Not so long ago, it was common for the Left to accuse the Right of loving war and hating the poor. The most memorable slogan of the Iraq War protests in 2002-2003 was “No Blood for Oil.” The idea that the Right valued filthy lucre over human lives was alive and well as late as 2012, when the Left painted Mitt Romney as a heartless capitalist. (Photos of Romney literally flinging around money during his Bain Capital days did not help, nor did his criticism of the 47 per cent of Americans who pay no income tax.)
Today the broad Left condemns the Right in starkly different terms. Instead of accusing it of greed and bloodlust, the Left charges the Right with racism, fascism and xenophobia. These charges usually tell us little about the people against whom they are used. They are meant to bludgeon, not to describe. They indicate not just how the Left sees its opponents, but how it sees itself.
The shifting nature of left-wing invective reflects changing political realities. When the Left accused the Right of greed and warmongering, it presented itself as the party of peace and the little guy. But as the Democratic Party’s voter base has become more upscale and its rhetoric more interventionist, it has had to find new terms with which to tar the Right.
In 2018, Democrats won back the House of Representatives by trouncing Republicans in the wealthiest districts. As Darel Paul, a political scientist at Williams College, observed, in 12 different states the wealthiest congressional districts flipped from the Republicans to the Democrats. Democrats now represent 21 of the 22 wealthiest congressional districts nationally. The median income of Democratic districts is now $61,000, compared with $53,000 for Republicans.
Given this reality, it is unconvincing for the Left to accuse the Right of being the party of greed. Accordingly, the rhetoric of Left-leaning politicians has shifted. In 2016, Hillary Clinton said at a campaign rally, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow – and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk – would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”
Invoking racism, homophobia and xenophobia allowed Clinton to downplay economic issues during the campaign. After she lost the race, she boasted of the economic power of her supporters. “I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product,” she said. “I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again’, was looking backwards.”
Clinton’s remarks associate economic underperformance with cultural backwardness. No doubt there is something to this. Political correctness is a particularly rigid and ideologically charged form of good manners. As with any elaborate code of conduct, getting it right requires time and training. Usually this means spending many years and tens of thousands of dollars on higher education. A person with only high school qualifications is unlikely to be so adept in wielding the shifting language and protocols of political correctness.
A similar transformation has taken place on foreign policy. When Democrats and their media allies address this topic, it has generally been to accuse President Trump of lack of strength and refusing to support our allies. Trump, meanwhile, has criticised military leadership, attacked what was once called the military-industrial complex and questioned interventionist ideas.
“I’m not saying the military’s in love with me – the soldiers are,” the president said in September. “The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars, so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
The top brass have warmed to Trump about as much as he has warmed to them. In June, Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and former defense secretary, criticised Trump in a long interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Faulting Trump’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests, he said, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.” The Left has cheered on generals like Mattis, which makes it hard to charge the Republican president with warmongering. Once again, a different form of denunciation is needed.
Bruising rhetoric is a natural part of democratic politics. But – whatever happens at the election – these attack lines have not worked. Trump has received record support from black and Hispanic voters, and at the time of writing enjoys a 10-point lead over Biden with military families, never mind what the top brass thinks. Whether or not Trump remains in office, the Left will continue to cast about for ways to discredit a Right that cannot simply be dismissed as the servant of Mammon and Mars.