Long-read

In defence of polarisation

Without political division and conflict, there would be no progress.

David Hutt

Cast your mind back only a few years ago, and remember how easy it was to castigate our politicians for being too similar. Any half-minded observer could recite the claim that the Tory and Labour front benches all looked the same, that they all attended the same public schools and then universities, and muse how only a cigarette paper could be wedged between their manifestos. How things have changed. It is now almost a cliché to say we are ‘bitterly divided’ and our society and politics are too polarised.

It isn’t surprising, then, that a cottage industry has arisen for political commentators who promise to explain how we have arrived at this point of maddening division and to offer their patented advice for national healing. One latest example is Why We’re Polarized, by the journalist Ezra Klein, founder of Vox, a liberal-leaning news site.

As a description of how US politics has changed in recent decades, Klein does a stellar job. In the 1970s, he explains, most Americans split their votes between the two main parties, often switching sides at presidential and congressional elections. Only a minority of the electorate openly affiliated with either party. More than that, neither party was laden with a coherent ideology or manifesto, so much so that you could have the Republican Richard Nixon consider universal basic income and universal healthcare, and the Republican Ronald Reagan grant amnesty to immigrants.

Today, however, America’s two political parties are firmly tribal, with competing ideologies. Voters now dogmatically side with one party come rain or shine, explains Klein, mostly because of ‘negative partisanship’, in which one’s allegiance is born more out of hatred for the other side than love of one’s own.

Another reason Klein gives for the rising tribalism is ‘identity politics’. He employs the term broadly, to indicate the extent to which all politics has become a way of identifying oneself as this or that type of person. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have keyed into this dynamic, and carved out their own niche on a range of issues which mark an individual out as a Republican or Democrat. Indeed, one only needs to be told a voter is, say, a Democrat, in order to be able to guess correctly his or her thoughts on dozens of issues, from the environment to Israel.

Klein performs two other important tasks. First, he shows that Donald Trump is not the reason for any of this. Using statistics, he demonstrates that votes by demographic were roughly the same in the 2016 election as in the previous four presidential ballots. Second, Klein insinuates that politics is only likely to become more tribal after Trump (or in spite of Trump). It will become the new normal in the US.

What strikes the eye, however, is that what Klein describes is essentially the Europeanisation of American politics. Like Europe’s, America’s is now becoming contested by ideological parties with class and demographic ‘bases’, and all-encompassing manifestos, which differ markedly from one another. Personality, that one trusted decider of a nominee’s fitness to sit in the White House (you can change your policies, after all, but not your corrupted personality), has also become less important than a nominee’s policies, as Trump’s victory attests.

Yet, rather ironically, as American party politics has become more European, European party politics is looking more Americanised. The UK General Election in December was characterised not only by the rise of personality politics, as encapsulated by Boris Johnson, but also by the breakdown of voters’ party-political partisanship, and even the ideological footing of party manifestos. A pre-election report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London noted what it called the ‘long-term “partisan dealignment”‘ in UK politics, with only nine per cent of the electorate saying in 2018 that they strongly identified with a political party, compared to almost half in the 1950s – the exact opposite of the trend in the US.

Consensus and bipartisanship, almost by definition, favour the status quo

Just look at the working-class support the Tories received in the General Election. Many of these voters would once always have voted Labour. But no more. And one of the reasons for the Tories’ success in winning over historically Labour-voting constituencies was because of their protean, barely ideological positions, promising social-democratic policies to the North and business-as-usual to the South. Labour, having revived, and batted on, an unwavering ideological footing, had its worst election result since the 1930s.

There are two key problems with Why We’re Polarized, however, both of which are shared by many others who chastise our polarised society today.

The first lies in its historical shortsightedness, with Klein only going as far back as the 1950s. This does serve a purpose, though, since it allows Klein to start from a moment when the US party-political system, between the 1950s and 1980s, was less divided than it is today. And this then allows him to paint a portrait of decline, of our descent into polarised hell. But if this timeframe is expanded, we find that the period of relative consensus after the Second World War was momentary. We see, for example, that the Republican-versus-Democrat dichotomy was carved out in the 1860s over the rather polarised issue of slavery and the expansion of slave states. So polarised was American politics, of course, that it led the US into the Civil War. Or, look at the issue of America’s imperial expansion decades later – this also drove the two parties into ideological camps that were just as antagonistic as they are today.

The other, perhaps more serious problem lies in Klein’s inability to see anything positive in polarisation. Partly this is because of Klein’s rather technocratic idea of politics – he states from the outset that his book is about systems and structure, not ideas. Hence, as Klein sees it, polarisation gets in the way of smooth, efficient governance. But by overlooking ideas, he overlooks the substance of polarisation.

Besides, even if America’s political-party system was less tribal in the 1950s, or even the 1960s and 1970s, American politics was hardly less polarised then it is today. And that was no bad thing. Polarisation existed precisely because there was a conflict within society, a battle of ideas. There was opposition to the Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation in southern American states; there was opposition to the Vietnam War; and there was a growing struggle for women’s reproductive rights, writ large in Roe v Wade. The likes of Klein might wish that such conflicts were resolved consensually, without fighting. But that’s not how political change is won. Polarisation is a mark of a struggle for something, and against those that want something else. It is the handmaiden of progress.

