Here's Why the Fight Over 'Political Correctness' Is Totally Bogus

"Political correctness” is another misguided attempt at balance that falls flat.

Donald Trump (Wikimedia Commons)

Writer Yascha Mounk has a new story at the Atlantic with a title guaranteed to grab attention: "Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture." Drawing from a new report, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” Mounk reports that “80 percent believe that ‘political correctness’ is a problem,” even though, as he later admits, “we cannot be sure what, exactly, the 80 percent of Americans who regard it as a problem have in mind.” But don’t let a mere detail like that interrupt a perfectly good line of BS — and what a good line it is! It’s a troubling indicator of a well-intentioned project with some promising ideas gone badly awry.

The story’s subhead added another twist: "Youth isn’t a good proxy for support of political correctness, and race isn’t either." However, as Mounk has highlighted on Twitter, wealth and education are good proxies! Of the seven “Hidden Tribes” the report claims to identify in contemporary America, Mounk tells us: “Progressive activists are the only group that strongly backs political correctness: Only 30 percent see it as a problem.” So Mounk, the would-be savior of democracy seems to have convinced himself that Donald Trump and Steve Bannon are right and "political correctness" an elitist plot against real Americans!

The authors of the "Hidden Tribes" study put their case this way:

In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America’s differences have become dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants, the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them. These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and putting our democracy in peril.

Pretty much all of this is bunk, starting with the 80 percent figure, as James Newburg, a University of Michigan grad student, explained in a Twitter thread. A more balanced question from the 2016 pre-election American National Election Survey found that “42% think ‘the way people talk needs to change’ while 56% think ‘people are too easily offended,” he noted, adding that race and ethnicity mattered, as well as ideology, which ANES measures on a 7-point scale: “About 3-in-4 self-identified conservatives (points 5-7) say people are too easily offended, but only 1-in-3 self-identified liberals (points 1-3) share this view.”

But you don’t have to be an ANES nerd to have figured this out. The “Hidden Tribes” report itself presents evidence to the contrary in a chart on page 129, the page before the chart showing how isolated left-wing elitists are! It shows that 67 percent of Americans think "We need to protect people from dangerous and hateful speech," with only the three most conservative "tribes" registering at less than 70 percent and "Devoted Conservatives" far outside the mainstream at 43 percent. That’s almost the exact opposite of the point Mounk’s article tried to make, and points to much deeper problems with the report, which is basically clueless about the actual long-term forces driving polarization.

On the plus side, the method known as "cluster analysis" (similar to Pew’s political typology reportsbegun in the 1980s) is a valuable way to get a more nuanced view of the political landscape, and I wish pollsters would use it more often. On the other hand, "using clusters of political beliefs to predict political views does not demonstrate what comes first (usually party, groups, & ideology)," as political scientist Matt Grossmann tweeted

The report “identifies seven segments of Americans (or ‘tribes’) who are distinguished by differences in their underlying beliefs and attitudes” bracketed by two consistent extremes: “Progressive Activists, the most liberal group, and Devoted Conservatives, the most conservative, show strong degrees of consistency within their ranks, while being almost perfectly at odds with each other. Middle tribes, by contrast, orient themselves incrementally on the ideological spectrum.” 

Here’s what Mounk’s favorite chart looks like, portraying “Progressive Activists” as extreme outliers (and not even mentioning the second question being graphed, whether “hate speech is a problem”):

And here’s the chart just before it, which highlights the fact that there’s wide support for two positive, but contrasting values — free expression and protecting people against hate speech — but does not draw attention to conservatives' departure from the mainstream:

So what accounts for the very different picture these two charts provide? The ambiguity of the term “political correctness” is surely part of it — and an entire article could easily be devoted to just that. One Twitter commentator offered a plausible common-sense starting point

For the 25% of the hard right, PC culture is loathed bc it means loss of freedom to offend and harass with impunity. For everyone else, negative association with the term reflect human's hard-wired strong dislike of being embarrassed -- fear of doing (saying) the wrong thing.

Fundamental problems with “Hidden Tribes”

This double-meaning theory has a lot to back it up, which we’ll return to below. But it’s only a starting point. Multiple different factors are probably involved, and the report says nothing about any of them. Which brings us back to the issue of the report’s fundamental problems. Here are just four of them:

-- Polarization isn’t primarily caused by people’s attitudes. “Political polarization is a byproduct of structural economic and political features, as well as a cause of a host of other bad outcomes,” Texas A&M research scientist Nick Davis told Salon. “I don't understand how asking people to be more patient or less caustic about an administration and party that seems hell-bent on trampling human dignity is going to do anything to reverse those trends.”

