by Ed West
Tuesday, 2
June 2020

Unfortunately, political sectarianism is only going to get worse

by Ed West
Protestors confront Secret Service personnel near the White House

Watching some of the footage from America yesterday has brought to mind the famous 1980 Scottish Cup Final commentary by Archie McPherson.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said as Rangers and Celtic fans fought across the pitch: “these people hate each other.”

Tribalism is in our nature, and as it dies away in one form it comes back in another. The rise of European nationalism replaced older religious divisions and ended in the ruins of Berlin, and since then national feeling has declined among the educated western middle-classes, erased by a globalisation and by its unpleasant and low-status implications.

In its place has arisen political sectarianism — the subject of my book, available in all good bookshops if bookshops were actually open — which is now increasingly tearing America apart just as sectarianism did to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. People who would be outraged at the idea of discriminating against someone because they were Muslim or Hindu think nothing of overlooking a job application if the candidate supports a rival party, dropping someone on social media because of their beliefs or objecting to a son or daughter marrying one of the outgroup. Many, quite clearly, would like to physically harm members of the opposing side, cheered on by their fellow believers across the sea.

Because these patterns of political sectarianism are also present in our own country, although at an earlier stage and with some differences, it’s probably worth looking at what’s been driving it. Jonathan Haidt, who increasingly stands as an Erasmus figure while rival factions become more extreme, listed ten causes a couple of years back. They are:

1) Party realignment and purification,  1964-1992

2) Mass sorting of lib vs. con voters into the purified parties, by 1990s

3) Generational changing of the guard, from Greatest Gen to Baby Boomers, 1990s

4) Changes in Congress, 1995—death of friendships

5) Media fractionation and polarization, since 1980s

6) Residential homogeneity, urban v. rural, 1990s

7) Increasing role of money, negative advertising, 2000s

8) End of the cold war, loss of a common enemy, 1989

9) Increasing immigration and racial diversity, 1990s

10) Increasing education, since 1970s (more educated citizens are more partisan and opinionated about politics)

Of all those, only 4 and perhaps 7 are irrelevant to Britain; all the other trends are ongoing to some degree or another. That’s not to say Britain will go down the same path exactly: Britain doesn’t have the same history of racial conflict as America, even if America’s historical narrative is increasingly taught as ours; likewise being a smaller country might be an advantage in the age of polarisation. On top of this the British are also more conformist, and its conservatives tend to just give up and lose debates about social issues — but I suspect that will start to change.

Overall the trend is towards political division, because politics has taken over the function of religion, and historically when religious groups have battled for the soul of a nation the potential for altruistic evil is almost unlimited.

Join the discussion

  • June 3, 2020
    I’d recommend Yuval Levin’s Time to Build. Looks at ways to increase civic engagement across partisan divides. It’s an American perspective but it’s a very insightful read. As a secondary and more U.K. based point. Social media is setting the agenda in the culture wars on right and left.... Read more

  • June 3, 2020
    How can protests sparked off by the killing of a black man by the police, be so easily placed into the context of another example of sectarian politics?? As for the forces of conservatives sitting in their hands is that really what is happening in the uk? Read more

  • June 3, 2020
    Only a small minority are particularly knowledgeable or interested in politics, one survey concluded that on average, voters devote only a few minutes each week to thinking or discussing politics. Read more

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