The woke left versus populist right: a new political paradigm?


Much discussion surrounds the rise of both the ‘woke’ agenda and the populist right across Britain and the wider Western world. Recent actions by left-wing activists and their right-wing counterparts have led some to worry that these more extreme brands of politics are becoming the new norm.

A rejection of centre-ground politics is not a new phenomenon, however, what is, is the seeming need to make political views known by ‘virtue signalling’, the disingenuous demonstration of one’s virtue and moral character to signal their argument’s credibility.

The loudness of more extreme voices is amplified in the modern world by social media. We have seen the rise of pseudoscience during the Covid-19 pandemic because of people’s desire to be heard and the ease with which they can be. In the same way that nonsensical scientific advice has been spread, political misinformation and skewed representations of politics have been spread also.

This new medium for people to express themselves is what has created the new phenomenon of online virtue signalling, which is demonstrated across the political spectrum but particularly present in more extreme factions. No longer is it good enough to be virtuous in your life and decent in how you conduct yourself. Now, one can, and some feel duty-bound to, signal it as loudly and as widely as possible, regardless of who they offend or irritate.

The flip side of this is that those who do not virtue signal or signal another viewpoint are often “unfollowed”, “unfriended” or ostracised. This is part of the vicious circle of disagreement and disengagement in communication that we are seeing more broadly in politics today.

Users of social media do not proportionally represent the electorate

It may seem to many that the age of reasoned and respectful political debate has passed and that the only way to be heard is through shock tactics and a desire to cause disgust. You will be pleased to know however that tolerance and respect do have their place, it just seems quieter relative to the amplified and often incongruous political crusades seen on social media.

For every aggressive campaigner seen in the media, there are many more sensible people still debating important issues of the day. The difference is that they do not seek to impose their view on other people. Users of social media do not proportionally represent the electorate.

More extreme political groups gaining popularity in the UK is not synonymous with online virtue signalling, nor is it a 21st century development. Since World War Two, Britain has seen the election of non-extreme figures positioned on either side of the political spectrum from Clement Attlee in 1945 to Margaret Thatcher in 1979. We forget this sometimes perhaps because, more recently, Britain saw a period of centre-ground politics beginning with the rise of New Labour and Blairism in 1997.

Of course, there were always voices calling for change during this era, some of them extreme, but all the major political parties espoused broadly similar views on key issues. However, if one wants their views to be remembered and attributed to them specifically, it is of course much easier for that to happen when one speaks from a different position to the majority. Therefore, whenever people feel that current politicians are lacking a cause or are not representing them enough, people move away from more socially or economically moderate positions towards the right or left to gain relevance and force politics to reconnect with the electorate.  

More extreme political groups gaining popularity in the UK is not synonymous with online virtue signalling

In other words, moderates need to recalibrate whilst upholding their same ideals so that people feel it resonates with them again and do not need to look elsewhere. Perhaps then there would have been less renewed sympathy for political parties like UKIP and the transformation of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. However, what we must remember is that at times when fewer moderate governments are elected in the UK, more extremist policies or individuals have a history of failing to become mainstream (even if the noise online suggests otherwise).

I feel fortunate to have friends of many political persuasions, some of whom I disagree passionately with on certain issues but the friendly and respectful discussions I have with them about our disagreements has enabled me to develop my own opinions. Some people on either side of the political spectrum must stop feeling pressured to virtue signal online and stop seeking to offend and intimidate others, but rather they must seek to connect with people outside of their echo chamber and find common ground.

We are enormously fortunate in Britain to be able to speak freely, it is a freedom that many in the world do not have. People need to appreciate this more, recognise it and debate sensibly.

is a Policy Fellow of the Pinkser Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

Image: david_shankbone via Creative Commons

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