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Who is worse company, the left or the right?

And we were getting on so well. I and another guest at a liberal Washington party had been discussing diets for a fun few minutes when I said the key is to avoid exercise. It just makes you hungry. Even writing that down from memory just now, the jest, the lack of seriousness, comes through. Does it not?

“Sooo,” began the response, which is always a clue to stop listening, “the research on this is clear. Exercise is one of the most effective things people can do from a mental health standpoint, besides the physical. Sooo, yeah.”

In retrospect, there had been warnings. The “upspeak”. The glazed eyes and unlined face of the eternal literalist. But you failed to act on them, Janan, and now you’re stuck in 40-degree Virginia heat with this . . . entity.

This column doesn’t ask which side of politics, left or right, has the more credible worldview, or the better record in government. I have another FT slot in which to discuss such small potatoes. Rather, the question is social. Who is worse company? Who, in the end, is ghastlier?

The choice, I think, is between joylessness and philistinism. From LA to New York and DC, eminent conservatives tend to congregate in the least interesting quarters of town. If they live in London, it will be an SW postcode, which is like having the run of the Library of Congress and coming away with a Kardashian memoir.

The name-brand handbags, the high polish on all surfaces: I have penetrated enough of the rightwing scene on two continents to know the chintziness of the style. But then I socialise to the left, meet someone who thinks it is worth saying that they are — is there a phrase less aphrodisiacal? — “sex positive”, and I wonder if it is too late to catch that Mehmet Oz fundraiser.

Both sides have become worse over time. There used to be such a creature as the urbane and even bohemian rightwinger (William F Buckley was at least one of those things). You could love Parsifal, Chassagne-Montrachet and the Strategic Defence Initiative. With the onset of populism in the middle of the last decade, this gave way to sort of competitive basicness. The awful taste and pig-ignorance that were accidental when JS Mill called the Tories the “stupid party” have become tactical: the right’s own virtue-signalling.

I know a disco-dancing Sloane from a grand school who has spent much of the time since Brexit acting the stout yeoman. This natural sophisticate has become one of those men who have you wondering if the words “boor” and “bore” come from the same root. Because leading conservatives are all pretenders at populism — they still don’t have a Pierre Poujade, a true Everyman — the effect is almost poignant, like the class dork trying to fit in with the jocks in a lesser John Hughes movie.

Given that I posed the question, I should stop evading the answer. By a whisker, I find the right easier to be around. But it is hard to ignore their almost physical discomfort when I take them to dine somewhere that won’t do them a rib eye. I go with Silo in Hackney to inflict real trauma.

Political movements are not only or even mainly defined by their ideological content. They acquire over time their own patterns of speech, dress and body language: their own social style. (There is, at least in the US, such a thing as “rightwing hair”.) They become what the political scientist Lilliana Mason calls “mega-identities”. On the left it manifests as a round-the-clock earnestness that is mentally draining to be near. On the modern right it is that man-on-the-street pretence allied to clueless, bovine wealth.

Look, I know this reads like so much centrist chauvinism: the narrowness of a man who grew up in the most vanilla political age of all time. But hear me out. I am not saying that all people to the left of Tony Blair or the right of John Major are harrowingly ghastly. I am not saying that all of them are.

Email Janan at [email protected]

Summer Books 2022

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Tuesday: Environment by Pilita Clark
Wednesday: Fiction by Laura Battle
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Saturday: Critics’ choice

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