The Danger of a Distorted View of the Right

A case study in how the political left often misunderstands the right

Patrick Fallon / Reuters

What attributes define intellectuals on the right and left in the strange era of Donald Trump? That’s the question Paul Krugman raised in a column attempting to explain ideological imbalance among commentators at elite U.S. media organizations. While his account betrayed dubious assumptions about civil society and the value of opinion journalism, it sparked illuminating responses.

Tyler Cowen, one of America’s most constructive public intellectuals, weighed in with the thought-provoking column, “Holding Up a Mirror to the Intellectuals of the Left.” Then Noah Smith, another Bloomberg View writer, offered his own perceptions of what intellectuals on the left and the right believe.

How can he see things so differently than I do?

“On the left, the drive to purge racism, sexism, etc. from American society is very strong,” he tweeted, “and most discourse concerns this drive––either decrying examples of racism/sexism, discussing institutions that maintain these -isms, or discussing how to effect change.” On the right, he continued, “the consensus position seems to be that differences in racial outcomes are due to (probably innate) ‘group differences,’ and that innate differences also explain the persistence of (and justify) traditional gender roles.” Smith concluded:

But because people on the right are, generally, afraid to express this idea in public, they instead talk about the idea of free speech. Basically, to the right, “free speech” is a proxy for “the right to say races and sexes are inherently different without fear of censure.” As far as I can tell, this is 100% of what the “free speech” debate is about - the idea of “group differences.” Every idea that people on the right seem to feel they can't express in public boils down, eventually, to this.

Three claims most struck me:

  1. One of the right’s consensus positions is that innate differences explain and justify the persistence of traditional gender roles.
  2. Another consensus position is that racial outcomes are due to “group differences” that are likely innate.
  3. One-hundred percent of the free-speech debate is a proxy for people on the right to covertly say that races and sexes are inherently different without fear of censure.

Many people clicked to like or share those views.

But all three claims strike me as obviously, demonstrably incorrect, despite the fact that I usually find Smith’s writing to be insightful and empirically grounded.

The Right and Traditional Gender Roles

In my estimation, few things divide the right as much as traditional gender roles. The divide is not just ideological, pitting traditionalist social conservatives against right-leaning libertarians, but also generational. As the gay marriage debate showed, a typical Baby Boomer and a typical Millennial, right or left, hold vastly different views about the shifting norms of gender and sexuality.

Polls strongly suggest that the right has achieved nothing like consensus on these issues. Of course, public-opinion data typically measure the beliefs of Americans as a whole, not those of intellectuals in particular. Still, it is telling that 55 percent of Republicans favor women taking on combat roles in the military, one of the starkest departures from traditional gender roles in our society.

Lots of other survey data reveal similar lacks of consensus.

In one survey, Pew reported, “About two-thirds of Democrats who say men and women are basically different in how they express their feelings, their approach to parenting, and their hobbies and personal interests say these differences are rooted in societal expectations. Among their Republican counterparts, about four-in-ten or fewer share those views.” In another Pew study, when Republicans were asked about changing gender roles, 36 percent said they’ve made it easier for women to lead satisfying lives, 32 percent said they’ve made it easier for parents to raise children, 53 percent said they’ve made it easier for women to succeed at work, and 26 percent said that they’ve made it easier for marriages to be successful. Twenty-six percent of Republicans said the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights.

And as Emily Bazelon noted in “How Republican Politicians Learned to Love ‘Working Mothers,”’ Donald Trump’s campaign marked a noticeable liberalization of how the GOP standard-bearer talked about women in the workplace, and even Mike Pence says that he has become more liberal on that subject.

Even on transgender issues, where Republicans seem most united in public opinion polls, 19 percent say that whether a person is a man or a woman can be different from their sex at birth. Nothing close to consensus exists on this basket of issues.

The Right and Racial Outcomes

Last year, The Washington Post published an article on what Republicans believe about race, intelligence, and social outcomes, drawing on General Social Survey data. Rather than ask participants to compare the intelligence of blacks and whites, the GSS had them rate each group independently. Twenty-six percent of white Republicans rated blacks as less intelligent, compared to 18 percent of white Democrats. In a similarly constructed question, 42 percent of white Republicans rated blacks as lazier than whites, versus 24 percent of white Democrats.

Again, the survey isn’t a perfect proxy for the opinions of right-leaning intellectuals, but it strongly suggests that there is nothing close to consensus on the right as to whether or not racially disparate outcomes are due to innate group differences. What’s more, while Charles Murray and others have emphasized IQ as a key factor that explains both interracial and intraracial disparities, my impression is that theirs is far from the leading narrative on the right.

I’d paraphrase what I perceive to be the leading narrative among conservative intellectuals as something like this: To be sure, the legacy of bygone discrimination explains some racial disparities, like the gap in total household wealth, and yes, there is some racism even today. But focusing on it is counterproductive, as there are far more decisive factors at play. The Great Society and other social-welfare programs had unintended, perverse consequences for African Americans, as did the sexual revolution. Equality will be achieved if the government does its part by ceasing to do harm (and passing school choice) and the black community does its part by focusing less on racism and more on personal responsibility––that is, avoiding drugs, alcohol, crime, and teen pregnancy, earning a high-school diploma, getting and staying married before having kids, involving fathers in childrearing, and working hard. Instead, the left enacts policies that keep African Americans reliant on their political favors while the grassroots indulge in a victim mentality.

