Exactly when the tide turned, I don’t know. Perhaps a year ago, when Joe Biden in his State of the Union address said he would “fund the police”. Or last week, when Penguin bowed to pressure to keep Roald Dahl’s sometimes cruel work in print. Or the fall of Nicola Sturgeon over, among other things, a gender bill. Or the resilient sales of JK Rowling.
These are disconnected events, yes, except in one respect: you wouldn’t have counted on them happening in 2020.
The cultural left, it is increasingly clear, peaked that year. “Peaked” does not mean “vanished straight after”. Progressive norms and language remain ascendant in lots of domains. But the year of “defund the police” and vigorous statue-toppling looks in retrospect like the high noon of something, not the dawn of it. Even the word “woke” has a derisive connotation now that it didn’t back then. Were I to use it in this column instead of “cultural left”, it would be cheap and ad hominem: an epithet, not an argument. That wasn’t so true in 2020.
So what happened? Why is a once-rampant movement on the defensive?
First, the context changed. It is natural to assume that young people grow angry and subversive when things are bleak. But dissent is more often a fair-weather pastime. Rebel Without a Cause came out during the Eisenhower boom. The unrest in Paris in 1968 took place deep into the Thirty Glorious Years of the French economy.
Well, identity politics is another perverse fruit of success. The movement grew during the decade of economic expansion and peace that followed the 2008 crash. As those benign conditions fell away, so did the movement. It is hard to care that Augustus Gloop is called “fat” at a time of double-digit inflation. It is hard to deplore microaggressions while Ukraine is enduring a rather macro one. The cultural left hasn’t been defeated so much as demoted: in salience, in moral urgency. Grievances that once had force now seem beside the point.
Something else has changed. Liberals have stopped pretending there is no problem to confront on their left. I shouldn’t overdo the praise here. It is still hard work getting liberals to state their position on, say, gender or free speech. To avoid losing friends, or upsetting offspring, their stratagem is to question the relevance of the subjects. “The culture war is overblown.” OK, but what do you think? “The right wants to distract voters from economics.” True, but what do you think? “Marxists are good on this intellectual manipulation. ‘Hegemony’, they call it.” Yes, listen, I know, but what do you think?
Ducking the issue like this is harder now. For one thing, voters won’t wear it. Cause and effect are hard to establish in elections, but some Democrats believe “defund the police”, or at least their failure to disown it more firmly, cost their party a landslide in 2020. The victory of Glenn Youngkin as Virginia governor a year later is read as another warning. (The Republican had run, in part, against progressive teaching.)
From Biden to the mayor of San Francisco, the party is firmer now, in word if not deed. This is of a piece with the behaviour of liberals elsewhere. The pressure that told on Penguin came as much from the cognoscenti as from the Daily Mail. The wrath that consumed Sturgeon was in large part internal. The culture war is within the left: between old-style liberals and those who view them as complicit in social injustice. (The zealot always hates the doubter and the schismatic more than the outright infidel, so conservatives get a relative pass). Liberals once denied this fight. Enough of them to matter have joined it now.
The worst fate that can befall a movement — short of outright defeat, which it often precedes — is to become a joke. One reason the far right never captured interwar Britain was their failure to shake off a certain air of silliness. It was there even before PG Wodehouse invented the would-be dictator Roderick Spode (the “7th Earl of Sidcup”) and his fearsome Black Shorts.
The cultural left isn’t there yet. It retains huge sway over thought and speech. Even when Penguin climbed down, it did so in the language of a human resources training session. (A company whose business is good writing referred to “very real” concerns “around” old books, and so on.) There is a change in the air, though. It is not just conservative eyes that roll at the latest progressive edict now. It is not just conservatives tongues that cluck. If it continues to over-reach, the cultural left will endure a much worse fate than being hated. It will be teased.