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The Cultural Populist’s Agenda


Donald Trump’s entrance into politics scrambled both parties, accelerating a realignment of voters that continues to confound the Beltway nearly five years after he arrived on the scene. Patterns emerging from the vote in 2020 underscore these shifts, as Republicans made further inroads with minorities and the white working class, while Democrats pulled in extra support from the suburbs.

As a result, the parties are now responsive to new coalitions. Culture and economics are obviously intertwined, but populist policy is most often discussed in the context of the latter, of trade and immigration and monopolies and student loans. Those issues worsen cultural ones and vice versa, but we tend to talk about the economic ones much more.

Elites don’t merely ignore the economic interests of the public, but are increasingly detached from their cultural interests as well. This is especially true as the highly educated media and corporate class imports radical cultural leftism into ostensibly mainstream corridors of society at a rapid rate, leaving a bipartisan swath of people reeling. It’s no longer just the “bitter clingers” who find themselves alienated by elites.

It’s the Clinton-voting parents of track runners who are losing scholarships to biological men, but are terrified to say anything critical. It’s the single millennial living alone in a city, unable to make it through a Netflix film, let alone a book, without constantly being pulled back to social media.

It’s the people addicted to pornography, the people who can’t stand Trump but can’t stand the media either. The parents who catch their kids watching videos about “wet -ss p-ssy” on TikTok, but struggle to find cleaner spaces to which they can be steered. It’s the lonely, the unmarried, the faithless, the people who don’t know what to believe so they scroll the internet, looking for fleeting mood boosts from social media, pornography, datings apps, and charged politics.

It’s exceedingly easy to lose perspective on how quickly and dramatically technological advances are changing daily life. We’re running an experiment on human psychology in real time, and in a political and media environment that’s disproportionately responsive to wealthy interests, the policy discussion has yet to catch up. A December New Yorker cover illustrated this poignantly.

Already there are creative coalitions working in good faith on the left and right to address some of these issues. To be clear, not all of the proposed policy solutions are constitutional or effective fixes to all of these problems. It rarely helpful to increase the scope of the federal government’s influence into individual’s lives, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that in our desperation to solve these mounting problems.

But these problems demand our urgent attention as much as bad trade deals or guest worker programs. And because these issues are so immediate, in many cases, focusing on cultural wounds is not only a moral imperative, it’s also politically expedient. Gov. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., is learning that right now.

To the extent that populism seeks to buck the establishment and serve a coalition of voters whose interests are not represented by elites, the movement should strive to address cultural concerns voters are confronting. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some places to start. Part of adapting to cultural changes is broadening the political aperture and folding issues long ignored by the political class into their ideological universe.

This is not a list of policy solutions, because we don’t yet have them. This is a call for policymakers to redirect their focuses and invent those solutions, whether they involve robust government action or the pursuit of cultural avenues to healing. Issues like obesity, pornography, and mental health affect our daily lives in very immediate ways and our political class should at least be responsive to them.

1. Cancel culture

Cancel culture is reviled outside of coastal newsrooms, board rooms, and writer’s rooms. Even the bespectacled cast of “Morning Joe” is over it.

I’m not sure there’s an opening for policy solutions here, but politicians can make firm and compelling arguments against the narrowing of our political discourse, helping to reset our cultural standards by refusing to accept the new ones. They can also raise the issue in negotiations with corporations like Amazon and demand answers when, for instance, Amazon removes books like Ryan Anderson’s, as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did.

Cancel culture and identity politics are used by elites to disempower the working class. “Canceled” members of local school boards or people hauled into a meeting with HR, for instance, can’t just head over to Substack and Patreon when they face personal and professional consequences for saying something heterodox. This chills the speech of people living paycheck-to-paycheck, rendering them less able to speak freely over the amplified voices of elites to help their children and communities.

2. Media Corruption

The media is the public’s primary window into politics and culture. It is failing them miserably. The left’s complete grip on the public’s access point to politics is drowning us in misinformation, from Russian collusion to the southern border to Trump’s phone calls to the pandemic. This is far beyond partisan bias. The media is now completely unreliable on every major story.

As a consequence, the public has nowhere to turn for accurate information. Take the example of masks. The government was wrong. The media was wrong. Who’s to believe what? Rather than restricting freedom of the press, we should relish this opportunity to disempower corrupt corporate outlets by spending time clearly combatting their corruption and by cooperating with and building the new media infrastructure.

3. Loneliness and Isolation

This is an issue with root causes spread across the cultural landscape, from marriage to the birth rate to civic engagement to Big Tech. People like Timothy P. Carney and Robert Putnam have chronicled the decline of civic engagement and the dangers of social isolation.

This is a widespread problem that is much worse in working-class communities than wealthy ones. We will almost certainly come to learn it was exacerbated by the pandemic in many areas of the country. As a sharp daily pain for so many Americans, it deserves basically double the attention from politicians, think tanks, journalists, artists, and the medical community.

4. Modern Sexual Behavior

Emerging evidence suggests we’ve underestimated the severity and the scope of porn-on-demand’s effect on men, women, and society at large. It’s not an abstract issue but a daily problem for millions of Americans.

Further, while modern sexual ethics is an enormously broad topic, it should be interpreted as aligning our ideological priorities so they direct us into fulfilling lives, rather than directing us into sexual pain and perpetual singledom and childlessness. (Read Mary Eberstadt.)

5. Big Tech and Health

Tech billionaires are profiting from inventions designed deliberately to cultivate addictions. We don’t yet fully understand the effect this wreaking on mental and sexual health, although the signs are not great, but they contribute to the worsening of our sedentary lifestyles, which is behind the obesity epidemic our corporate media does a terrible job covering.

Thanks to ostensible advancements in technology, we’re increasingly substituting virtual connections for in-person ones and constantly tethered to addictive dopamine machines. We’re increasingly sedentary in ways the human body was not built to tolerate. That has left us increasingly obese, which also leaves us increasingly unhealthy in myriad categories. Daily life has changed quickly in the last 100 years, but the last 15 have been head-spinning.

6. Gender Extremism

A Politico-Morning Consult poll showing exactly how dense the media-Hollywood bubble is on sex and gender unsettled some folks in the Beltway recently. This is a country that supports equality under the law, and the transgender movement’s efforts to undermine the legal and cultural definition of sex are undermining women’s equality. Most people don’t like that.

Girl’s sports are Exhibit A. Girls work tirelessly for years to cover absurd college costs by securing athletic scholarships. The ideology behind legislation like that Equality Act will put many of them at a disadvantage, especially given that it takes a small number of biological males statewide to place certain tournaments and qualifying events out of reach.

While media elites may believe it’s a worthy sacrifice in the name of sexual equality to pass laws and implement norms that force women in domestic violence shelters to sleep in facilities with biological males, the public will not.