Leave or Remain. Nationalist or Unionist. Pro or anti pineapple on pizza. Human beings are naturally groupish creatures who tend to like those who agree with them and often dislike those who don’t.
Rising polarisation and hostility between groups has become the subject of intense study, principally in the US. It would be comforting to write off this growing body of research as being overly alarmist and not so relevant in a European context. Of course, the US and UK do have profound differences, from the money in politics to the politically-appointed returning officers or the politicisation of the Supreme Court. The Economist’s Duncan Robinson recently made a plea for Brits to to look to Europe for examples to inform our discourse. But when it comes to polarisation the evidence is less cheering. Many European countries including Greece, Spain and Portugal have recently reached levels of polarisation that exceeded the US.
In polarised times groupishness can affect people’s judgment in unexpected ways. If you’re a doctor, the course of treatment you recommend for a patient may well be influenced by your own politics and perception of their likely political leanings. If you’re a manager, the same consideration will shape your hiring decisions – more so, in some circumstances, than considerations of race. We select those we choose to listen to, from individuals to the media, according to their political viewpoints. We are less likely to believe a criminal allegation, such as one of sexual assault, if it’s brought against someone who belongs to our ingroup. There is no part of our lives, in fact, that goes untouched by the influence of these identity-based partisan labels. So insidious is this that often we’re not even aware it’s going on.
We can all view ourselves as holding multiple identities that may crosscut one another: ‘mother’, ‘British’, ‘nurse’, ‘progressive/conservative’. As these identities become subsumed within labels that carry with them implications about wider attitudes and values – for example, ‘gun owner’ or ‘quinoa eater” – they can make us feel either attraction to or repulsion from others. These forces can be so strong it has the effect of creating otherwise unrelated divisions. So issue-based differences rapidly become differences of social identity. When that happens, people increasingly dislike and distrust those from an opposing side, irrespective of whether they disagree much on a specific issue. Feelings become more important than facts. Partisan labels come to act as proxies for differences in beliefs, values and behaviour that go far beyond political considerations.
This matters because polarisation distorts our perceptions of the world. Italians believe unemployment rates are more than four times higher than they actually are. British people overestimate the immigrant population of the UK by 54 per cent. People think they hold accurate views, but the odds are that they don’t. They believe themselves able to process and evaluate information objectively, but in reality we all struggle to do this, particularly if an objective assessment would place us out of step with our group. Consider the findings from users of Voter Advice Applications. These guide people through a series of questions on political issues from free trade to environmental protection, before recommending the party that is the best fit. These apps have been used millions of times and across continents. But there is evidence that being told the party you are nearest to on policy has no effect on users’ ultimate voting decision. Policy agreement is often drowned out by wider group perceptions.
So why do we do it? Why do we continually group ourselves and others in this way? Prehistorically, this tendency helped us survive. Membership confers a feeling of safety and helps us make sense of the world. It also brings significant emotional benefits in the forms of pride and self-esteem. It reduces uncertainty. At the same time, it fulfils the natural human inclinations to, on the one hand, be superior and win, and, on the other, denigrate and defeat. Broad partisan labels that identify ‘us’ – the ingroup – and ‘them’ – the ‘out-group’ – are bandied about in all sorts of contexts, and not just political. Our loyalty to the group poses a huge challenge to society, causing us to interpret the same sets of facts in entirely different ways, and creating entirely different visions of the same realities.
The question is, where does polarisation leave the intellectual diversity that leads to innovation? Or good governance and decision-making? A society in which trust has broken down can be simultaneously volatile and ineffective. Healthy conflict – where different views can be aired, debated and resolved – is a vital part of how we live, and it occupies a place at the core of a modern democracy, but there are huge risks if partisan conflict becomes all-encompassing, as it eliminates space to engage across the divide.
Are societies destined to pull further apart, or can they find a way to bridge the divide? That is the fundamental question our book Poles Apart seeks to answer. To understand why it is such a knotty problem to both grasp and resolve try asking yourself the following questions:
- When was the last time I changed my mind on something substantial?
- When was the last time I challenged myself on why I think what I think?
- When was the last time I spoke to someone who has a different political or world view to mine?
- Does anyone in my circle of friends have a different political or world view to mine?
We expect some of these questions will give you pause for thought. It ties together how our beliefs are formed, how those beliefs influence and are influenced by the groups we belong to and form, and why an ‘us-and-them’ dynamic is so often created. One element of that is the comforting myth that, both as individuals and as members of a group, we are the enlightened creatures we like to believe, and that those who sit in the opposite camp are ignorant, unquestioning slaves to a false view of the world.
But our behaviour is a product of both how our brains function and the environment we are in. Our propensity to polarise is increasing, thanks to socio-economic circumstances, technological changes and a rising sense of uncertainty deepened in numerous financial shocks, which have left many people financially insecure and exacerbated the divides between the haves and have-nots. Access to ever-increasing quantities of information, often of dubious provenance, has made us more reliant on messengers and less able to evaluate a message. Trust in our institutions has plummeted, opening the door to populist leaders and governments that offer to step in and fill the void. Our online world, while creating the opportunity for many new networks and connections, has also set up virtual barriers and a distancing that allows us to reject or avoid, rather than engage with the views of those with whom we disagree. To make matters worse, the partisan online world has been monetised, rewarding those who put out emotionally charged content designed to attract attention.
But a continuously worsening picture isn’t inevitable. Polarisation has risen and fallen back before. What we need to ask is – what can we learn from that? How can we reshape our institutions, our groups and, ultimately, ourselves? Leaders can share power with those from other groups, as Suárez did in Spain in the aftermath of Franco. Political parties can act as effective bulwarks of authoritarian leaders who have little respect for democratic norms, as the GOP did so effectively with Henry Ford in the 1930s and failed to with Trump. Policy can support the creation of spaces of common ground (the closure of pubs in the UK has been tied to a growth in the far right) and ways to express opinion. Political leaders, such as those behind the Friends of Europe project, can reaffirm norms that support constructive political engagement across the aisle. A challenge with complex problems is they have complex solutions, but our brains still prefer to engage in the storytelling trope so well deployed in Star Wars of a literal “dark side”.
It’s easy to take a pessimistic view of our polarised and polarising world. It’s certainly the case that division will never go away completely. We should not expect it to and actually, nor should we want it to. A degree of division and disagreement is healthy. It stimulates debate and innovation and challenges groupthink and a desire for the status quo. For some, particularly those structurally excluded from access to the levers of power, adopting a more extreme position is a crucial weapon in what for them is a limited armoury of options to bring about change. But, without a doubt, a high level of polarisation can be destabilising and dangerous. It’s this we have to counteract. Arguably, though, since we are all part of the problem, we all have the capacity to be part of the solution.
This is an edited excerpt from Poles Apart by Ali Goldsworthy, Laura Osborne and Alexandra Chesterfield, published in paperback by Penguin at £9.99