The Conservative Obsession with Political Correctness

Conservatives also love PC Culture and it’s dangerous.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

or decades now, there has been a frustrating conversation around the concept of political correctness. The narrative that we hear repeatedly is that certain Americans, usually liberals and leftists, are trying to censor what the rest of us say in our day-to-day lives. Those arguing against political correctness claim that “liberals” want to track our language for implicit biases and microaggressions and cancel us if we say or do anything wrong.

There have been a string of studies, articles, and exposes claiming that Americans hate political correctness. It seems to be one of the few things that many people agree on both the right and the left. “Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture,” goes the title of an article by Yascha Mounk in 2018 for The Atlantic. “Bill Maher on the perils of political correctness” begins another article by David Marchese in The New York Times.

This branding, however, belies the fact that political correctness is not an exclusively leftist concept. It’s a term with a complicated history that has changed dramatically over the centuries. Yet, even if we were to accept its more modern definition, it’s not something done by the Left alone. Nearly every political ideology adheres to it, and conservativism is by far the biggest offender.

onservativism is an umbrella term describing a general reverence for social traditions and institutions. It is an ideology that encompasses many different types of people (e.g., Christian fundamentalists, pro-business globalists, libertarians, war hawks, white ethnonationalists, etc.), and unsurprisingly, there is no universal agreement among them or even really a clearcut divide between these groups. For example, while the 48th Vice President of the United States Mike Pence was fervently religious, 45th President Donald Trump was decidedly less so, secretly mocking religious believers while in office. Yet, they both served side-by-side.

Despite some noticeable differences, some unifying norms bring these disparate camps together. Specifically, they all hate similar types of things. The most obvious is a disdain for multiculturalism. Whether it's former president Donald Trump calling Mexicans ‘drug dealers, criminals, [and] rapists’ or the fact that nearly half of all Republicans are bothered by hearing a foreign language spoken in public, conservatives are not the best at incorporating other cultural strands into the American tapestry. Many of them even tend to get angry and offended when these new traditions threaten their hegemony.

In recent years one of the easiest ways to trigger a religious conservative in America was to use the more inclusive phrase “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Ever since former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly promoted the book ‘The War on Christmas’ by John Gibson in 2005, the season's greeting has become a sort of shorthand over what conservatives perceive to be a larger cultural battle against Christianity. “Do you remember they were trying to take ‘Christmas’ out of Christmas?,” Trump remarked to a crowd in 2019. “Do you remember? They didn’t want to let you say ‘Merry Christmas.”

To be clear, there is no compelling evidence that such persecution has occurred. The majority of the US population is Christian, approximately 65% according to a 2019 Pew Research report. The majority of our political leaders in Congress are Christian as well. Most people continue to use the phrase Merry Christmas without incident, including former Democratic President Barack Obama.

The War on Christmas has less to do with reality and more about entitlement. Many conservatives are angry that their traditions are being challenged by what they perceive to be foreign influences. As conservative commentator Dennis Prager wrote for the National Review in 2015: “Of course it’s a war on Christianity — or, more precisely, a war on the religious nature of America.” Prager here is conflating Christiandom with America itself — a definition that implies that all other denominations are invalid.

We see this disdain of otherness reflected not only in the holiday debates over Christmas cards and Starbucks cups but also in the regular xenophobia and racism expressed by many conservatives both inside and out of the Republican Party. Trump grew to prominence partly by advocating the conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama was a secret Muslim — something that would only be “controversial” if you found the very idea of non-Christianity offensive. A more recent example includes conservatives being angry that House rules were amended so congresswoman Ilhan Omar could wear her hijab on the House floor. These conservatives were enraged, not by another religion, but by the perceived otherness. As triggered pastor E.W. Jackson said in response to the rule change:

“We are a Judeo-Christian country. We are a nation rooted and grounded in Christianity, and that’s that. And anybody that doesn’t like that, go live somewhere else. It’s very simple. Just go live somewhere else. Don’t try to change our country into some sort of Islamic republic or try to base our country on sharia law.”

The mere inclusion of a non-dominant identity was enough to send this conservative snowflake into a tailspin, and it’s important to note that this hatred of multiculturalism has never been an exclusively American phenomenon. Far-right leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban, or Benjamin Netanyahu have consistently expressed utter disdain for all people outside their chosen group. “Indians are undoubtedly changing … They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us,” Bolsonaro remarked of indigenous people on a recent Facebook broadcast. We could spend this entire article; hell, we could make a series of books, simply chronicling the xenophobia and racism that drives conservative movements across the globe.

This hatred doesn’t pertain to a particular religion or political party. Some conservative figures, such as white supremacist Richard Spencer, aren’t even very religious. Nor are all conservatives united in a shared hatred of the same group. Conservative hatred tends to evolve over time. Benjamin Franklin was concerned about German immigrants diluting America's whiteness, and yet today, a white ethnonationalist would hardly be concerned by someone’s German heritage. Likewise, pro-business Republicans are not as upset with immigrants, as they are “socialist” influences seeking to reform capitalism. A key part of conservative political correctness is not about a specific ideology or group but rather about expressing your contempt for that ever-shifting other.

