The Right Finds the Perfect Weapon Against the Left

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Imagine the perfect political and intellectual weapon. It would disable your adversaries by preoccupying them with their own vanities and squabbles, a bit like a drug so good that users focus on the high and stop everything else they are doing.

Such a weapon exists: It is called political correctness. But it is not a weapon against white men or conservatives, as is frequently alleged; rather, it is a weapon against the American left. To put it simply, the American left has been hacked, and it is now running in a circle of its own choosing, rather than focusing on electoral victories or policy effectiveness. Too many segments of the Democratic Party are self-righteously talking about identity politics, and they are letting other priorities slip.

Of course there is a lot of racism out there, which makes political correctness all the more tempting. Yet polling data suggests that up to 80 percent of Americans are opposed to politically correct thinking in its current manifestations. Latinos and Asian-Americans are among the groups most opposed, and even 61 percent of self-professed liberals do not like political correctness.

The PC weapon reared its head again this week when Senator Elizabeth Warren made a big show of her genealogical test showing she is some small part Native American. To someone immersed in the political correctness debates, this obsession with identity might seem entirely natural. But the actual reality is more brutal.

The reality is that many Americans already think that the Democrats talk too much about identity. Warren would have done better to drop the topic altogether, as both right-wing and left-wing critics agree. Instead, she has kept the identity issue in the limelight, and reminded Americans that elite, mostly Democratic-leaning institutions, such as Harvard, like to pat themselves on the back for their diversity in ways which seem phony to most of the rest of us.

So if you are a right-wing, conservative, or perhaps libertarian thinker, and you consider yourself an opponent of political correctness, I have a message: Political correctness, as a movement, is a winning issue for you. It is disabling some of the ideas you don’t like. You might want to celebrate in secret, but celebrate you should.

Here’s another ugly truth. The biggest day-to-day losers from the political correctness movement are other left-of-center people, most of all white moderate Democrats, especially those in universities. If you really believe that “the PC stuff” is irrational and out of control and making institutions dysfunctional, and that universities are full of left-of-center people, well who is going to suffer most of the costs? It will be people in the universities, and in unjust and indiscriminate fashion. That means more liberals than conservatives, if only because the latter are relatively scarce on the ground.

Another bout of political correctness is about to dominate the headlines, and that is the lawsuit against Harvard for allegedly discriminating against Asian-Americans in its admissions decisions. Whatever you think Harvard did, or however the court rules, this issue is not a winner for the left. It at least appears to pit the interests of Asian-Americans against those of African-Americans, and thus it fractures what might otherwise be a winning coalition for Democrats. It makes a mockery out of phrases such as “people of color,” because in this case like many others the aggregation obscures some very real and important differences. The lawsuit also will remind Americans that attempts to be more fair to one group will, in practice, involve hypocrisy and unfair treatment toward other groups, in this case the Asian-Americans who found it much harder to get into Harvard because they were not a targeted minority.

Every time identity politics is in the headlines — rather than, say, wages or health care — Donald Trump’s re-election chances go up. As Tony Blair said recently: “If you put right-wing populism against left populism, right-wing populism will win.”

To be clear, lest you think I focus too much on the failures of the left: I now wonder if, in the internet era, every political movement is hackable. Political involvement requires a certain kind of ideological motivation, and ideologies are imperfectly rational. So a smart hacker can redirect the attention of groups in other, less productive directions. Just put some inflammatory words or video on the internet and you can induce the left to talk more about identity politics.

Has the right-wing been hacked? I suspect so. The president himself is part of the hack, and the core motivation is the desire to “own the libs,” a phrase I didn’t hear much five years ago. We’ve now entered an era in which too many are self-obsessed and too few are effective.

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 “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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