James Kanagasooriam

Chief Research Officer

Bi_Focal #15: Where will the culture wars go next?

April 17, 2024

In this blog, we argue that the culture wars are likely to take on a new tenor as economic pressures - inflation, low growth, employment opportunities - return and fuse with cultural conflicts to give them a sharp, material edge. Over the course of this Bi_Focal series, we'll argue that these issues are - over and above views on race or conspiracy - deeply predictive of populist-right views across Western countries.

What is Culturenomics?

If you were being extremely crude you could say that we’ve had three phases of public opinion since the early 1990s. First up at the turn of the century western countries had a limited amount of ethnic diversity (outside the US), capped numbers going into higher education and visible but not unbridgeable rural-urban divides. Politics was crudely fought quite tightly on a class and income axis. This can broadly be described as the age of economics (see Bill Clinton’s, “it’s the economy stupid” 1992 election campaign.) Centre-right parties fought for those with capital, the centre-right left representing organised labour. The swing voters were lower-middle class people, and middle class areas, or areas which were in aggregate an even mix of rich and poor, whose votes typically would be decided on economic issues such as the size of the state, the nation's finances, tax rates and the welfare net. For UK readers take a look at that 1992 Conservative surprise win, and largest ever vote total of a political party in the UK, and what you will see is a vote that basically runs along a wealth axis - Kensington, Chesham, Huntingdon, Esher, Chelsea make it to the Top 10 Conservative vote totals.

The second phase found its greatest expression in Brexit, Trump and the rise of other right and left-wing populist movements. Politics shifted onto a social axis - powered by differential investment rates and fortunes in cities over the countryside and small towns, the growing diversity of majority white nations, and a big sort of people who wanted to move to cities or move out to the countryside. As a result,  politics sat on a line that broadly represented a density curve, an age axis, or an education divide. The topics which divided the left from the right were more to do with gender identity, crime, immigration, diversity, culture and race. These social debates were projected directly onto the political geography of the UK. As Chris Hanretty estimated back in 2015, there were was a sharp difference between the most right wing constituencies on economics (Surrey Heath, Ruislip Northwood & Pinner, Maldon and Orpington made it into this top 5) and the social axis on which the issue of equal marriage and the faultline of the No2AV (the 2011 Alternative Vote Referendum) which was starkly similar to the eventual Brexit vote. Hanretty and others were confident that our social and economic politics cross-cut against each other and were technically "orthogonal". Eventually though this economic axis began to give way to a social axis where the main players were the most socially Conservative and Liberal. The economist Thomas Piketty et al has also described this shift pretty comprehensively as a battle between the "Brahmin Left" and "Merchant Right".

Most commentators think we are still sitting squarely in continued culture wars. I’d disagree. I think we’ve entered The age of culturenomics (my word; apologies!). Basically where culture war issues fuse with an economic feature or cost. With low interest rates a thing of the past, high inflation, energy shocks, zero-growth, high housing costs, the post-materialist debate of purely culture wars issues without economic context sit uncomfortably. The “doom loop” of social division, low investment, low growth, slow growth, and zero-sum thinking has fused with social debates to create a new type of debate.

I know from coming up with the seat list and concept of the Red Wall that taxonomy and terms are critical to avoid misinterpretation so I thought I’d list out what I mean by this division.

Broadly it’s a series of political debates that sit on an axis where there's an interaction between a social debate (i.e. race, gender, identity, climate change) with an economic cost or feature. Examples of culturenomics include :

  • Attitudes towards affirmative action - and specifically public opinion views on the morality, efficacy of action, its format, its parameters
  • Hiring quotas and practices which do or don’t privilege non-white citizens in the job market, and the interaction this has with views that people have on class
  • Pathways for hiring, admissions into higher education or jobs
  • Debates about whether non-white citizens or white citizens are the most economically disadvantaged
  • Debates around fair pay/equal pay where there is a gender or race component
  • Net Zero and other environmental goals - and who should incur its costs, and what the timelines around this
  • The debate around the specifics of the type and levels of immigration we want, its design, and trade-off around economic costs and benefits
  • Overseas development aid / foreign aid
  • Expansion and funding of higher education that’s contingent on overseas students
  • EDI policy and this interaction with company law and directors duties

A lot of these sound like culture war issues but they are not. By introducing an economic cost or feature into the debate, culturenomics is a particularly virulent form of debate that activates western populations more effectively than purely social or economic issues.

It’s also worth noting where culturenomics is different to purely cultural debates. It's difficult to create a clear economic-trade off on the issue of trans rights or statues of historical figures or freedom of speech on university campuses. I think it’s no surprise that these issues have not gained real traction as mass public opinion issues. Culturenomic issues can cut through to voters more effectively than just talking about culture or economics alone.

How to identify a cultureconomic issue

The basis for this analysis was a c.15,000 respondents in 8 markets (UK, US, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Republic of Ireland). Data was collected between 12 March and 19 March 2024. Our approach to picking out the most divisive and high-activation issues was to design a proxy for right-populist enthusiasm we could use across countries, and identify which issues / framings were most closely related to it. This avoids the trap of picking up country-specific dynamics, where right-populist parties have different levels and bases of political support.

