Being a glutton for punishment, I have for some years now followed Senator Ted Cruz on Twitter. When he’s not liking hardcore pornography, Cruz can these days usually be found bemoaning the evils of progressive ‘cancel culture’, most recently seeming to imply that Joe Biden was personally responsible for the cession of publication of several Dr Seuss titles. It’s easy to feel jaded about ‘cancel culture’ and the other issues of the West’s present ‘culture war’, especially with washed up establishment politicos like Cruz or his pal Charlie Kirk spewing trite platitudes about how “woke mobs” are destroying free speech, seemingly in place of discussing serious issues and winning genuine policy victories for conservatives. Even worse, there now appears to be an emergent class of professional culture warriors, the Laurence Foxes of the world, whose careers as cultural commentators seem to be built purely on farming outrage over apparently trivial decisions like the dropping of “Mr” from Mr Potato Head. Surely, we conservatives, the guardians of this country’s proud and ancient political tradition, can do better than stooping to these vacuous gutter debates - after all, with a bit of good old fashioned common sense and a dose of facts and logic our leftist opponents will surely come round…
It is my contention, that, while this cynicism towards the ‘culture war’ is more than understandable, it is also deeply misguided, and potentially ruinous for the conservative movement. Firstly, for all the media rhetoric of conservatives ‘stoking’ culture war, the culture war as it stands is entirely the work of the left. Conservatives were quite happy with the essentially Christian moral and social framework that existed for centuries in this country, and have never seen the need for deconstructing the values and beliefs which served our predecessors so well. Even if we assume that Fox and the like are just grifters, their grift is still a response to a real cultural movement, a movement driven by an organised network of left wing activists. As it stands in the culture war, progressives hold all the initiative: the left cancels cultural symbols, or introduces new ones, while the best the right can hope for is to temporarily preserve the status quo. At the same time, traditional ideas and symbols are inverted, with postmodern art and architecture calling the ugly beautiful, while the ‘body positivity’ movement declares the morbid healthy. To think that conservatives can take an impartial stance in this environment, above the cultural fray, and simply hash out a compromise with radicals seeking to dismantle the foundations of Western society is naive in the extreme, and withdrawing from the culture war to the comfortable confines of dry policy making is to concede our cultural future to these ideologues. To borrow a phrase from the intersectional left’s lexicon, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train”.
Secondly, symbols matter. The actual merits and demerits of, say, taking down a statue of Churchill are in reality less significant than the symbolism associated with the decision. Including symbols of British pride and patriotism in the public landscape necessarily implies that these are acceptable ideas for public discourse, something, of course, unacceptable for a left devoted to deconstructing and dismantling British identity. Trying to argue why, on balance, a figure like Churchill’s actions render him worthy of a statue despite his faults is thus a waste of time for the most part, as the iconoclasts, out for cultural conquest, don’t actually care. The symbols of culture war extend into the domestic sphere as well: picking a fight over Mr Potato Head in the midst of the most catastrophic government policy failure in decades might seem poor strategy, but we would be wise not to underestimate the significance of these small battles. Indeed, the very banality of the subjects of culture clash: a Dr Seuss book, a Mandalorian star, an anthropomorphised toy potato, conveys not their unimportance, but progressivism’s staggering success in permeating virtually every space within society, public and private alike. ‘Conservatives’ may hold the government, but when even the most mundane of cultural artefacts become politicised, it is the left which holds the home, the school, the workplace. Conservatives have in the past rightly repudiated the lefitst mantra of “the personal is political'', but with woke capitalism’s tentacles reaching into more and more of what we consume, the old conservative narrative no longer holds up - the left’s real success has been in making the personal political.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the culture war is a winning ticket for conservatives. The commitment of many on the right to polite, nuanced discourse is admirable, but given conservatives’ consistent failure to achieve ideological victories, even amidst electoral success, this clearly isn’t a working strategy. The left on the other hand, doesn’t bother pretending to like conservatives, and pushes a simple, emotionally compelling narrative, one of emancipation from a Western tradition that consists fundamentally of unjust hierarchies. Of course, any conservative will be able to explain at length why this narrative is fallacious, but when it comes to winning hearts and minds that doesn’t really matter - the activist left understands what today’s conservatives don’t: that nuance and rational discourse are great, but winning is even better. When your opponents are casting you as the guardians of a deeply evil and oppressive system, tepid appeals to moderation just won’t cut it. Conservatives thus find ourselves caught in a narrative prisoner’s dilemma, were both right and left to ‘cooperate’ by sticking to intellectually honest and open debate, all would benefit, but as it stands the left is playing dirty, and, if the right wishes to stop being walked all over, we will need to do the same.
The issues of the culture war, as tacky and inane as they often appear, provide the right with opportunities for simple and evocative narratives which can finally let us go toe-to-toe with the left’s Alinskyite playbook. The Tory Party, for all its myriad faults, does at least finally seem to be starting to grasp this: Cantabs might scoff at Boris’ fixation on the inclusion of Rule Britannia on the last night of the proms, or the introduction of ‘free speech champions’ at universities, but these are the sort of cultural issues which helped to unite the Tories’ disparate 2019 electoral coalition. Now, it has been correctly observed that the Tory Party’s preferred culture war issues are all pretty superfluous and unlikely to hold voters in the long run, but the answer to this isn’t abandoning them outright. Instead, conservatives need to double down, not just on attacking ‘woke’ culture, but on defeating the intellectual assumptions behind social liberalism, or, to put it another way, the right should be tough on wokeness, tough on the causes of wokeness. This might seem a daunting task given how far social conservatism has receded in the last few decades, but the continued public opposition to some of wokeness’ most extreme excesses does at least give us a kernel of doubt in the left’s relentless antinomianism from which to build upon. The flipside to this is that if the right declines to fight on cultural issues, ‘conservative’ policy will continue to be diluted to the point of being unrecognizable in the interests of securing an electorate ever influenced to the left by the culture around it. So, if we want to avoid a future that makes the cusu sabbaticals look like Ann Widdecombe, conservatives have no choice but to fight the ‘culture war,’ which may even entail having to associate with Laurence Fox, or, Heaven forbid, those uncouth boomers who fill the ranks of the Conservative Party Members’ Group on Facebook. What matters is that we are successful; the left plays to win, it’s time the right starts doing the same.