The UK, of course, has long-standing issues of institutional racism and countless cultural plagues of its own. When Dowden told the Heritage Foundation that the government had told schools it was “unlawful to teach the concept of ‘white privilege’ as if it were undisputed fact,” his audience surely heard. a clear echo of the American panic over critical race theory.
In general, the American culture war discourse is so entrenched that it is impossible to simply uproot it and replant it in Britain, where political life is less structured around burning cultural controversies.
Of course, people often care a lot about patriotic songs and the union jack. But these symbols are not permanent, inflamed points of contention. (Keir Starmer may be keen to point them out, but he seems to view them as a precondition for post-Corbyn eligibility, not a finished political offer unto itself.) We have tabloids, but we don’t. Fox News main grievance day and night. GB News looks tiny in comparison.
Moreover, the cultural schisms that we have do not always reinforce each other. Brexit went awry, but did not fit perfectly into the existing divisions. (Dowden voted for Remain.) Covid Rules, a key driver of America’s culture wars, hasn’t been so viciously polarized here. When Dominic Cummings broke lockdown, he tried to claw his way out of accountability, Trump-style, but was met with a wall of public fury. Same with Boris Johnson. A year ago, nearly 60% of Britons didn’t know what ‘awake’ meant. A roughly contemporary poll found the equivalent US figure to be around 30%.
It’s easy to oversimplify any transatlantic comparison, and it’s easy to say that the culture wars are always a distraction from the bigger issues at the kitchen table — culture matters. But the relentless, all-encompassing focus on grievances is certainly a distraction. In keeping with their “with or against us” tone, woke wars, if they are to be electorally effective, must be an all-or-nothing political strategy. Many American politicians are all in on it. Most preservatives are not. And it’s far from clear that their constituents would reward them if they were.