Unlike leftists or liberals, however, conservatives typically hold a lot more power overall, and so that disdain can translate into outright supremacist policy. Mike Pence was not simply triggered by members of the LGBTQIA+ community but advocated for a religious “freedom” law, which allowed people to discriminate against queer people under the lie of religious tolerance. Donald Trump did not only rant about Obama being a secret Muslim but, among many other things, signed an executive order that banned foreign nationals from predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the United States. A dangerous part about conservative political correctness is that it does not stop and ends with words. That judgment translates into policies that hurt other people.

And once conservatives decide an authority or law is necessary, it can be decades or centuries before they are willing to let go.

nother element that tends to trigger conservatives is anytime there is a challenge to power they respect, running the gamut from institutions like the police or military to symbols like a nation’s flag. Conservatives do not like it when people question these traditional power structures, even if those criticisms are grounded in facts and histories that are valid.

In America, we have seen this issue frequently unfold with the national anthem. The most prominent example in recent years was when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem to protest black Americans' mistreatment. Many conservatives were enraged by what they considered to be an act of disrespect. As triggered conservative Marc A. Thiessen wrote of his hurt feelings in the Washington Post:

“When players disrespect the flag, they disrespect that sacrifice. And it would not matter if they had done so to protest Donald Trump or Barack Obama — their actions would be equally offensive.”

This tension over the anthem has a history well over a hundred years old. As early as 1892, a Black congregation at the Bethel African Methodist Church refused to singMy Country, ’Tis of Thee’ (one of the de facto national anthems at the time)’ to protest, among many things, the recent People’s Grocery lynchings, which had led to the loss of several Black Americans detained in police custody. “I don’t want to sing that song until this country is what it claims to be, sweet land of liberty,” remarked one man, according to the Decatur Herald. The article was quick to reassure readers they joined “heartily” in singing the abolitionist song “John Brown” instead.

These protests over symbols of American patriotism have been a very heated part of the discourse. Some have even become a vital part of legal precedent. For example, the decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis declared that schools had a right to compel students to salute the flag. Some of the legal arguments are quite similar to the ones Thiessen made eighty-something years later, the majority writing:

“To stigmatize legislative judgment in providing for this universal gesture of respect for the symbol of our national life in the setting of the common school as a lawless inroad on that freedom of conscience which the Constitution protects, would amount to no less than the pronouncement of pedagogical and psychological dogma in a field where courts possess no marked and certainly no controlling competence.”

In essence, the Court believed that the promotion of national unity was a good in of itself. Yet, the Court did not believe it had the right to intervene in how state legislatures and local municipalities decided to promote that sense of national unity — in this case, children saluting the flag every morning.

Even though this decision would eventually be overturned several years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the argument that we must pay deference to national authority would come up time and time again throughout public life. We see it in the way conservatives have advocated for blanket respect for police officers, the military, and all the other authorities they deem sacred, even to the point of threatening those who refuse to surrender that respect. Former Attorney General William Barr, for example, infamously remarked: “[that Americans] have to start showing more [respect] than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. If communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

Unsurprisingly, this is not a uniquely American experience. Conservatives all over the world caution deference when describing institutions of authority. For example, in France, police protested en masse when the government attempted to implement anti-racism reforms within the national police force. The police alleged that part of these protests had to do with high suicide rates and lack of resources, but it was clear that disrespect was also a huge sticking point. As union official Eric Defremont stated of the protests: “It’s about the lack of respect for us. Yes, there’s a malaise in the police. They don’t even give us the proper tools. Nobody in France tells their children, ‘I want you to be a police officer.’ We just want to be respected.”

From conservative British people insisting on toasting to the queen to billionaire Elon Musk’s rabid fanbase, if you are a conservative, then chances are you will be triggered when someone inevitability challenges an authority that you respect. This blind deference, however, can be problematic because not all of these institutions are universally good. For example, many police departments have been plagued with systemic racism, especially in America and France, where study after study has shown biases in both countries.

When your worldview prevents you from critically examining traditional power structures, then it makes it very difficult for you to do the work necessary to reform or roll them back. This political correctness results in a lot of obstructionism as conservatives refuse to critically examine broken institutions.

onservatives often lambast liberals and leftists for political correctness, but as we have seen, there are several areas where they are quite vocal about their norms being violated.

Conservatives generally get very upset when people attempt to change what they perceive to be the dominant culture. This shift can be as trivial as a season’s greeting or as significant as what types of people are admitted into Congress. These hatreds are inevitably intermixed with a person’s xenophobia, racism, and bigotry. The other may change from person-to-person and era-to-era, but the contempt for multiculturalism remains the same.

Conservatives also get triggered over what they perceive as disrespect for institutions of authority they care about. That respected authority can change depending on the person, place, and era we are referring to. For some, it's the monarchy. For others, it's the wealthy businessman who has amassed billionaires of dollars in rightfully earned wealth. You can tell you have found the right person from all the hurt conservative feelings.

Your local strain of conservatism might have more triggers as well. American conservatism, for example, tends to be very individualistic. It’s the reason why putting on a mask during the Coronavirus pandemic was so difficult for many here, but go over to Japan, which also has a conservative government, and mask-wearing was not much of an issue.

‘Disdain for the other’ and ‘outrage over disrespect’ are two aspects universally applicable to conservative movements. Still, they are by no means the only things to trigger conservatives — for that, we would need a much longer article.

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