How to (really) learn from what far right politicians are doing

Helen De Cruz
8 min readFeb 10, 2023
Ron DeSantis

Every so often, an opinion piece appears with a structure so set it might have been written by an AI. Invariably, these pieces draw the wrong conclusions. Here's what I think is wrong with these pieces and what we can learn from far-right politicians such as DeSantis.

I'll take as an example Pamela Paul's NYT piece that is characteristically entitled

What Liberals Can Learn From Ron DeSantis

Normalizing far-right policies and ideas

Typically, these pieces aim to normalize the ideas and policies of far-right politicians. If so many people vote for them, then surely, they can't be that extreme. Or, as Paul writes "It would be easy to write off DeSantis as a cartoon culture warrior or as racist, homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic.” But we really shouldn't because they're so appealing.

Then comes the closely related second idea: "It would be foolish to characterize all his followers as such. Assuming a stance of moral superiority will do us no good. (See: Hillary Clinton, “deplorables.”). So: if you are against homophobia, transphobia and anti-immigration rhetoric, then you do not have the moral high ground. Imagine all those voters, surely so many can't be wrong? Or can they.

The "real concerns of the white working class"

Car factory in Sunderland

Paul puts her cards on the table when she writes "“…But we should also be attending to the real concerns of people living in areas of heavy immigration” So, these supporters are not racist. They just really are burdened by all those immigrants.

This is a standard move in this kind of opinion piece. Basically, liberals are being berated for not understanding the “real concerns” of the people who vote far-right politicians into office, such as immigration, trans rights that advance (too quickly in their view). A classic user of this tactic is David Goodhart with his distinction between the cosmopolitan, liberal "anywheres" and the authentic, real "somewheres". In this view, populist backlash is a bottom-up phenomenon led by people for whom e.g., transgender rights, helping refugees etc is all too much and all too fast.

However, this makes an unwarranted move from “these policies and views are electorally popular” to “therefore, they’re not extreme and dangerous” or “there is something in those concerns that we need to address”. “Real concerns” speech tends to paint electorates as homogeneous blocks (usually white, often working class). But it doesn’t work in ways I’ve detailed elsewhere.

In the UK, for instance, voting Brexit was strongly correlated with anti-immigrant sentiments. But it is hard to find any correlation between levels of immigration and Brexit (as well as voting for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in France). Moreover, areas with high levels of immigration such as London voted remain. There is a large literature on how more contact with immigrants makes people less, not more, xenophobic.

So, it’s prejudice we need to look at. Why is it there, how come politicians can build entire platforms on that? It is really important to look at their tactics. That is, not to emulate them but to understand them and to see what we can do in response to them. Fortunately, we have a lot of empirical evidence on how prejudice against outgroup members works (for DeSantis immigrants, drag queens, “woke people”, trans people etc) since Susan Fiske published “the problem of the century" in 2002.

Understanding prejudice does not require us legitimizing it

Crucially, understanding these prejudices does not require seeing them as legitimate, anymore than understanding anti-vaxers means you need to become anti-vax. You can also claim that yes, being homophobic, banning books and pillaging entire children's libraries hunting for books with diverse content is bad. This is not the same as writing off entire groups as "deplorable" nor is it empty virtue signaling.

It is possible for an entire group of people to go morally wrong without them being all individually moral monsters. There are structural issues and social dynamics that explain how this happens, that we need to understand. To make a comparison with anti-vax propaganda: lots of people fall for it but this does not make it true!

We can hold simultaneously that

(1) Anti-vax propagada and policies aren't evidence-based and do a lot of harm

(2) people become vaccine-resistant or hesitant due to a variety of complex reasons we need to understand


(3) We should not buy into anti-vax propaganda and seek to emulate it in order to reach those people.

