Image: Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In light of current developments, I am compelled to return to my obsession with United States politics. I was taught in first-year political science that, to win power, parties compete for the middle ground, since that is where the voters who can make the difference between winning and losing are found. This forces the major parties to address practical issues rather than just appeal to ideology.

We have seen this play out in Erin O’Toole’s campaign in the recent Canadian election. Or consider Britain: in a long biographical article on Boris Johnson in the July 2021 Atlantic, Tom McTague notes that “on the American political spectrum, Johnson’s policies would fall well to the left of center.” We can see a similar moderating effect over time in most longstanding democracies. Not, however, in the United States, which in the half-century since I was a student has become the glaring exception. The Republican Party has, almost continually, moved away from the centre. And it has not paid the price.

There are institutional factors in the way Americans run elections that help explain this, including overrepresentation in Congress of less urbanized states, the ability of the very rich to skew campaigns, and blatant gerrymandering. Moreover, the pure two-party system, resulting from institutional obstacles to getting third-party candidates on the ballot, ensures that moderate Republicans either fall into line or quit politics.

On the other side is the Democratic Party, which would fit comfortably into the centre of the spectrum in Canada and elsewhere in the democratic world. It won the last election, and yet is facing defeat in Congress in less than a year. This could set the stage for another run at the presidency by someone every expert acknowledges as the worst chief executive in a modern democratic country in modern times. Furthermore, Donald Trump asserts that he could lose the 2024 election only if it is – like the 2020 election – “stolen” from him.

It seems preposterous than more than a fringe could take this seriously. We have recently had close elections in Canada, Germany and other countries without the losers contesting the count. Yet there continue to be regular reports of loyal Trumpites in a score of American states challenging the 2020 numbers. They do not expect to overturn the result, but rather are setting the stage for an orchestrated manipulation of the result in 2024 underpinned by a coordinated effort to replace election officials with Trump loyalists.

How did things get so out of hand that the most basic elements of electoral democracy are disputed not in a far corner where conspiracy theorists congregate, but in the mainstream of political discourse? The prime culprits are the Trumpites’ enablers in politics and the media who, instead of denying and denouncing such claims, are complicit or at best silent. Ambitious Republican politicians like Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, who play to the Trumpite base so as to gain popularity with Republican primary voters, are the most blatant.

This sad state of affairs is well known. What I want to do here is to bring in another dimension. I suggest that a certain tendency among Americans who would not be caught dead among the Trumpites plays into the efforts of Abbott, DeSantis and their ilk. However little it may be true, there is a widespread conservative belief that mainstream “liberal” opinion leaders censor “politically incorrect” content in the media and in institutions of higher learning. In a recent poll, among Independents – the group that was key to Joe Biden’s victory – 71 per cent of those who had heard of Critical Race Theory (CRT) were “very unfavourable” to it.

CRT means different things to different people. In the version that has gained wide currency in the media, it asserts that race is always about inequality and domination. It insists that the world must be seen through its lens, so that efforts to deemphasize the role of race and racism and the failure to recognize that systemic racism determines disparities between groups is itself a manifestation, if unconscious, of racism.

Abbott’s Texas (a very large state that is demographically moving in the direction of the Democrats), followed by at least ten other states, has outlawed the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Though the legislators hardly understand the subtleties of CRT, they object to an interpretation of U.S. history that places at its core the importance of slavery and oppression of Blacks. Texas House Bill 3979 states that no one should be made to feel guilty for their race or sex. It bans teachers from teaching anything that says a race (i.e. Whites) or sex (i.e. men) is inherently racist or oppressive, or that individuals bear responsibility for actions committed in the past.

The law is being applied. In one case, Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District Superintendent Robin Ryan announced in a letter to parents on August 31 that Heritage High School Principal James Whitfield was placed on paid administrative leave following claims that he was teaching critical race theory.

Behind such actions lie the perceived and real feelings of students. A 2019 survey of representative college students carried out by Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to improving research and education in colleges and universities, asked 1,580 students how they felt in the classroom giving their opinions on politics, race, religion, sexuality, gender and noncontroversial topics. It found that 58.5 per cent of students were somewhat or very reluctant to give their views on at least one of the five controversial topics. White students were especially reluctant to give their views on matters related to race.

It is hard not to draw a parallel with pressure on teachers to avoid topics that could make minority students feel bad. The conservative media love to draw to public attention cases such as that of Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor who resigned under pressure from Portland State University because, as he put it,

“Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly (and made) intellectual exploration impossible … The more I spoke out about these issues, the more retaliation I faced.”

Universities are supposed to be places where free expression is sheltered, but the pressure to be politically correct is apparently widespread. A main theme of a recent popular Netflix series, The Chair, was cancel culture at an Ivy League college. No one to my knowledge claimed that it unfairly reflected campus attitudes.

In the end, it comes down to whose feelings need to be protected. While cases differ in their specifics, underlying all of them is the need to shelter the vulnerable from uncomfortable facts or controversial statements. The ultimate victim is rational argument, the appeal to reason rather than feelings when it comes to what should be taught.

My concern here is not with the merits of CRT or cancel culture, but rather its effect when it is brought into the political arena. Some voters interviewed during the recent election campaign in Virginia, notably suburban white women whose votes were key to Democrats’ improved performance in purple states carried by Joe Biden, said that they felt national conversations about race and equity were divisive and often cast all White people in a negative light. Others were concerned that their children would come home from school believing that their parents are racist.

We do not know how much these fears contributed to the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin as Governor of Virginia over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Part of it was simple dissatisfaction with the status quo which, in a pure two-party system, can be expressed only by voting for the opponent. Biden will face exactly the same situation in 2024. Instead of having to defend Trump or their (lack of) policies, Republicans will run against cancel culture as they did in Virginia.

There has long been a tendency, mainly on the American right, to censor “dangerous” ideas. We have see it on the left, in campus protests against controversial speakers. But the protests were not based on what the speakers had to say being hurtful. Now, apparently, both sides want to protect people from hurtful truths.

Except that, at the end of the day, it is not the right that will pay the political price.