There are lots of problems with that narrative. I do not defend it. I do insist it is different than saying racial disparities in outcomes are “due to (probably innate) ‘group differences.’” Both views can be found on the right––along with others, some more nuanced and defensible, others less so. The point is that there is nothing like consensus, let alone consensus on the view that Smith describes.

The Right and Free Speech

Which brings us to Smith’s third claim:

Basically, to the right, “free speech” is a proxy for “the right to say races and sexes are inherently different without fear of censure.” As far as I can tell, this is 100% of what the “free speech” debate is about - the idea of “group differences.” Every idea that people on the right seem to feel they can't express in public boils down, eventually, to this.

This claim is baffling to me.

As a reality check, I plugged in “free speech” as a search term at National Review, wondering if its overall output is very different from the dozen writers I follow there.

Very quickly, I found David French telling his fellow conservatives that they shouldn’t try to get radical leftist professors fired for their speech, a post about a lawsuit attempting to stop a man from displaying a sign calling Elizabeth Warren “a fake Indian,” an essay extolling the Joe Rogan podcast for its catholic approach to public discourse, an item chiding CUNY law students for interrupting a speaker invited to their campus by its chapter of the Federalist Society, and an essay by a young writer named Brad Polumbo sharing his experience as an openly gay, openly conservative college student: “After I started speaking out in the school newspaper, I got hate mail, and angry left-wing students even joked about my death online. The illiberal atmosphere on campus showed me and many other students just how important free speech really is.”

In another article, Stanley Kurtz dismissed the arguments of those who say there is no free-speech problem on college campuses and proceeded to survey dustups at Clemson. He notes anti-gay marriage students who were stopped from holding a protest; a controversy over a “gangster” theme party and calls to criminally prosecute students who dressed up in attendant stereotyped clothing; a policy that “required prior administrative approval before any faculty or staff member could speak with public officials at the state or federal levels”; a debate over the college’s speech code; a kerfuffle over a culinary theme day where cafeteria workers wore sombreros; campus anger at a candidate for student government who advertised his campaign with a picture of himself holding a rifle and a copy of the Constitution in front of an American flag; a controversy over whether two bananas found on campus were placed there for racially motivated reasons; an attempt to ban all displays of the viral Harambe meme; a nonstudent forbidden from praying with students outside a designated free-speech area; folks ripping down fliers at a Milo talk; and the separate vandalisms of both a conservative campus newspaper and a pro-life display.

All this confirmed my general impression as a regular reader of National Review: that hardly a day passes, and certainly not a week, without multiple articles invoking free speech for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with “the right to say races and sexes are inherently different without fear of censure.”

Of course, National Review is not synonymous with the right. Maybe Breitbart better captures this moment. That outlet also covered the law professor whose event at CUNY was interrupted. Another story quotes Ted Cruz in an interview with the publication’s editor. He said, “A few months ago, the communist government of China was proposing investing significantly in the University of Texas in a China center, and I wrote the head of the University of Texas urging UT not to take the Chinese communist money because they were doing so as a propaganda effort to undermine free speech in this country, and thankfully UT turned down the money and in fact has been leading the country. We’re now seeing other universities turning down the Chinese communist money. I think that’s a good thing and I think we need to be very protective of freedom here in America.”

A third story covered the Fresno State professor criticized for insulting Barbara Bush upon her death. A fourth reported on a Breitbart reporter who was suspended from Twitter for declaring that 100 percent of transgender people are “mental patients.” A fifth notes that the U.K. now ranks embarrassingly low on the Press Freedom Index. A sixth notes that a British man was fined in court for teaching his dog to do a Nazi salute––he says that he did it as a joke in order to annoy his girlfriend. A seventh praised Kanye West for ostensibly winning a victory for free speech. Those are the first articles that I pulled up, not a random sample, but they illustrate that the site’s coverage of free speech includes many controversies that, boiled down, have nothing to do with “the right to say races and sexes are inherently different without fear of censure,” along with some that do.

And I cannot help but reach a similar conclusion after scrolling through articles tagged “free speech” at The Daily Wire or their analogs at The Daily Caller.

Why This Matters

The Trump era is perhaps strangest in the following way: Never in my lifetime has the worst faction on the right been more obvious in its bigoted transgressions, or more fueled by the rhetoric of an elected official, as under Trump—a course that has left me more alienated from the GOP than I have ever been. And yet, I simultaneously find that many of the left’s characterizations of the right are more at odds with reality than I’ve ever experienced. It contains multitudes that are elided by its least charitable critics.

The differences among ideological factions are sharp in this polarized nation even when everyone has a perfectly accurate understanding of one another’s projects. Moving forward without risking catastrophic strife will prove impossible if one side inaccurately perceives the other to have reached consensus behind the views it sees as most objectionable on the subjects most dear to it.

When a New York Review of Books reviewer sees “fascist mysticism” in Jordan Peterson, or the Southern Poverty Law Center misallocates scarce resources warning its audience about Christina Hoff Sommers, I despair at how much work is needed to bridge gaps far narrower than some factions on the left imagine. And when Noah Smith, a very smart guy whose sincerity I never doubt, stakes out a series of claims about the right that strike me as clearly contradicted by lots of available evidence—well, I figure one of us is very wrong, and that I’d better put forth my thinking and hear his so we can figure out who that is.

He concludes his Twitter essay, “The age of Trump is one of racial and gender animus. Trump’s divisiveness and hate have infected every corner of our intellectual landscape, poisoned every discussion.” With his last sentence I concur: “American intellectual life is just one more thing that won’t be healthy again until Trump is gone.”