It's not only about winning votes but about influencing the voting process

Voters in Georgia waiting in line

Pieces such as Pamela Paul’s also make a fatal error: they put a lot of emphasis on how policies and views are popular, but far-right politicians don’t just win by winning votes. They also pay a lot of attention to infrastructure, and to the broader context, notably

  • they redraw voting districts to their advantage
  • they put in place punitive voter suppressing measures and make it hard for Democrat voters to put out their vote, e.g., with long waiting lines
  • they stack courts with judges on their side
  • they use all the tools available without restraint and keep on doing it, e.g., the filibuster

And here's what I think liberals, moderates, left-wingers and whoever is not far-right can really learn from the likes of DeSantis: do not be complacent! Do not think history will prove you right or move in your direction because you do the right thing. Liberals often seem to think justice will arch toward the good and they’re clearly right. By contrast, reactionaries and far-right politicians might think they are on the right side (e.g., anti-abortion advocates) but their actions do not show it. They do everything they can, use any means possible, even if it goes against the popular will, to push through their agenda

Case study: Brexit — not the will of the people

The Brexit bus

Do you know how the UK now ended up with Brexit, a very politically unpopular policy that is plunging the country into poverty? Is it because Brexit is popular? The standard narrative will say that it is, and like Pamela Paul's piece, that narrative is all wrong.

The standard narrative says that in the UK cosmopolitans/liberals didn’t see the real concerns of (white) ordinary British people. These "somewheres" thought all this cosmopolitan EU stuff was going much too fast, who didn’t recognize their country anymore. Then, the British people finally had had enough and voted for Brexit on June 23, 2016.

The reason Brexit was won was not at all because it appealed to the “real concerns of the white working class”. The reason was that you had a small group of mostly Tory (though there were a few Labor) politicians who were unrelenting in their attempts to get an EU referendum. They did not like it that the UK joined the single market and customs union in the 1970s (which the UK did mostly for economic reasons) and kept on agitating and pressing, until with their lobbying they could convince the then PM David Cameron to put up a Brexit referendum. You can read more about it here in the BBC. Basically, a relentless, sustained, decades-old campaign of Eurosceptics who were at first totally fringe to get Brexit on the ballot paid off.

I have written elsewhere on the “white working class” but just to briefly summarize: in the UK the working class is more racially diverse than middle and upper class Mainly middle-class people voted for Brexit (no correlation btween voting Brexit and being working class. The best predictor of voting Brexit was basically middle-class voters in districts that were hit by the Tory wave of austerity post 2010. The typical Brexit voter is an English, middle-class white older person who saw their local services being gutted through austerity. Brexit campaigners cleverly leveraged that sense of decline in their campaign, which was focused on such things as saving the NHS.

Brexit illustrates that there were concerns BUT these concerns were not caused by immigration, EU policy and all the other things Brexit-proponents hammered on. Rather, the voters were misled into believing this. And there is nothing wrong with saying voters are being misled. This is not the same as calling them "deplorables". Politics is difficult, people do not have the energy or expertise to learn about it, and so we can expect that misleading them happens.

This is what people who try push back against the far-right need to understand: how far-right politicians cleverly use existing diffuse sense of anxiety and dissatisfaction and channel that into prejudices (often already pre-existing) against minorities. It’s really crucial to understand this and not be complacent.

Who needs voters if you can stack the courts with friendly judges?

Anti-abortion protesters

Finally, let me stress how ruthless and pragmatic far-right politicians are. They do not wait for history to bend their way or prove them right. No, they agitate, stack the courts, lobby, use any and every means available to scrape in victory after victory.

There is no better illustration of this than abortion in the US. Dobbs goes against the popular will. A majority of voters believe that abortion should sometimes be allowed (in rape, incest, and some other cases). Yet many states like MO have extreme abortion laws with no democratic consent.

Indeed, in the one place where there was an abortion referendum (Kansas, not a hotbed of liberalism) that abortion bans were soundly defeated. Other conservatives took note and thought well no referenda then!

We have crawled back on abortion not because of a high democratic consent for this but because the abortion ban proponents fought tirelessly to stack the courts, including the supreme court. Just a reminder, the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsberg did not retire while Obama was still in office is a perfect illustration of liberal complacency, an unfavorable contrast with right-wing anti-abortionists who fought tirelessly.

Anti-abortionists may have believed they were on the right side of history. They didn't just sit back to find out. That’s the lesson to be learned.