Think of Martin Luther King agitating for civil rights against the pro-segregationist views of someone like Throm Sturmond, a senator for South Carolina. Surely it was right for MLK to sow division and foster polarisation. The same goes for the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. Would one really have wanted a consensus position to have emerged, a sort of Apartheid-lite, where whites still automatically ruled but blacks had a few more political rights? Of course not. One side had right at its back – and it was desirable that a bad idea, and a wretched political and social reality, was defeated.

And what exactly is the alternative to polarisation? Apathy? Less debate in society? The creation of a harmonious one-party state where the extremes are tempered and only the most cordial of ideas are allowed to be discussed? After all, consensus and bipartisanship, almost by definition, favour the status quo.

History suggests that the desire to end political polarisation usually leads not to compromise, but to the victory of the more aggressive side of the argument. One of the most glaring examples of this was President von Hindenburg’s decision in 1933 to appoint Adolf Hitler as chancellor, as a quick and (so Hindenburg thought) short-term solution to the political instability of the Weimar Republic. That clearly didn’t work out as intended. Neither did British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeal for consensus and stability in Europe by gifting Hitler the whole of Czechoslovakia.

Moreover, when critics of polarisation urge consensus, whose consensus do they mean? After all, one doesn’t build a bridge from the middle of a river. A so it is with the building of a consensus. It emerges from between two sides, with both trying to present their respective positions as the correct and therefore consensus position. So when a politician, activist or commentator intones that we are too polarised, the necessary response ought to be, ‘fine, let’s find a consensus, but you drop your most cherished beliefs first’. The automatic reply to this, as you might imagine, would be ‘no way’.

It is only through debate, even of the most fractious sort, that we hear and test our own ideas

Herein lies the essential contradiction one finds among those who lambast polarisation: they believe, at the same time, that it is wrong for our society to be so divided over important issues, yet they remain committed to their ideals. In a sense, it is to believe both that lurid black and white must give way to reputable grey, except when it comes to a subject that matters to you. For then your white must triumph over their black.

So, contrary to those who talk fearfully of our ‘divided society’, we ought to embrace our polarisation instead. We should see it as a strength, not a weakness, that there is such division over important issues of the day. Perhaps it might be softer on the ears if instead of ‘polarisation’ one spoke of ‘pluralism’ or ‘divided opinion’ 𔂿 or even of ‘dialectic’. For sure, we need to be better at talking and debating with those with whom we disagree, and to bring more civility to proceedings, but there is an important distinction between conversing with one’s rivals and moving your own opinions closer to theirs.

Not everything is composed of shades of grey, and some issues really are black and white. It may not be pleasant, moreover, but progress comes from conflict – though not specifically of the violent sort. And, yes, we may be seeing the rise of the far right in Europe, but this polarisation provides us on the other side with a new fight. If liberalism, tolerance and Enlightenment ideals cannot stand up to these challenges, there ought to be some interrogation as to why. It’s useful to test your ideals once in a while to see just how resonant they are. After all, it is only through debate, even of the most fractious sort, that we hear ourselves.

What’s more, the polarisation of opinions is much needed in Britain today. It is abundantly clear that the main dividing line of class, which has defined our politics from the 1920s onwards, is no longer of much use. One alternative schism coming to the fore is that between the city and the provinces, which may well redefine our political make-up. But others may spring up, too. Gender politics, while insipid at the edges, has achieved remarkable progress. So, too, have arguments over race.

You may hear appeals from politicians for society to ‘come together’ and unite. Exactly what we are supposed to unite over is never really explained. Perhaps the reason why neither the Tories nor Labour have been able to work themselves back to a centre ground is because neither knows exactly where it is. Former minister Rory Stewart has tried to find it for the Tories, though his main stance seems to be that government should give way to management, which is in equal parts naive and cynical. Labour’s new leader Keir Starmer is trying to do likewise, and reclaim such ground for Labour, but his approach so far seems to be limited to taming some elements of the Corbynista left while moderating the residual economic policy of New Labour. Starmer’s centre ground, like that of its other would-be explorers, is in fact a bland centre of dulled edges and muddied waters. It is a retreat, not an advance.

As a journalist who, until recently, reported from Asia for five years, mostly in one-party states, and who then returned to Europe and found so much fractious debate, I actually feel optimistic. Try reporting for years from communist-ruled Vietnam, where there is only one political consensus – and that is what the party says it is. That is the real opposite of polarisation.

The late Christopher Hitchens frequently told the story of telephoning his friend, Israel Shahak, the Polish Holocaust survivor and political dissident, who lived in Jerusalem. When Hitchens asked, ‘How are politics developing?’, Shahak would reply, ‘There are encouraging signs of polarisation’. It is a sentiment we would do well to remember.

David Hutt is a Czech Republic/London-based journalist, covering Europe-Asia relations and European politics.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Edson Carvalho dos Santos Filho

6th May 2020 at 5:59 pm

Very well said: “we need to be better at talking and debating with those with whom we disagree, and to bring more civility to proceedings”. It’s what we need today. BUT I see polarization as division, not absence of consensus. The great point of it all is not to come to any extreme: neither total agreement, nor total disagreement. Disagreement is necessary, but may become very harmful if it comes to some extreme. Your statement: “Not everything is composed of shades of grey, and some issues really are black and white” lacks some example. I think that, in nature, everything is made of shades of gray. Even the atom is composed of quantum particles. Nothing in life is bad for it own. What makes things good or bad is the absense of balance, equilibrium.

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19th April 2020 at 3:14 pm

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