Unfortunately, political sectarianism is only going to get worse
We are seeing this on both sides of the Atlantic
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.”
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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.
I desperately hope you are wrong and that this is just a blip, but I fear you are right. Looking at the comments on both the Guardian and the Telegraph is a case in point. I would have assumed that these readers are relatively educated and informed people, and yet the sneering and derision aimed at anyone who holds differing views is quite depressing.
Agreed. I used to enjoy the comments section of the Guardian prior. Sure it was mostly left leaning as you would expect but there was some decent debate and commentary from lots of perspectives.
I now dip in and out of the news content – but look elsewhere mostly
Agree with all of the above. The journalism has also slipped in standard everywhere, but especially in left leaning papers. Very one eyed. Even the FT is becoming more obvious in its party affiliations.
You have missed the most important cause.
The decreasing respect for democracy.
In the UK, particularly with regard to the Brexit votes and in the USA with Clinton’s “deplorable” label.
Politics does seem to have replaced religion as our way of belonging. In our mostly secular society, politics has ceased to be a battle of ideas and become tribal warfare.
When the Anglican bishops joined the pile-on against Dominic Cummings last week, they seemed oblivious to the irony that their views were only welcomed by the mob because they were devoid of religious content.
Yes, and all this been evident for some time. The only solution is to divide the US, the UK and perhaps the whole of the western world into Conservative and Progressive areas, countries or blocs. The only problem, of course, is that within days the Progressive areas would become new versions of Venezuela and/or Chicago, and all the ‘Progressiives’ would all be clamouring to get into the Conservative areas.
Although we’d end up with all the pensioners 😀
I was impressed by Ed West’s thoughtful and clear description of the divide that is occurring in societies (mine is the USA). So I thought I might provide a comment. It has been some time since I logged in to Disqus and to my surprise found that I (unknowingly) had commented, but to a different article: “Eliminating the Human”; by David Byrne; Aug 15, 2017; TechnologyReview.com [https://www.technologyrevie…] .
So in typical lazy fashion I guess I will just cut & paste that from nearly three years ago.
otto17 3 years ago
“IS IT POSSIBLE THAT LESS HUMAN INTERACTION MIGHT SAVE US?”
My answer is no; it will be our demise.
It seems to me that less interaction is creating more intolerance to the differences between us. And when we are forced into situations now with a “live” interaction with another, we find that we are unable to cope with beliefs/actions different than our own and, increasingly, more negative results to the confrontation are occurring.
We used to learn and practice dealing with the differences between ourselves and others (“sticks and stones may break my bones…”; “put yourself in their shoes”, “go outside and make some friends”, and other lessons my parents tried to teach me). More and more instead of negotiating our way through the differences, we resort to withdrawal, rage, violence, and seeking more government control of anyone who is different.
Thank you Ed West, Good talk.
OK that is the preliminary clearing of the throat, when are you planning to write the article. Or do we have to buy your book
The last time this happened in England we had a civil war. So did the USA. Then each country figured out a way to get along, to bridge the divide between the two extremes, and to agree that jaw jaw was better than war war. We may be reaching the point where enough of us are mad (in both senses) enough to think that war war is the better, or only option. I don’t think religion or politics has much to do with it. The two sides are simply losing patience with each other. Maybe we can arrange a civilized divorce. Or find some kind of galactic marriage guidance counselor. I can’t think of anyone on earth who’s qualified.
11) Disembodiment -Westerners are, for the most, symbol manpultors: infertile and malnourished. Reality is a screen, mainly for entertainment. Action in the world is the dopamine hit from absractions and social media.
Political feeling may be very strong in some people on both “sides”, but this must be seen in the context of the contradictions within these groupings. It is partly the preposterous nature of both “conservative” and “liberal” movements that is driving their vehemence.
Let’s take “conservatism”: does it mean extreme economic liberalism and individualism or does it mean patriotism and “traditional family values”?
Or “liberalism”: does it mean individualism/progressivism and welfarism or does it mean multiculturalism and grievance politics?
Both sides are trying to suppress the contradictions of their own positions by scapegoating their ostensible opponents.
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.
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?
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. It’s incredibly American centric and we (As individuals) should be doing everything we can to avoid following it. It makes almost no sense for people in the U.K. to be tearing ourselves apart about the murder of a man by the police in USA.
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