McGill University political scientist and occasional Reason contributor Jacob T. Levy raises some good points in an interesting but flawed piece for the Niskanen Center. Levy criticizes the notion that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is a backlash against political correctness. He identifies me as one of the chief proponents of this theory, and accuses me of succumbing to the “pundit’s fallacy”—of attributing Trump’s victory to something that I already thought was bad.
That’s a fair criticism, and Levy has a point when he writes that I perhaps overstated the case for the backlash theory in the headline of my post, “Trump Won Because Leftist Political Correctness Inspired a Terrifying Backlash.” But in his zeal to acquit political correctness, he misses some key details that make my theory more compelling.
“There is a powerful temptation to attribute the surprising and dramatic fact of Trump’s win to some issue about which one had some preexisting ax to grind,” writes Levy. True enough, it’s important to keep in mind that a variety of factors help explain why Trump won the 100,000 collective votes he needed in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And journalists ought to be more careful about bias confirmation.
That said, if there’s a danger in embracing the backlash theory because it confirms my negative impression of political correctness, there’s also a danger in rejecting the theory simply because one would prefer to see political correctness and the related but distinct issue of identity politics as irrelevant, or even positive, social forces.
Levy writes, “A lot of butterflies flapped their wings to bring about the November 8 result, but we have particularly little reason to think that [political correctness] was one of them.”
Here I don’t agree—in large part, because I’ve actually talked to Trump voters, and they give me every reason to believe that political-correctness-run-amok caused them to vote for Trump. Indeed, they said so explicitly. Consider this email I received from a 60-year-old Midwestern Trump voter:
I support most of the cultural revolutions that form the basis of the political correctness issue that you raised. However the backlash for dissenting on certain items was incredible. For example, I support gays marriage and transsexual people’s rights. However, I do not support them to the exclusion of other citizen rights. Without elaborating on my views… I will say that I was subjected to a form of political correctness by friends and others that brooked no argument for the rights of the others. This blind adherence to political correctness was my main issue in the recent political arena.
He added that my article on this subject “captured my feelings succinctly” and that he voted for Trump “for the exact reason you stated.”
His was among a torrent of emails I received from people after I wrote that article. Another person, a 52-year-old self-described hillbilly, wrote, “If you explain in a considered and respectful way why what I am saying is hurtful or wrong, I will take it on board and try to change. If you talk down to me and tell me what a horrible person I am in the process—maybe not so much.” She continued:
Political correctness is NOT “being kind and having good manners”. I am southern. I am always kind and I have impeccable manners. What political correctness is to me is an unreasonable expectation of your fellow man. To expect him to have arrived where you are while having completely different life experiences. Contempt is always hurtful. Bullying is always bad. It is ironic that people who bully people for being politically incorrect don’t even recognize it as bullying or as just another way of demonizing people who are different than you. They are engaging in the exact same behavior they excoriate. It’s ok to be different in the way they are different but not in any other way.
She added that she works three jobs and doesn’t have much time to educate herself about the linguistic and cultural requirements of modern progressivism.
Levy writes that the Trump campaign’s darkest moments came when he attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel because of the man’s Mexican heritage, and when the Access Hollywood tape was released. Levy says this damages my theory, because these were examples of Trump’s political incorrectness, and they hurt rather than helped him. The above emails, I think, address this aspect of Levy’s criticism. When Trump voters say they want someone who is politically incorrect, they do not necessarily mean that they want someone who is an abusive, racist, sexist bully. If Trump’s racist and sexist antics gave them pause about supporting him, maybe it’s because they don’t see themselves as racists and sexists and resent being associated with racism and sexism. This doesn’t confuse their opposition to political correctness; it complements it.
I don’t want to overstate the representative nature of two emails, but more than one person writing me in response to an article is a fairly rare occurrence. A great many people writing me—and all saying that I described their feelings perfectly—is something I’ve rarely experienced, and so I must conclude that what I wrote has some merit.
I’m not sure why Levy or anyone else finds this notion so insane. I’m not saying people were right to feel this way, or to turn to Trump in their frustration. I’m only saying that they did—because that’s what they are telling me.
Nor am I the only one privy to this information. When reporters have asked Trump voters about his appeal, they have consistently named political correctness as one of the most important reasons to vote for him. To take just one example, The Washington Post published statements from 29 Trump supporters: just 3 of them used the words “political correctness” explicitly, but a number of others invoke closely-related grievances like the arrogance, bullying, and scolding of the Clinton machine, liberal elites, and left-leaning media figures. Trump supporters told reporters again and again that they like how he speaks his mind and tells it like it is. In other words, they like his explicit rejection of political correctness.
That’s the other major thing Levy misses in his article: Trump, more than any other successful political figure in history, self-identified as an icon of resistance to political correctness. “We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore,” wasn’t just Trump’s response to the mass-shooting in Orlando—it was the refrain of his entire campaign. His constant rejection of political correctness distinguished him from Republican rivals of the past and present. When asked about a problem to which he did not know the answer—a frequent occurrence, to be sure—the answer was always the same: The media is lying, everyone in government is stupid and incompetent, and if we just stopped being so politically correct and admitted the truth about globalism, about immigration, about Islamic radicalism, we would be safer and more prosperous. Trump complained that he was named TIME‘s “Person of the Year” instead of “Man of the Year.” He has promised to save “Merry Christmas.”
