The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s a cliché and it’s misattributed (no, Einstein didn’t say it), but it would be hard to argue with if you live in the English town of Hartlepool. On May 6, the UK Conservative Party smashed another brick in the (red) wall with a landslide victory in the Hartlepool by-election. It was the main event in a series of elections held across the UK on ‘Super Thursday’. It continued a tune that now plays like a broken record on the world stage. Brexit, Trump, BoJo and ScoMo are all variations of the same theme.
It goes something like this. Labor/Labour/Democrats et al. stop listening to their working-class base. Party pursues woke agenda centred on niche identity politics issues. Party is encouraged by the Twitterati and dodgy opinion polls. Party assumes victory. Party is shocked by the result on election day (or in the case of Hartlepool, at least its magnitude). Rinse and repeat. We know it is happening. What is less clear is why it keeps happening?
In search of an answer, I turn to C.S Lewis. No, not ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, although I did feel like I had entered a fantasy land listening to Albo’s budget reply speech. I refer instead to ‘Lewis’s trilemma’. Lewis argued for the divinity of Jesus by saying the only possible alternatives were that he was deluded or he was evil; a lunatic, a liar or the Lord. Granted, it has as much intellectual rigour as that paradox that has befuddled Religious Studies teachers for years — ‘could God microwave a burrito so hot even he could not eat it?’ However, with a bit of finessing it makes for a useful framework to understand the woke mentality. There are three possible explanations for this woke electioneering fallacy.
Maybe the Left are just lunatics (to use Lewis’s word), and are totally unaware of how out of touch they are with the mainstream? It’s a tempting hypothesis, particularly when supported by a Guardian headline (my new favourite is, ‘Upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating into the sky – do cities have to be so sexist?’) Whilst this may be true on the fringes, there are too many otherwise intelligent progressives that keep waking up the morning after wondering, to add an appropriate question mark to Hillary’s book title, ‘What Happened?’
Are left-leaning parties lying (again, Lewis’s words), or at least being insincere? Is their shift in ideological focus – from economics to cultural values – less an article of faith and more a pragmatic acknowledgement of a new political reality? The unions are less relevant, labour conditions have improved, and the working class are now the aspirational class. Capitalism won, so what is left to fight for? Of course! Gender pronouns! This would suggest a self-serving political calculation is at play — on balance, more votes can be won virtue signalling to inner-city university graduates than lost out in the sticks. There is some support for this view, particularly amongst those watching Keir Starmer slowly bore his way out of the job of UK Opposition Leader. It is hard to fully accept though, in part because the strategy has so demonstrably failed and in part because of the almost maniacal fervour accompanying the identity politics movement.
The most likely explanation is religious, but not in the way that C.S Lewis thought of it. Instead, it is closer to the way that Jordan Peterson uses the word ‘religion’ to refer to individual identity at its highest possible level. In that respect, immutable characteristics such as race or gender are religious qualities for today’s woke progressive. For too many, identity politics has replaced the grand narratives of history as their organising moral framework and facilitator of purpose. When this is understood, the answer to my earlier question reveals itself.
The Left won’t drop the woke agenda despite it being consistently repudiated at the ballot box because they can’t. It has become who they are at a most fundamental level. Try asking a God-fearing politician of the Right to ditch their religion. Some may downplay it (think ScoMo), others may use it for political gain (think Ted Cruz), but no one would sincerely stop believing in it. This has three profoundly disturbing implications.
First, progressive members of left-leaning parties will remain almost incapable of compromise on the policies they prioritise at elections. It is possible to compromise on an economic concept because believing it is a matter of intellectual understanding rather than innate belief. You can compromise on where to put a tax bracket but it is much harder to compromise your values. This puts right-of-centre parties in the enviable position of having more leverage to give things away and more capacity to get things done.
Second, political attacks from the Left will continue to take on a moral dimension. Anyone who disagrees with a woke perspective is not merely incorrect, but a bad person. Question mass immigration? You are a xenophobe. Question gender theory? Transphobe. Criticise Islam? Islamophobe. Perversely this mindset reflects the very intolerance it targets. It is an ugly and corrosive feature of modern discourse that stokes division and corrupts free speech.
The third implication should disturb any thinking progressive. Left-leaning parties throughout the West will keep losing more than they win until identity issues overtake practical issues (like repaying the mortgage and getting the kids through school) in the minds of everyday people. Whilst Joe Biden’s legitimate victory should have provided a roadmap to the sensible centre, he is already drifting back into the waters of institutional racism and gender symbolism. Yawn.
If the Left are incapable of returning to their traditional base, they may have to wait an awfully long time for their base to return to them. My suspicion is the woke brigade may be able to live with that, so long as they can take comfort in knowing that they are more tolerant, more inclusive and more virtuous than anyone who disagrees with them. Chris Emmas-Williams, the former leader of Amber Valley Borough Council who lost his seat on Super Thursday tweeted, “The voters have let us down”. On behalf of the great unwashed Chris, I sincerely apologise. Enjoy retirement.
Will Kingston is an Australian Marketing Director based in New York. Contrary to the above, he actually quite likes the work of C.S Lewis.
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