-- Polarization is just one facet of a much larger problem of social breakdown. It’s one of several negative consequences of historical trends observed in many different societies across millennia, generally leading to state breakdown and/or civil war. These have been rigorously described, explained and mathematically modeled by "structural demographic theory," as developed by Jack Goldstone (“Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World”) and refined by Peter Turchin (“Secular Cycles”), and applied to American history in Turchin’s 2016 book “Ages of Discord” (Salon review here). Even if mass polarization could be disappeared with a magic wand, all the other dysfunctions would remain. So trying to get rid of polarization without solving the larger problems that help drive it is a cruel joke at best.

-- Polarization isn’t symmetrical. Both sides do it very differently, because they come from very different political cultures, as described in “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats,” by Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins (Salon review here.) Democrats (and liberals generally) are driven by trying to solve specific problems and negotiating between different interests. This is precisely what the “Hidden Tribes” report would like everyone to do. But it takes two to tango, and conservatives are ideologically uninterested in solving problems, which they view as “government intrusion,” “meddling” or “overreach.” (It’s worth noting that the signature “Progressive Activist” group MoveOn got its start as an online petition (“Censure and Move On”), calling for a political compromise — censuring Bill Clinton in place of an impeachment fight — in order to focus on solving pressing problems.)  

Liberals have become more consistently progressive recently, but they still don’t identify ideologically the way conservatives do, and they’re still focused on specific problem-solving: health care, climate change, a living wage, mass incarceration, police violence, gun safety, sexual assault, etc. At the same time, the content of conservative ideology has become decidedly more nativist and exclusionary. 

-- Only conservatives credibly threaten violence. They’re the ones obsessed with gun rights, the ones who’ve been organizing militias for decades, the ones who've committed dozens of political murdersover the last four years, the ones whose willingness to accept or reject democracy has made them a "hinge of history" throughout the last 200 years. 

In short, the whole premise of the “Hidden Tribes” report is deeply suspect. If it’s true that “These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and putting our democracy in peril,” that’s only part of the picture. It does not follow that “both sides” are to blame or that those in the middle represent our salvation.  

A major premise of the report is that polarization is driven by groups on the extremes, leaving  groups in the middle “exhausted,” when they could otherwise bring us together. The echoes of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” are unmistakable. But a chart from the executive summary actually undermines their argument. Figure 0.6 purports to show "The Exhausted Majority: Less politically active and partisan than the wing segments." But it shows nothing related to partisanship, and two things entirely unrelated to politics — donating blood and donating money at a place of worship. 

Most crucially, the activity levels displayed show virtually no difference between "moderates" in the "exhausted middle" and "traditional conservatives" on the "wings," while "traditional liberals" in the "exhausted middle" are almost identical to "progressive activists" in their political participation, except for being less likely to attend a protest, rally or march. Only the passive liberals and the politically disengaged show actual, and striking, levels of political non-participation, whether due to “exhaustion” (for which there is no evidence) or other reasons. So the “exhausted majority” is actually a minority, despite all handwaving to the contrary:

“If the point is simply that the ideological or partisan middle is less politically active, that has been shown by lots of other research,” Grossmann said. It’s worth adding that perhaps the sharpest drop-off for the two “exhausted” groups comes in voting in local elections — which are largely nonpartisan in the U.S., another blow at the report’s core assumptions.

Grossmann had more to say about the methodology involved. “They make a big deal about not using party or demographics to define the groups, but that does not mean those factors don't drive the attitudes they do use to define the groups,” he told Salon. “Party identification is a very stable, important factor in politics that drives lots of other attitudes (and is currently causing many people to change their views to match their party). Demographics are also important, and predictive of beliefs and views.”

Pew’s political typology sheds more light

The “Hidden Tribes” report would be on sounder footing if it acknowledged some of what Pew has established over the years. That could have helped address some of the fundamental problems cited above, such as overlooking political asymmetry and ignoring larger causal forces. Last March, Jim Naureckas of FAIR.org  wrote about changes over time in “Social Media and the Rise of the ‘Consistent Liberal.” He noted that the number of consistent liberals had increased across all generations, in a way that was reminiscent of a similar shift on the right a generation earlier. 

The first iteration, in 1988, of the "People, the Press and Politics" report “found, surprisingly, that ‘conservatives’ didn’t really exist. That is, there was no significant group of voters that embraced what was then and now the overwhelming ideology of the Republican Party — socially repressive and economically favoring the rich.” Instead, conservative politics was driven by a coalition of upscale pro-business “Enterprisers” and less affluent “Moralizers” from the religious right. They had little in common, but each got at least some of what they cared about most from the Republican Party.