But, Levy writes, the backlash explanation fails because the voters who gave the election to Trump probably haven’t heard about the kinds of politically-correct excesses that I write about for Reason. According to Levy:
Soave covers disputes about political correctness for a living. Other media professionals, as well as academics, might read this and nod worriedly; they follow the flare-ups about cultural politics and freedom of speech on university campuses, or disputes about which celebrity has said or done something “problematic,” routinely. But these remain obscure to the vast majority of voters. And the important thing to know about voters who are still undecided a week or two before a presidential election is that they know exceptionally little about politics. To a first approximation, we should guess that they know nothing about any particular political dispute that isn’t on national television that day.
But cable news and talk radio routinely cover the political correctness beat. Even local news and local radio stations wade into the territory when it overlaps with a relevant story at an elementary school or nearby college. You can’t seriously believe that media elites are the only people paying attention to the fate of Memories Pizza, or Chip and Joanna Gaines. Some people aren’t familiar with those incidents, sure—but some of those people have encountered similar examples in their personal lives.
To say that people are ignorant about the best examples of political-correctness-run-amok seems wrong to me. These examples are highlighted constantly, and some of the most persuasive ones are encountered in everyday life.
Lastly, recall that, as Levy admits, Trump lost educated white voters but made significant gains among non-educated whites—the exact group of people one would expect to be especially motivated by political-correctness-run-amok.
To recap, Trump narrowly won the presidency in part because he did better among less-well-educated working class whites in three key Obama states, and these sorts of voters say they are furious about political correctness when you ask them, and Trump exploited concerns about political correctness more than any other candidate in history, and people who voted for Trump consistently list his anti-PC attitude as one of the most admirable things about him.
For these reasons, I stand by my assertion that the election of Trump is, in part, a backlash against political correctness. The most anti-PC guy won, and he won by inveighing against political correctness constantly, and Trump voters like him because he did that.
The second half of Levy’s essay is dedicated to the idea that the related phenomenon of identity politics is getting a bad name and, more provocatively, that the cause of liberty is actually advanced by identity politics. I have less to say about this—I’m open to being persuaded on this front, but I’m not yet moved by Levy’s case.
Take Black Lives Matter. Levy cites the BLM movement as a successful identity-based coalition:
Black Lives Matter has provided the first truly large-scale political mobilization against police violence and mass incarceration since the War on Drugs began. …
It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.
If Black Lives Matter is “identity politics,” then identity politics has provided one of the most significant political mobilizations in defense of freedom in the United States in my lifetime. That doesn’t belong on the “to be sure” exception side of a rule that is driven by the politics of gender pronouns. It’s precisely the other way around.
BLM is a great example of identity politics in action. But is it a great example of identity politics being harnessed for good? I’m unconvinced that BLM has been a net positive, and I say that as someone who embraces most of its goals. Has BLM done the work of persuading people who did not already support criminal justice reform? Is criminal justice reform now closer to being a reality, or further away? I’m worried that by making criminal justice reform about doing what’s right for people of color, rather than doing what’s right for society in general, BLM might have driven winnable voters into the arms of the law-and-order candidate: Trump. Certainly, if the nation is plagued by racial resentment to the degree the average media liberal seems to think it is, then making criminal justice reform a racial cause was a self-defeating tactic.
When I try to convince older, right-leaning folks to support criminal justice reform, I make a variety of arguments: The War on Drugs doesn’t work at all; a free society wouldn’t do this; we can’t afford to spend so much time and effort putting people in prison; we can’t even make prisons drug-free; states should be able to decriminalize drugs; what you smoke in your own home is your business; sentences are too long and it’s because of meddlesome federal laws; there’s such a thing as the Bill of Rights; etc., etc.
The least convincing argument is the one that goes like this: These policies hurt black people, and you, by extension, are racist for not having denounced them.
To be sure, that’s an oversimplification of what BLM is doing. I appreciate that the movement has called attention to the undeniable fact that aggressive policing disproportionately impacts minorities. But I already knew that. Is this approach bringing new people on board? It seems like more of an open question than Levy realizes.
Levy’s essay concludes, “Members of disadvantaged minorities standing up for themselves aren’t to blame for the turn to populist authoritarianism; and their energy and commitment is a resource that free societies can’t do without in resisting it.”
Of course they aren’t to blame. But U.S. politics have turned toward populist authoritarianism, and those of us who lament this development should think critically about what form our anti-authoritarian activism must take. I’m not saying I know the answer. But if what we were already doing created a powerful, sustained, illiberal backlash, then some reflection is called for, no?
Perhaps the Cato Institute’s Jason Kuznicki puts it best. “I am sorry that the current backlash against minority identity politics has taken the form of white people doing identity politics, but now even harder, and using the vehicle of a demographically typical winning Republican presidential coalition to do it,” he writes. “But that is where we are. Isn’t it?”