Neither cardinal nor ordinal preferences can explain wokeness in Britain

I previously wrote about Richard Hanania’s fascinating article ‘Why is Everything Liberal?’ In that article, he sought to explain why so many large organisations (corporations, universities, the ACLU) have gone woke. His proposed explanation begins with the distinction between ordinal preferences and cardinal preferences. Elections only take into account ordinal preferences (which outcome you prefer), whereas other domains take into account cardinal preferences (how much you prefer one outcome to another).

Hanania argues that, although about 50% of Americans support the Republicans and 50% support the Democrats, the 50% who support the Democrats care a lot more about politics. So while ordinal preferences favour neither side, cardinal preferences strongly favour the left. As evidence that left-wing Americans care more about politics, Hanania points out that they’re more likely to donate to political causes, to attend political rallies, and to be active on social media, and that they’re more intolerant of their political opponents.

Last time, I said “there’s a lot of truth to Hanania’s explanation”, but now I’m not so sure. It occurred to me that there are plenty of woke organisations in Britain (including corporations, supermarkets, charities, universities, Eton College, the National Trust, the Football Association and the police). Yet neither cardinal nor ordinal preferences seem to strongly favour the left, especially if we’re talking about the woke strand of leftism.

Unlike in America, where the Republicans just lost the national election, and were out of power for 8 years before 2016, the UK’s main right-leaning party, the Conservatives, has been in power continuously since 2010. (Though it should be noted that 2010–2015 saw a coalition government.) The Conservatives won the 2019 general election with a sizeable majority of 88 seats, and they’ve been ahead in the polls pretty much ever since. In the recent local elections, they trounced Labour (the main left-leaning party) with 36% of the vote (versus Labour’s 29%). They also won the Hartlepool by-election, thus taking that seat for the first time since its creation in 1974. The Conservatives did lose the 2019 European elections, but that was only because so many voters went for the Brexit Party – an even less woke party.

What’s more, the Conservatives have enjoyed a sizeable advantage in political donations over the last decade. (This is in contrast to the situation in America, where – as Hanania points out – the Democrats now lead the Republicans.) The Conservatives have raked in more money than Labour every year since 2010, which is perhaps not surprising given that they are the “pro-business” party. For the last few years, they’ve actually raised more money than both Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined. Note that most donations to the Conservatives come from individuals, whereas most donations to Labour come from unions.

I’m not aware of which party’s supporters are more likely to attend political rallies, but I’d very surprised if it wasn’t Labour. However, this difference can almost certainly be explained – in large part – by the fact that Labour supporters are younger, more likely to be students, and more likely to live in cities.

There’s other evidence against the claim that cardinal preferences strongly favour the left in Britain. The media here is much more balanced than in America, and although I doubt many BBC journalists vote for the Conservatives, there are several prominent right-wing newspapers, including two of the country’s most popular: The Sun and the Daily Mail. At the 2019 general election, these two newspapers – along with The Times, The Telegraph and the Daily Express (and all their Sunday equivalents) – endorsed the Conservatives. By contrast, only The Guardian, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star (and their Sunday equivalents) endorsed Labour.

In addition, several “anti-woke” organisations have been founded in recent years, such as the Free Speech Union, Counterweight, The Critic and GB News. The latter is a major new TV channel that has already hired many right-leaning journalists. The channel’s nightly news program – hosted by the conservative, ex-BBC journalist Andrew Neil – will reportedly feature a segment called ‘Wokewatch’. And the comedian Andrew Doyle (creator of Titania McGrath) is due to host a weekly show titled ‘Free Speech Nation’.

Although there are a substantial number of people who favour woke organisations in Britain, I don’t believe they are as numerous or as well-funded as their counterparts in America. Overall, I’m not convinced that Hanania’s theory explains why there are so many woke organisations in Britain. And if it can’t explain the situation in Britain, then perhaps it can’t explain the situation in America either.

Image: John Singleton Copley, The Death of the Earl of Chatham, 1781


Lockdown Sceptics

I’ve written four more short posts since last time. The first notes that lack of attention to airborne transmission led to blunders in pandemic management. The second argues that border controls, not lockdowns, explain the success of Denmark, Norway and Finland. The third summarises a paper by MIT researchers finding that “skeptics” value data literacy and scientific rigour. The fourth summaries a paper by two economists arguing that the “externality argument” for lockdown isn’t as strong as it seems.


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