has, that’s the, that’s the bit I’m objecting to.

This is a debate where convictions are deeply rooted on both sides. 

Dr Michael Biggs, Associate Professor of Sociology, Oxford University
I see it like a civil war.  Both of them are kind of fundamental doctrines.  Both sides are making kind of strong, principled, far-reaching claims and that’s why it is so difficult to reach a compromise.  An irresistible force meeting an immovable object.

It’s a conversation where many are scared to voice their opinions for fear of abuse or even losing their jobs. 

Kellie-Jay Keen, Standing for Women
Is that working?  We sometimes do get blocked.

And those who do speak out can be polarising figures. 

Kellie-Jay Keen, Standing for Women
If you can look at the person next to you and you can say, “Women don’t have penises,” I promise we will win. 

Kellie-Jay Keen is an outspoken critic of gender identity ideology and a staunch defender of women’s rights. 

Kellie-Jay Keen, Standing for Women
I think the reason the debate is, is, so contentious and occasionally violent, is because we’re fighting the truth against some quasi-religious, dogmatic new religion and so when you talk about things that are true against things that are not, the things that aren’t true have to be defended quite violently and so we see a lot of non-debate from the other side. 

Yet that other side insists its opponents are equally dogmatic.  It’s a culture war at its most intractable, leaving little hope of resolution. 

Agh, women.  Not all women, I mean the old-fashioned ones, you know the old-fashioned women.  Oh god, you know the ones with wombs.  Ohh.  Those f***ing dinosaurs.

Not all human females.

Little wonder it’s causing new fractures across society, including within liberal groups like Britain’s Labour Party, where the issue has become a hot potato.

Is it transphobic to say, “Only women have a cervix”?

No.  It is something that shouldn’t be said. 

Like many other arguments, the transgender rights debate is being fuelled by something at the heart of all today’s culture wars: digital technology.  Social media amplifies extreme content, creating polarisation.

Professor David Rand, Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
There is this great over estimation on how extreme the views of people on the other side are and even how extreme the views of the average person on your side are and this really contributes actually to polarisation as people think everybody else is really extreme and then that drives them to be extreme themselves.  Correct the misperceptions that are relevant to the, like attitude that you are trying to move. 

Professor David Rand has researched the ways online echo chambers reinforce existing views and prejudices. 

Professor David Rand, Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
When you get a new piece of information, how are you supposed to tell whether it’s true or not?  We just think in the context of all the other things that I know about the world, how much sense does this piece of information make? 

Professor Rand’s findings about why misinformation is shared online may not be what you would expect.  He ran an experiment.  One group of people were shown headlines and asked if they would share them.  A second group were shown the same headlines and asked if these were accurate. 

Professor David Rand, Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
When it comes to what they would share, there’s like, you know, less likely to share the true ones, they’re more likely to share the false ones.  We see that when you ask people to judge whether it’s true or not, they do pretty well.  However, the people that you ask about sharing, they’re pretty much indifferent and they’re more or less equally likely to share the true and false headlines and so this shows that there’s a disconnect between what people believe and what they actually share. 

He discovered people share false content primarily because they are distracted and his research suggests encouraging them to think about accuracy can stop this. 

Professor David Rand, Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
We’re all existing in this information ecosystem where we’re distracted all the time.  So the idea is you want to get them to think about accuracy when it matters.  Platforms are very good at getting people to pay attention to things they don’t want to pay attention to, namely ads.  That’s their whole business.  And so we are proposing that they should use some of the attentional muscle they’ve developed in the context of ads, to help people pay attention to accuracy. 

Attention deficits.  Opportunistic politicians.  Cynical media.  Identity politics.  These are some of the forces driving polarisation in today’s culture wars.  The culture wars are bad news for democracy, pushing citizens into conflict but are they also bad news in other ways, creating a climate where aggrieved citizens push the police to act illiberally?

Harry Miller, Fair Cop
It’s a battle for democracy.  Democracy relies on antagonism.

