The polarization of politics: Let's mingle more
Under threat in Britain, and almost dead in America, is a sense of commonality, of being part of a shared polity with people we disagree with. We need to preserve it
As a Trekkie I was keen to watch Patrick Stewart, late of the Starship Enterprise, boldly going on the BBC’s Hardtalk. Stewart is a man I greatly admire not only for pulling off the impossible and filling Captain Kirk’s seat, but for an acting career that spans Sejanus in I, Claudius and a hypersexed version of himself in Extras.
So it was disappointing to actually see Stewart in action. I knew he was a Labour supporter; he’s a Yorkshireman and luvvie after all. But he went further. He said he actually feels “uncomfortable” around Conservatives. This was yet another manifestation of a depressing trend. People are increasingly unable to tolerate anyone whose politics aren’t just like theirs.
The trend is further developed in the United States than in Britain. In the US the tone of political debate is frequently poisonous. From the right you have ‘conservatives’ accusing ‘liberals’ of wanting to destroy America. From the left you get ‘liberals’ accusing ‘conservatives’ of wanting to grind everyone else into poverty. To each their opponents are not merely wrong, not simply possessed of a different philosophy, but are actually evil. Neither side recognises any common ground at all with the other.
We have not been free of this in Britain. In 1945 Winston Churchill warned that if Labour won the election Clement Atlee would usher in a British “Gestapo” and opposition to Margaret Thatcher frequently scaled quite epic heights of demented lunacy. It still does.
But this was the exception in Britain, perhaps because figures like Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, John Major, or Tony Blair drew most of their flack from their supposed supporters. Enoch Powell could disagree utterly with both Tony Benn and Michael Foot yet maintain warmer personal relations with either than Foot and Benn could manage with each other.
This has been changing. As the coalition undertakes to slow the growth in government debt so that it only doubles in five years, some on the Left have reacted as though civilization is about to end. Worse, they attribute it, as in America, not merely to error or possession of a different philosophy, but to evil itself.
Polly Toynbee, a trail blazer for the New Nastiness in British political discourse, described the popular proposal to cap Housing Benefit to a still pretty generous £400 a week for a four-bedroom property and £250 a week for a two-bedroom home as the Tories’ “final solution for the poor”, seeing in the cuddly Grant Shapps the echo of Heydrich and Himmler.
I am quite sure that someone of a left wing persuasion reading this will respond that the Right does plenty of it too. No doubt the Daily Mail and Peter Hitchens will be mentioned. And they may well be right. I concede the distinct possibility that both sides are as bad as each other but I shan’t find any comfort in it.
The rhetoric of someone like Toynbee and her counterparts on the Right is harmful. If, for example, you are a Guardian reader who accepts Toynbee’s view of the world then, by extension, you must consider people like me, as an occasional supporter of the Conservative Party, a crypto-Nazi.
If this sounds as ridiculous as it ought to then stick Toynbee in the bin. If, however, you do accept her world view that the coalition is evil and acting out of spite then you can understand why someone like Patrick Stewart would feel uncomfortable around Conservatives, even ones like me who wear plastic pointed ears from time to time. We’re Nazis, after all.
This matters. Democracies work because every few years, at election time, the losing party hands power to the winning party on the understanding that, at the next election, power will be handed back to them if they are successful. This is only possible because the parties consider themselves part of the same polity. If they don’t, if they see no common ground, then the basis for electoral democracy breaks down. In many places around the world elections are accompanied by fraud or violence precisely because this common polity doesn’t exist.
This also gives some clue as to where this bitterness comes from. Governments are now, increasingly, mechanisms by which wealth is transferred around society. Unlike wealth creation, which can generate wealth which didn’t previously exist and make everyone better off, wealth transfer is always a zero sum game; one party can only benefit to the extent that some else loses. Wealth creation creates winners. Wealth transfer creates losers as well.
And, as governments grow, so does their role as wealth transferors, increasing the number of both winners and losers in the zero sum game of government. Bitterness grows alongside.
I have a great many friends who would describe themselves as being of a left wing persuasion so I can see what people like Stewart are missing out on. Because I know lefties personally and not solely from the pages of the Mail I know that they don’t all want to put me in a Gulag run by Harriet Harman. And I hope that, from knowing me, they realise that not all ‘right wingers’ want to feast on the carcasses of the poor. Each of us thinks the other is wrong; neither thinks the other is evil.
What is under threat in Britain, and almost dead in America, is this sense of commonality, of being part of a shared polity with people we disagree with, but who are, for the most part, just as sincere and well-motivated as we are. And we won’t keep it if, like Patrick Stewart, we seal ourselves off from those we disagree with.
We need to mingle more, not less. Unless you think Picard was a better captain than Kirk, then I really will never talk to you again.
John Phelan is a Contributing Editor for The Commentator and a Fellow at the Cobden Centre. He has also written for City AM and Conservative Home and he blogs at Manchester Liberal. Follow him on Twitter @TheBoyPhelan
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