That changed by the time of Pew's 1999 report, which saw the emergence of a group called “Staunch Conservatives,” which Naureckas described as “distinguished for their strong pro-business views, while registering almost no support for the needy, the environment, gun control, or the government. They are also highly critical of blacks and homosexuals.” So what happened? Simple:

From 1988 to 1999, we saw the rise of what FAIR has called “the right-wing media machine” ... with Rush Limbaugh getting a national radio talkshow in 1988, and Fox News Channellaunching in 1996. These were the tent poles of a multimedia effort to reach a mass audience through an aggressively partisan right-wing message, presenting tax cuts for the rich, military adventurism, anti-environmentalism, unrestricted gun ownership, racism, misogyny and homophobia as interlocking parts of a coherent ideological system. The creation of this conservative mass base helped shift the Republican Party to the right and sustained GOP control of the House of Representatives for most of the 21st century.

There was no progressive counterpart, because corporate sponsorship wouldn’t permit it, and “a genuinely progressive message will inevitably be anti-corporate," Naureckas observed. But with the rise of social media, people "began to find ways around corporate media gatekeepers,” using platforms like Twitter and Facebook “to share news and opinions directly, giving them an opportunity to gravitate towards outlets and outlooks that resonate with them.”

That’s not to say there’s no downside to social media. But it's “the people whose worldviews are inherently in conflict with profit-based media who really rely on alternative, people-to-people methods of distribution,” as Naureckas puts it Those people are the growing group of consistent liberals seen over time in consecutive Pew Typology reports — the same group that Yascha Mounk wants you to believe are undermining democracy. 

Right-wing media history: The dark side

Neither social media nor the “culture of outrage and taking offense” were driving causes of the polarizing and poisoning debate that “Hidden Tribes” laments. They followed in the wake of much earlier causal forces. As far back as his 2003 essay “Rush, Newspeak and Fascism,” author and journalist David Neiwert has described how talk-radio figures like Limbaugh function as transmitters of extremist, violent rhetoric from the radical fringe to a mass audience, in a way that has no counterpart on the left. A broader discussion, covering more time as well as more ground, appeared in Neiwert's 2009 book, “Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.” Because there’s no better expert on the subject, I asked him to put the current situation in context. 

“The ‘transmission belt’ of ideas and rhetorical styles from the radical right into the mainstream of conservatism well preceded the rise of social media, and really is more about the innately authoritarian nature of the American right than its susceptibility to the architecture of the internet,” Neiwert said. Furthermore, this has been at least a quarter century in the making:

Patrick Buchanan declared that America was in a "culture war" in 1992. Rush Limbaugh fomented the idea of a "second American revolution" in 1995. All of these ideas -- and the explosion of innate antipathy of one political bloc for another into a visceral hatred of conservatives for liberals -- have been bubbling up in right-wing media for 20 years and longer, with the pot at Fox News constantly at a regular low boil. The talk of civil war, which is probably the best barometer of this tendency, has become intense in recent years (see Michael Savage's book devoted to the subject), and along with it is the talk in the ranks of the footsoldiers of the many ways they would like to kill liberals. Subverted for many years, the only thing the internet has really done is allow it to come out into the open.

For a wealth of related examples, see Neiwert’s Twitter thread from last weekend, demonstrating in detail that "Only one side is trying to gin up a civil war in this country."

The paranoid netherworld Neiwert points to played a huge role in making “political correctness” into the bogeyman it is today, picking up on the double-meaning theory mentioned above. The right-wing attack on political correctness has a dark history I described here in 2016, and functions as a form of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, with the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School (almost all of them Jewish) as arch-villains. My story referenced the work of James Scaminaci, who offered further comments via email in response to the “Hidden Tribes” report: 

The term “political correctness,” (or its synonym “cultural Marxism”) is used widely on the right wing, from the presidential campaign of 1992 to the presidential campaign of 2016, by Christian right leaders, Patriot militia leaderswhite nationaliststhe alt-right, and Fox News, and though it is used to refer to different things, depending upon the enemy of the day, it always means that white Christian males are being persecuted, suppressed, and oppressed by feminists, blacks, Latinx and the LGBT. In the worldview of the right wing, opposition to their anti-politically-correct speech means you oppose their God-ordained hierarchy of white Christian males who rule society.

Lots of folks know nothing of this deep background, to be sure, referring back to the "double meaning" mentioned above. But they accepting the surface arguments nonetheless, helped along by centrist pundits who likewise have no idea what’s going on historically.  

Mounk himself serves as an example of how this works. Despite his admitted uncertainty over what the 80 percent who find “political correctness” troubling actually think that term means, Mounk argued that since “nearly all” his Twitter followers underestimated that figure, that “should probably also make us rethink some of our other basic assumptions about the country.”  

I’m all in favor of rethinking basic assumptions. But let’s start with the ones that Mounk and the “Hidden Tribes” authors make, as highlighted above. If they can reshape their work to address the fundamental flaws I have pointed out, use more balanced questions and still find that 80 percent of Americans are worried about political correctness, maybe it will be time for the rest of us to start rethinking our assumptions. I won't hold my breath.

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Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area.