Harry Miller lives in the ancient English county of Lincolnshire.  He’s a former police officer who found himself on the wrong side of the law.  In 2019, Harry satirised the Government’s plan to recognise gender self-identification in law with coarse words on Twitter. 

Harry Miller, Fair Cop
A single, distinct event or occurrence which disturbs or causes a person concern.  It’s just absolutely ridiculous. 

The police received a complaint about transphobic tweets and Harry received a visit from his former employers.

Harry Miller, Fair Cop
When PC Gall said, “I’m here to check your thinking,” you could have knocked me down with a feather.  The human rights of 1984 is a dystopian novel, it’s not a police how-to manual.

The police recorded the tweets as something called ‘a non-crime hate incident,’ a legal tool designed to monitor potentially violent people and even though Harry had not broken any law, he learned the police could keep his case on file for up to six years.  He took the police to court…

Harry Miller, Fair Cop
Mr Justice Knowles equated it to the Gestapo and the Stasi. 

…where the judge ruled that they had acted unlawfully and interfered with his right to freedom of expression. 

Hi Harry.

Harry Miller, Fair Cop
Hey, Anna.  How’s it going?

Harry has since discovered that 120,000 non-crime hate incidents were recorded between 2014 and 2019, although the particular circumstances of these cases are not public knowledge. 

Some fear the culture wars are leading to a more worrying level of state overreach in Scotland, where politicians have passed a new law influenced by identity politics.

Humza Yousaf, Member of Scottish Parliament
To every person in the transgender community attacked for simply being who you are, then this Bill is for you and we are that voice.

In 2021, the Scottish Parliament passed the Hate Crime and Public Order Act.

Humza Yousaf, Member of Scottish Parliament
The Hate Crime and Public Order Bill that I brought forward as Cabinet Secretary for Justice, was essentially extending the same rights, protections, that people of colour already have in law, to the other protected characteristics from religion right through to disability, transgender identity and so on. 

This law criminalises offensive speech towards transgender people, including speech that takes place in private, for example at home, stirring up hatred with speech that is considered insulting or inflammatory even if no actual harm results, is punishable by up to seven years in jail.  Even some of those who campaign actively for transgender rights are worried this goes too far.

Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner, Peter Tatchell Foundation
In a democratic society there is no right to not be offended so, criminalising causing offence is a threshold too far.  Much as I oppose hate crime and think perpetrators should be brought to justice, I think we have to be very careful about criminalising opinions that people simply find offensive or disagreeable.

It’s an open question just how much of a threat the culture wars pose to British democracy.  What’s certain is that American democracy faces a more serious and urgent risk.

Take the house.

In America, the polarisation of the culture wars is helping to increase political violence and the risks of greater violence in future. 

Professor David Rand, Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Disliking people on the other side, that’s not really the problem in itself, that’s a problem in so much as it leaves people to have anti-democratic attitudes and you know to be willing to engage in political violence. 

Herb Jones
I’m running for Congress by the way. 

That’s good.

Herb Jones
We need somebody that actually represents us.

That’s a fact.

Back at the county fair in Virginia, there’s a feeling that American democracy is flying by the seat of its pants. 

Amanda Chase, Republican State Senator
I support being a peaceful American but people turn to violence whenever they feel that their voice is not heard.

Herb Jones
If we don’t get past this, our country and our future is jeopardy.  If we don’t, we’re going to lose our democracy and we’re going to lose our freedoms. 

Fixing this broken politics requires a fundamental transformation in behaviours and structures but in both America and Britain, the polarisation of the culture wars make that feel a long way off. 

Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos, Visiting Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute
We have to do again the thing, which is quite out of fashion, which is view people as individuals with free will, not view them as avatars of their identity and these deterministic beings who do as their identity asks them to do.  

Tom Standage, Deputy Editor,The Economist
Hello, I’m Tom Standage, Deputy Editor at The Economist.  If you’d like to learn more about this topic, click on the link opposite.  Thanks for watching and don’t forget to subscribe.

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