Our regression modelling indicates that debates that sit on this unique culturenomic axis are basically the new dividing line between left and right. What we found is that of all statements that could predict whether someone would consider voting for a right-wing nationalist/populist party, the notion that minorities have better access to job opportunities than white people is the single best predictor of all.

The model below lays this out clearly. The way to read it is left-to-right, with each variable ‘compounding’ to explain more and more of someone’s likelihood to be open to the populist-right. Looking at the first column, the model states that if we know someone’s position on the minority-job opportunities question, we’ve got an 67% chance of guessing their populist-right inclinations correctly. Adding one other variable - that on equal rights for gay couples to adopt - raised accuracy further, though only to 68.5%. So our regression modelling, comparing different variables in dozens of models to identify the most important predictors, identified the minority-job opportunities question as the most important predictor. The fact the ‘height gap’ between this and subsequent columns is relatively small indicates that other variables are far less predictive than this first one.

Figure 1: Predictors of populist-right enthusiasm

Importantly, as the plot below shows, we found that this variable is consistently the most highly correlated with populist-right support across all the countries we surveyed - even more so than anti-immigration sentiment or anti-Muslim beliefs. We think an important reason for this is because of the explicit economic penalty: the fusion of a cultural issue with a clear economic trade-off. What is striking is that although this question wording is lifted from the American National Election Study, and is well-known to be predictive of Trump support, we did not expect it to be so predictive elsewhere - or, notably, the most predictive in the UK.

Figure 2: Correlates of populist-right party enthusiasm
Group 3845

This analysis is particularly timely: the Labour party - currently well over 20 points ahead in the polls - has talked of “enacting the socio-economic duty in the Equality Act 2010” and extending equal pay rights to those who are not white by amending the 2010 Equality Act if it gets into power. This comes in the wake of a number of substantial equal pay settlements across the country, including one against Birmingham city council, which was held partly responsible for its collapse into bankruptcy.

Our research suggests that this policy could create a classic culturenomic divide and likely activate activists on both sides in an existential and heated way. We face an even more highly contested and volatile debate than the culture war debate which has been raging these past 10 years. On Labour’s proposed reforms with issues of back pay, and questions who oversees the distribution of funds, we think that this type of debate is likely to be a signal of debates to come, and not an isolated part of politics.

One sidebar to the international polling that struck us this week was on the question of whether ethnic minorities face greater levels of prejudice and discrimination than white people. The UK stuck out as the country most likely to reject this statement with 47% of the British public believing that "white people faced as much discrimination as non-white people" and 31% disagreeing. France, the Republic of Ireland and the USA concurred with Britain but only by margins of 3 to 6 points. I wonder whether the progress that has been made in terms of elite representation of minorities at the top of British politics (Sunak, Yousaf etc.) may have fundamentally changed UK public opinion and its assessment of the barriers minorities face.

Figure 3: Levels of support for idea that white people fact as much discrimination as non-white people, by country

Another sidebar on culturenomics is the situation in France where the division continues between Marine Le Pen's National Rally which has focussed on more econonomic issues in the last few years as it continues its march up the polling averages, and Éric Zemmour's very far right party Reconquête prosecuting an aggressive culture war. Together they both now poll over 42% in the first round - implying now very little 2nd transfers to get Le Pen over the 50% mark in a possible second round contest, given the likely high transfers between voters of both candidates.

Framing is everything

On a practical level, these findings have important implications for which framings of the hot-topic issues are likely to be most contested. Take, for example, the debate over climate change and Net Zero. While the British public overwhelmingly believes that climate change is real (eight to one), the policy response - and the trade-offs it presents - are becoming more salient and debated. As part of our survey, we fielded a number of questions related to climate change - from statements pointing to the need to move away from fossil fuels to statements with clear trade-offs between economic growth, job creation and the climate. We then ran a simple analysis over these questions, to find the underlying dimensions that most explain differences in views across these questions.

Interestingly, two questions that were highly orthogonal to each other and the most polarising both stressed these trade-offs between climate change and the economy. These were ‘We should put job creation ahead of protecting the environment’ and ‘Protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth’. The first question is the single largest contributor to the y axis, which is broadly a climate-sceptic axis. The fact our populist-right enthusiasm question (in red) is also most closely aligned to this axis is a clear sign that it is not climate in general, but climate framed with clear ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, that is now the most activating framing of the issue.

Figure 4: PCA analysis of climate change framings

This has immediate import for campaigners, but for the state of our politics as well. What happens to the texture of debate if politics tilts away from a conversation about values and representation, to a more quantifiable one about raw costs and benefits? This is not likely to suck all the oxygen out the debate - see the recent fury around McKinsey's DEI reports and positive links to companies' financial performance, and academics' inability to replicate their findings - but it may also bring about a more honest conversation about who wins and loses every time policy commitments are made.

You can read James Kanagasooriam's column on Culturenomics in The Times here.

The datatables underlying this research are available here.

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