The last 5 years have been a showcase in political theatre: people screaming past each other, the devolution of reasoned debate, and the rise of social media mobs who often trade in volume rather than sense.
There has been much talk of unprecedented polarisation and a “divided Britain”. Most of us agree with this assessment and see evidence of it each day.
But what are we polarised about exactly? The assumption might be that we simply cannot see eye-to-eye on issues. This is known as issue polarisation: the divisions around what policies we should enact to deal with various issues, from immigration to the environment.
Tories need not apply
However, there is another form of polarisation that is more important to the picture, and that has been growing in Britain and the US: affective polarisation. This is when individuals begin to distance themselves from those on “the other side”. They will distrust and dislike anyone on the other side, regardless of where they stand on the salient issues. If you’ve used a dating app in the last few years, you might have seen people adding political prerequisites such as “won’t date a Tory”. This is affective polarisation in action.
In the US, affective polarisation correlates strongly with political party:
Source: Braver Angels, which draws on Pew Research.
In Britain, the story is different. In 2019, a review entitled Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK investigated the issue of polarisation and found some surprising conclusions.
The authors stated that the number of people in the UK who strongly identify with a political party has sharply decreased—from nearly 50% in the 1960s to a meagre 9% in 2018. But 44% are “strongly identified” as either a Remainer or a Leaver.
Another important finding was that of “partisan dealignment”, which is not a medical procedure, but rather the loss of allegiance to an existing political party without developing a new allegiance to replace it. This is a strong pattern in the UK, but not the US.
In short, Brexit became a bigger deal for people than the wider political parties themselves, and identities around Brexit formed at incredible speed.
This is probably not a surprise to most people, but what is interesting is that despite the loathing between Remainers and Leavers, issue polarisation has decreased. This is one area where there is less of a divided Britain than we might assume.
...there are many aspects of attitudes and identity in the UK that are converging rather than polarising, such as views on key public policy challenges such as health and social care, and on issues such as gender roles, homosexuality and racial prejudice. Evidence of ‘issue polarisation’ is therefore less clear-cut.
The study is worth reading in full if you’d like more detail, but the question I want to linger on is this–is it good or bad that we are affectively polarised, instead of issue polarised? If our views on the salient issues are converging, why do we still steer clear of people on the "other side"?
If affective polarisation has a home, is it surely the Internet. The comments section of popular news websites and Twitter threads are where affective polarisation thrives; amplified and delivered instantly to a screen near you.
Social media is often spreads via controversy and outrage, and posts that create a sense of disgust or disapproval spread quicker than the less exciting stories of reconciliation. When it comes to news outlets, one of their primary motives is to capture and redirect your attention, largely in the direction of advertisers. Stories that rile up divisions are much more effective at this. Again, it’s easier to resent the other than to find some common understanding.
Here’s how it often works: The News finds one outlandish story representing someone on the far side of one political spectrum, let’s say a Left-wing academic. They post about it, and the other side take the bait: “Idiots! Woke! Snowflakes!”. The Left see the response of the Right and conclude that the bigots will never change their ways. The two sides react to the other side's reactions and—ta-da!—an affective gulf has been widened with no actual human interaction.
Just as microphones respond to their own feedback in a painful squealing crescendo, so too do political opponents see themselves and further and further apart when reading stories of their apparent counterparts.
Another common recipe prevalent in online news is to claim that some TV show, advert or statement caused “outrage” or a “furore”. When you dig in to find out where this mass of anger originated, it turns out to be 3 people who replied to a tweet. 3 tweets, out of the entire voice of the internet is not even a fart in the interwind. Once again, the screech of feedback intensifies through a narrowing of focus on the actions of a small group.
The structure of social media and the means of filtering who and what see in your feed also leads to the much-discussed echo chambers of modern politics, where it is easy to find stories that reinforce your beliefs, and rare to see anything that contradicts them.
If what we’re really experiencing is more an affective than an issue polarisation, isn’t this bad news? Isn’t the fact that people wouldn’t want their kids to marry someone on the other side of the political spectrum a bigger problem than just disagreeing on how to tackle climate change?
