Ben Ryan argues that political identities are becoming more embedded and divisive, characterised by tribalism and lacking in vision. 31/07/2019
If any myth ought to have been thoroughly quashed over the past few years, it really should be that politics is a rational process of discernment to find the best way of organizing public life. If that were ever the case, it certainly is not now. The tribal divisions in our public and political life are not about conflicts over considered choices on the future of the country, nor even about clashes of principle and values. Instead it has become existential — politics is now a matter of identity. Crucially it is arguably the only form of identity which seems to be becoming more divisive and embedded, rather than less.
If that seems overblown, consider the fact that research has shown that people (particularly in the USA, but here in the UK too) have become far more entrenched in their partisan political identities over time. In 1960, only 5% of Americans (equal in both parties) said it would “disturb” them if their child married someone from a different political party. In 2010, it was up to 33% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans. The UK situation is less stark (or at least it was in 2016, when 28% of Labour voting parents and 20% of Conservatives said they would be upset according to YouGov. I would hazard a guess that the fallout from the referendum and last three years of political chaos may have exacerbated the situation since.) Marrying into the wrong political tribe is now significantly more controversial than marrying into another race, religion or nationality.
What is striking about this new partisanship is how negative it is. It is not that the left and right have become more attached to their own side (quite the reverse in fact, they are more likely to be disillusioned with their own side than they have ever been before. In the UK, 2018 marked a two–decade low for both Labour and Conservatives in “enthusiastic supporters”.), but they have taken on increasingly striking levels of hate towards the other side. A report from More in Common found that Americans were consistently wrong about what the other side of the political aisle believed. Their ‘mental image’ of the other side was a gross caricature fit only to be mocked or despised. This makes for a dangerous cocktail in which political identity has become more important to people, indeed essential to their own sense of self and the other, but also strangely empty, defined more by the extent to which we hate the other side than to which we believe in our own.
Critically, this trend of increased tribalism is not, in fact, increasing across all forms of identity. The good news is that, so far as can be ascertained, we are getting less racist and xenophobic. People are happier than they have ever been with the idea of their children marrying someone from a different ethnic, religious or national background to themselves. Recent studies have shown that young white Americans are much less likely than older generations to express prejudice towards minority groups, and that such prejudices are in decline among all age groups; support for segregated schools among white Americans, for example, is in significant and rapid decline. Other research has shown that implicit bias against minorities (with the exception of the obese) seems to have been reducing across the board in the 2010s. Here in the UK, despite the spike in hate crimes immediately after the referendum, overall people are more positive about immigrants than they were before the referendum. Again, other statistics show overall levels of racism to be in decline. The evidence of implicit bias is important. It is not just that PC culture is chilling the extent to which people express racist, xenophobic or sexist views, but that those views themselves are genuinely in decline.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still serious (even fatal) examples of hate crime, or that racism and xenophobia don’t remain serious problems, often with an institutional basis. However, it does mean that the largest area where intolerance is becoming much more uniformly mainstream, rather than less, is in the realm of political identities. Identity politics is much discussed, but on the whole the only form of identity which seems to be getting more embedded and more divisive is political identity. Criticise someone’s politics and you’re not debating any more, you’re attacking their very soul.
The easy mistake is to assume that this is a matter of a lot of stupid people being easily misled due to an inability to critique their own beliefs or to process partisan media information. This is not so. In fact, the better educated you are, the more likely you are to vilify and reject the opposite side. The more numerate you are, the more likely you are to twist the data and evidence to fit your own preconceived partisan bias. This is tribal warfare as driven by the educated elites.
If contemporary political identity is primarily negative (a hatred of the other side, more than a vision of anything, or any transcendent ideal), then we haven’t simply replaced religion, or national identity, or race, or any other pre–political identity with an equivalent modern, rational identity. We’ve committed our most intimate identities, our souls, to a purely destructive end.
So what is the solution? Two come to mind, neither of them small undertakings.
The first is to break our political model, a process that British politicians have been unconsciously going about for ages anyway. The positive of the Brexit fallout is that it has broken open at least one tribal divide (since Remain and Leave transcended the Labour/Conservative, Left/Right distinctions and look to be shaking the traditional base of both parties), even if for the foreseeable future it has just replaced it with a new binary. Sometime in the 2050s, when the Irish backstop has been resolved and everyone has stopped pretending to be an expert on WTO rules, perhaps the snapping of those political tribal loyalties might open up a space for a new, less binary political model which lessens the chance of a simple “us and them” dynamic. That is a hope, and there is some reason for enthusiasm that representative party democracy is becoming ripe for a period of rupture and reform. The more we can break the sense of politics as a simple choice between two sides, the harder it is for it to become an overwhelming identity marker.
The second, and no less contentious, is that the path to breaking the grip of politics on our souls is to re–empower other forms of belonging and identity. As nation, faith and other pre–political identities have been consciously or unconsciously side–lined as acceptable features of public debate so politics has taken on an ever greater importance. Such identities carry their own dangers, Yascha Mounk has referred to them as a “half wild animal”. Yet the full suppression of such identities does not defuse conflict (as this new political divide has proven); it just prevents any positives from pre–political identity being used to empower anything positive. This is an obvious lesson from history. Those regimes that have suppressed particular ethnic or religious identities have very rarely succeeded in eliminating those identities, and have often felt the disastrous consequences of that failure later on (Yugoslavia is a common example, but plenty of others are available). The depth of feeling, intellectual resources and sheer history of these identities is a counterweight to the relatively empty, shallow negativity of contemporary politics. If political identity is not to be all–consuming, it needs rival claims to identity. What better than the ones we already possess?