Why is the left winning the culture wars?
Social desirability bias
Left-wing ideology is dominant in the news media, in academia, in the school system, and increasingly also in the corporate world. How come?
I believe the major reason for this is social desirability — left-wing views sound good, and make you sound like a good person. For example, by supporting the minimum wage, I show that I care about people less fortunate than me. I expanded on this in a previous post.
There are three other elements that work together with this main factor, and support it. The first is tribal bias: people want to align with their ideological tribe. This factor is not in favor of one side or the other, but ensures that once a side takes over, it will form an increasingly uniform front, as people align with the dominant ideology within domains. The second is verbal tilt: People who have higher verbal intelligence compared to non-verbal intelligence tend to be more left-wing, and vice-versa.[1, 2] This means that the most writing focused, and most of the best writers will tend to lean left to a higher degree. Third, there is an increasing delineation between Somewheres and Anywheres. Somewheres live rooted in a specific place, often in a smaller city, while Anywheres are cosmopolitan. The Somewheres tend to be more conservative, being rooted in a specific place, history and life. The Anywheres tend to be more liberal, live in the big coastal cities, and increasingly form the intellectual elite.
Once an ideology takes over a domain, a self-reinforcing circle will kick in, which favors this ideology even more. For example, once academia becomes heavily left-leaning, this will create a less attractive environment for right-wing people, and fewer of them will go into academia, making it even more left-leaning. This circle will affect not only the proportion of left-wing people, but also the strength of the ideology. This can also be seen in newspapers, for example with the recent NYT expunging of writer that were seen as insufficiently progressive.
A recent alternative explanation is forwarded by Richard Hanania: Why is Everything Liberal? He claims that liberals are more engaged in politics, whereas conservatives are more focused on their personal and family life. I do not believe this is the root explanation for two main reasons: One, I see a lot of conservatives who care strongly and energetically about politics; they spend a lot of time online discussing it, they go to Trump rallies, and they spend large amounts of time listening to even mediocre right-wing commentators such as Ben Shapiro. They just don’t have access to the most important political channels. Two, I believe the reasons outlined above are sufficient causes as well as more fundamental causes. To the degree that conservatives spend less time on politics, this could plausibly be downstream of left-wing take-over of the elite institutions and public support. It’s more inviting to spend more energy on political activity if it will further your social standing, career and reception from society’s elite.
Left-wing views have always had high cache in academia and elite media. What has lead to the increasing dominance in recent years? I posit that it is increasing bubbles in everyday life and information spheres. In previous decades there was more intermingling in neighborhoods between people of different political affiliations, and newspapers and TV was to a higher degree for a general audience. Increasingly, people live near and spend time with people from the same side of the political spectrum, and news sources are becoming increasingly specialized and targeted. Wait But Why goes into this in detail.
The internet and social media allow people to hypothetically hear all view points; but in reality it instead has the effect that it is easier to get the specific information from your tribe. When people hear from the other tribe, it will typically be bad or exaggerated takes, together with counter-arguments or mocking from your own tribe. You can be fed the best, most sophisticated, and most convincing arguments for your political side, together with selected bad or simplistic takes from the other side. Which will confirm your belief that your side is correct, and lead you to further strengthen your bubble. These factors work equally for both sides of the ideological spectrum; so they are not the reason for left-wing success. But they are the reason for the tipping point effect, in which the left-wing lead has become left-wing dominance.
Too much dominance of one ideology is never good. If there is little intellectual opposition, tribal and ideological factors can allow increasingly ridiculous views to proliferate. This is very important, since it can lead to the spread and acceptance of bad ideas.
There are whole subfields of research that never had good evidence for them, but which nonetheless have proliferated, such as stereotype threat, implicit bias, microaggression research, etc. In the news media there countless examples of ridiculously biased reporting, such as a teenager smiling was deemed a national news story, or of people not questioning the most blatant of hoaxes. Given my readership, you probably know of many other similar examples. Also many left-wing beliefs of dubious veracity are widely accepted by elites and elite institutions, such as that there are no biological differences between genders or population groups, immigration is an unalloyed good, transgender female athletes can compete on equal footing in women’s sports, etc.
An alternative explanation for the spread of many incorrect ideas is forwarded by Rob Henderson: Luxury beliefs. People buy luxury goods to signal wealth, and in the same way they have beliefs to signal that they can afford having misguided, costly beliefs. I don’t believe this is the correct explanation. I believe that bad ideas follow straightforwardly from the ideological bubbles, as detailed above, so there is no need for further explanation. But also importantly, these beliefs are not actually costly to those who hold them. Your personal political opinions do not determine which policies are implemented in the country, so you will not bear the cost of them. In fact, not holding these beliefs is what will be costly to you in your private life, since going against your tribe always is.
Often, stating opinions topics using complex left-wing concepts and thoughts can also function as a signaling of education and intelligence. However, the most important signaling element here is tribal. It is more important for your social standing and romantic prospects that people like you, see you as one of them, and think you are a good person, than that they think you are intelligent or highly educated.
So what can be done about this development? I think the situation is bad, but it is improving in some ways. The replication crisis has increased awareness of the problems in academia. And there is increasingly better access to heterodox thinking in general, especially through substack and podcasts. These two platforms have the attribute that they create a direct link to the listener / reader, instead of relying on an institution. I think the way forward is to increase these sources of right-wing or centrist thinking and deeper political commentary. One thing that I think is lacking is more funding. The biggest names can have good incomes on Substack, but this is still only very few compared to the number of working left-wing writers and thinkers. Also there is not much funding for right-wing researchers, while at the same time increasing pressure on right-wing academics due to cancel culture. Consider that the brilliant thinker and researcher Bo Winegaard was fired, while Ibram X. Kendi recently received $10 million. I think it would be a great idea for wealthy philanthropists to donate more to this space. But of course they are typically elite, and this would likely not be popular among their in-group.