America Is Not as Woke as It Appears


It is sometimes called “Conquest’s Second Law of Politics”: “Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.” I am hearing this more and more lately, leading me to wonder if it is actually true. And if so, why?

It is easy enough to find anecdotal evidence in support of it. Numerous foundations that arose from the fortunes of right-leaning founders, such as Pew or Ford or Hewlett, have morphed into left-wing institutions. I can’t think of a major foundation that came from a left-wing founder and then moved to the right. In the broader sweep of American history, universities have not been explicitly left-wing — but they are today.

And the law is not necessarily confined to nonprofit institutions, which are vulnerable to capture by left-leaning educated elites. This doesn’t explain the advent of “Woke Capital” —  corporations pushing for explicitly Democratic or left-leaning policies, such as voting reform in Georgia. America’s professional sports leagues have to varying degrees endorsed conceptions of racial politics closer to that of the Democratic Party.

Therein lies a clue as to the nature of the ideological shift. Those same sports leagues are not in every way woke. Football, for instance, remains a violent sport, imposing injuries on many relatively disadvantaged young men, while the NBA allows itself to be bullied by China on issues of human rights.

One possibility is that institutions respond to whichever groups make the biggest stink about a given issue. On many political issues, the left cares more than the right, and so those left-wing preferences end up imprinted not only on public opinion-sensitive nonprofits but also on profit-maximizing corporations. Yet when it comes to statements about Hong Kong, China cares a great deal and most Americans do not, and so the NBA responds to that pressure.

Additional forces strengthen Conquest’s Second Law. Educational polarization increasingly characterizes U.S. politics, with more educated Americans more likely to vote Democratic. Those same Americans are also likely to run nonprofits or major corporations, which would partially explain the ideological migration of those institutions.

There are, of course, numerous U.S. institutions that have maintained or even extended a largely right-wing slant, including many police forces, significant parts of the military, and many Protestant Evangelical churches. Those institutions tend to have lower educational requirements, and so they are not always so influential in the media, compared to many left-wing institutions.

Furthermore, the military and police are supposed to keep out of politics, and so their slant to the right is less noticeable, although no less real. The left is simply more prominent in mass media, so Conquest’s Second Law appears to be truer than it really is. (Note that by definition the law excludes explicitly right-wing media.)

Left-wing views, at least on some issues, might have more of a “least common denominator” element than do many right-wing views. On average, the intellectual right is more likely to insist on biological differences between men and women, whereas the intellectual left is more likely to insist on equality of capabilities. No matter your view, the left approach is easier to incorporate into mission statements, company slogans, and corporate human-resource policies. Egalitarian slogans require less explanation, are less likely to get an institution into trouble with the law, and are more compatible with a desire to attract a broad range of workers and customers.

So as nonprofit institutions have become larger and big business has risen in relative importance, those trends also will instantiate Conquest’s Law. As large organizations adopt a more egalitarian tone in their rhetoric, explicit right-wing views will tend to become less prominent in those organizations.

The common thread to these explanations is that left-wing views find it easier to win in spheres of reporting, talk and rhetoric — and that those tendencies strengthen over time.

It follows that, if Conquest’s Second Law is true, societies are more right-wing than they appear. Furthermore, it is the intelligentsia itself that is most likely to deluded about this, living as it does in the world of statements and proclamations. It is destined to be repeatedly surprised at how “barbarian” American society is.

There is also a significant strand of right-wing thought, most notably in opposition to Marxism, that stresses the immutable realities of human nature, and that people change only so much in response to their environments. So all that left-wing talk doesn’t have to result in an entirely left-wing society.

Conservatives thus should be able to take some comfort in Conquest’s Second Law. They may find the discourse suffocating at times. But there is more to life than just talk — and that, for liberals as well as conservatives, should be counted as one of life’s saving graces.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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