James Johnson is co-founder of JL Partners. He was the Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to the prime minister 2016-2019.
Seconds after leaving a Brooklyn wedding late last Sunday night with his girlfriend, 31-year-old Ryan Carson was stabbed to death. The suspect – an eighteen-year-old black man caught on camera and now under arrest – can be seen damaging scooters before turning to Carson, yelling ‘what are you looking at?’, and stabbing him three times as he fell to the ground.
The attack was random and unprovoked; a harrowing event. But on social media Carson’s life has become just another political football.
His background as a social activist – advocating drug reform and left-wing social policies – has led to influencers on the right to pounce. Figures from Andy Ngo to Nick Fuentes have gleefully put Carson’s death down to his own liberal views, “anti-cop beliefs”, and an image of his girlfriend once wearing an “All Cops Are Bastards” t-shirt.
Thousands have shared the posts; many have said he had it coming. The flippancy (and revelry) for the loss of a life due to political difference alone is shocking.
Of course, arguments about political issues like this after tragedies are normal and healthy. There has been an alarming increase in crime in New York City in recent months, with a disproportionate amount committed by black people. Wider race relations are reaching fever pitch in the city as illegal immigrant numbers and homelessness surge. And all cops clearly are not all bastards.
But here the very worth of Carson’s life has been subsumed by politics.
The story is the same in almost any issue I have polled since moving to the US in March: views are diametrically opposed on party lines. Whether abortion, Ukraine, tax or spend, and even where people choose to live, the divide persists. This is the brutal reality of American polarization.
With public consensus on all those issues, this situation rather puts into perspective our lot in the UK.
But this did not stop some saying that last week’s Conservative Party Conference showed the British right going down the same path. Lewis Goodall spoke of the radicalisation of the Tories as part of a “hostile takeover” of the right, following in the footsteps of the American conservative movement.
Is this really true? Suella Braverman’s speech met the most outrage, but this was a child of immigrants using language no more controversial than that of ministers in the New Labour years.
The Tories’ immigration policy is hardly radical: it is a disincentive scheme, being explored by others in Europe, which has not even got off the ground. On legal immigration, the Conservatives preside over one of the more liberal systems in the western world, with sky-high numbers to boot.
And are we really going to argue that the ‘meat-tax’ is any worse than Labour telling old people there was a ‘dementia tax’ coming for them in 2017? What topped it all off? A speech by a mild-mannered man with a “Dada” wristband on, announcing three technocratic policies on rail, education, and smoking. A regressive, hard-right government this is not.
People like Goodall will argue that this is nonetheless a slippery slope. That even a small step is still a step along a road to the divisive politics of America.
But in both America and Britain it is not the right that run the risk of leading us down that road. It is the left.
Having laid the groundwork for him to win in 2016, the Democrats have remade Trump once more. At the end of last year, the Trump train had ran out of steam. The former president was mired in poor midterms results and the baggage of January 6.
Roll forward ten months and four indictments later, and Trump is topping both the primary and presidential election polls.
Every step of the way, the Biden administration has tried to manoeuver him, who they think is the beatable candidate, into the general election. Rather than lance the boil by announcing a pardon for the former president if he is the Republicans’ nominee, the Biden administration has instead sought to weaponize the legal cases for electoral gain.
Rather than reach across the aisle on a condemnatory consensus on Jan 6, the party took a concerted effort to capitalize on the issue, stirring up divisions by sweeping all ‘MAGA Republicans’ (read: a lot of American voters) into the same bucket as those who stormed the Capitol.
Rather than let Trump wither away into obscurity, Democrats gave him a criminal mugshot to campaign on in Georgia. That ‘mugshot moment’ has been pivotal: our polling has shown that Independent voters felt it was one step too far down the road of political persecution, and now favour Trump over Biden for the first time.
These voters are putting their discomforts about Trump to one side as an us-versus-them mentality takes hold. Can you blame them when they have been told time and again that they are racist, ‘deplorables’, and anti-American for backing Trump? Democrats have not only engineered a Biden-Trump match-up they may come to regret, but have also chosen the path of polarizing the country further rather than trying to bring it together.
The same applies to immigration too. For years politicians – from Clinton through Obama – told Americans not to worry about it. That migration was either a force for good or an act of piety. Disagree and you were sneered at.
City politicians went further, and Democrat mayors opened their gates as ‘sanctuary cities’, loosening restrictions on who can settle there. This willful ignorance of voters’ concerns has prompted fury as the volume of illegal immigrants has now spiraled out of control.
In that fury, more radical proposals have come from the right – from forced deportations to prison cities. In a recent focus group I chaired, one voter suggested putting illegal immigrants in chain gangs to a cheer from the rest of the room. In an absence of solutions or attentions from mainstream politicians – and written off as beyond the pale by the Left – these voters are now searching for more radical, extreme options.
The British situation is hardly one of chain gangs and mass arrests. British Conservatives are setting out mainstream solutions to the problem of uncontrolled illegal migration, which have the backing of much of the public. They will need to deliver, but they are attempting to listen to their voters rather than explain away their concerns.
That is different from the radical right solutions in the US. It is also different from the finger-in-ears approach of Goodall and friends. Another LBC presenter, Shelagh Fogarty, literally hung up on a British caller recently for suggesting there were too many immigrants in the country.
But the more a voice is denied, the louder it gets. If people do not feel like their concerns are being addressed by the mainstream, then they will look to the fringes. This is what happened with Trump in America and is now happening again. This is what happened this week in Germany, where the far-right AfD gained seats over consternation about immigration.
As voters – failed by left and right – turn to the fringes, the voices on both sides grow more extreme. Society polarises and neither side addresses the issues people face. The next thing you know, it has manifested itself in even a disregard for life, manifested in the comments from actual fascists in response to the killing of Ryan Carson.
Britain is not yet America. But if we want to keep it that way, then we must not make the same error. That comes from responsibility from the right, but the liberal left and our journalist class too. By accusing Tories of being ‘far right’ for trying to address voters’ concerns, they only make us more susceptible to the brutal reality of polarisation.
Liberals: the Conservatives are not trying to turn Britain into a far-right state. They are trying to save you from one.