I don’t think so. Affective polarisation is a difference in appearance, not substance: a response to what someone seems to be rather than what they truly think. It is largely performative, often arising when people believe they need to denounce one side to maintain allegiance with their own. In reality, most people hold some liberal views and some conservative views, across a host of diverse issues. These depend on their experiences, personalities and preferences, and this is the soil from which the merit of ideas grows in their minds.
Look up from Twitter and the real world is a very different place: people confidently confront differences every day, accusations of cultural "appropriation" rarely arise when people attend African dance classes or train in ethnic cuisine and on the whole the supposed lines that are so fiercely debated in online discussions do not reach far into daily life.
In truth, many people take lead from those who they see as like themselves. They see others who they believe to be caring and compassionate, and then they look to the political ideas they hold. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but rarely do they dive into the merits of the ideas themselves: they conclude that "good people believe these things. I am a good person, and therefore this is what I believe". When we understand this process, we see something more fundamental driving it: the need to belong, to be understood, to be heard.
Bridging the affective gap
How can we stop the tide of affective polarisation?
In short, we have to develop an awareness of treating people as political abstractions. We can reason about and denounce ideas, but we should take more care when judging the content of someone's character by their political appearance. You don't know what roots that narrative grew from, and neither do you know which direction that narrative will turn next.
One person who has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues is Chloé Valdery, who I mentioned in More black voices to pay attention to. Her Theory of Enchantment focuses specifically on compassionate anti-racism based on the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.
Chloé uses pop culture, including lyrics from Kendrick Lamar to Beyoncé, to highlight the ideals we gravitate towards and what it means to have a strong identity; what it means to be human. The Theory says we can’t understand the complexity of others without understanding ourselves, and that we cannot value others until we value ourselves.
She proposes 3 principles to always bear in mind when we discuss politics, regardless of what political standpoint we inhabit at that time. I think these are 3 of the most succinct ideas we should return to when trying to discuss politics with others, or really when engaging in any testing interpersonal dialogue.
The 3 principles
1. Treat people like human beings, not political abstractions.
When we talk with others, we are talking with full human beings, not just political labels. If we see that person only through the label then we are not truly communicating with them at all. Furthermore, the label hides the fallibility that lies within each of us: the potential to build and the tendency to destroy; the desire to know the truth and the easy myopia that stops us way short of our ideals.
2. Criticise to uplift and empower, never to tear down, never to destroy.
You can criticise someone to knock down their argument, or you can criticise in a way that shows that you recognise that person's potential to know and embody the truth. Guess which one leads to greater trust and better dialogue? When we criticise to empower, we are saying: "you're better than that. That idea is selling you short"
It's the difference between:
That idea is stupid
I'm not sure that belief does justice to your convictions—how does it answer the question of...?
I wondered about that too, but for me it overly simplifies x and so I started wondering...
I think you can do better than that—what you're saying is more than that idea.
Fundamentally, these responses show that you see the potential in the other person.
3. Root everything you do in love and compassion.
This last principle can sound fluffy or idealistic, but it comes down to the recognition that you don't know why someone is judging or accusing you.
You don't know what is driving that judgement or anger. Love in this context means putting down your weapons, and not returning fire with greater judgement. When you're being judged, it means someone is seeing you as just a political abstraction, and the way to move beyond that is to see them as more than that. You must demonstrate how you wish to be treated. The goal is not to butter them up so they agree with what you believe; it is to re-establish a channel of empathy so that disagreements are rooted in something real, something you both care about.
True conversation (not just an "exchange") requires vulnerability: showing the part of yourself that is prior to your beliefs. If you can't do that, why would your partner?
The narrative of polarisation dominates coverage of the global political landscape and turns people against each other because of a label they've adopted for reasons that we do not understand. It also conflates issue and affective polarisation, which are two different processes.
Political preferences emerge from individuals who share many of the same needs and desires, particularly the desire to be a good person and to associate with good people. When we get down to that level, to the human level, we find that there is often more that unites us than the headlines might proclaim.
Next time you find yourself in a conversation about politics, ask yourself: am I talking to this person, or am I talking to my abstraction of them? Do I see the potential in this person and do I want them to reach it? Am I being truthful about my own needs and desires?