Lots of people have told me that they believe the current coronacrisis will bring us all together, and heal the current divides in society. Some have gone so far as to tell me that it will make Britain more liberal or progressive.
I don’t think we should make this assumption.
At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious we live in an age of polarisation. We don’t just disagree about opinions, we choose to accept or reject facts based on whether they match our political identities and preconceptions rather than whether they are true or false.
Social media has facilitated this. We communicate in short bursts – simple ideas, not matter how daft, gain traction, while more complex explanations flounder. Short punchy paragraphs.
The proliferation of new media sources, competing in a free market, have encouraged us to believe that we have the right to only hear facts that confirm our identities and prejudices and we throw a tantrum when we are asked to consider things that don’t conform. We feel good when we read a news story that makes our side look good, and the other side look bad, no matter how biased or implausible. The free market has benefited the authoritarian left just as much as the authoritarian right. The Canary, Skawkbox, Breitbart, Westmonster.
All of this sharing of political views on line is about signalling our membership of a particular tribe. Our political views are performative rather than transformative. We aren’t really trying to change the world anymore, we are just telling people which group we belong to.
We rely upon these signals so instinctively that people who don’t embrace wholly their tribal identity puzzle us. Lots of people have approached me over the last few years and told me that on-line I don’t sound like a typical leftie. I don’t say the same things, share the same memes as the rest of the tribe.
That’s because when people join a tribe they rapidly adopt all of the views of the tribe so as not to be ostracised. Identity matters more than ideology. The voters who switched from Labour to Tory over Brexit are shifting their views on all kinds of issues to fit with their new identity, enabled by the total vacuum at the top of the Labour Party. Christian “values voters” are shifting their views to accommodate a crass divorcee as their leader.
Lots of partisan voters don’t even particularly like their own party or tribe, they just hate the other team, and believe them to be fundamentally ethically and morally contemptible. Winning a victory over the other team, matters more than doing anything constructive. Trump in particular is incredbily good at giving his supporters something to cheer about by getting one over on the other team, no matter how illusary the victory
These new identities, facilitated by social media have replaced older identities. The older generation defined themselves by the jobs we did, the industries we worked in. They socialised with their workmates, drinking in the same pubs, watching the same football teams. I say they, but that only really applied to men, woman defined themselves through family and neighbourhoods, which were tight knit and homogenous. For some religion provided an identity, but that is and was rare in the IK.
For lots of people these identities have grown weaker, particularly for older people, who have witnessed this decline. Brexit and Trump are as much about people craving identity and security in a world that doesn’t look they way they think it should. Loneliness, isolation, anxiety and loss of a clear identity are more profound factors in the lives of older people than the rest of us realise. And this loneliness, atomisation, and collapse of traditional identities are powerful political forces, particularly among older people.
Which probably explains why sad lonely Morrissey has become so right wing
While these new tribal identities are enabled by social media they stem from a big demographic shift. The dividing lines aren’t just right vs left any more, they are young vs old, socially conservative vs socially liberal, and workers vs retired/non-workers. These characteristics interlock.
Workers vs Non-workers
45% of the electorate are over-65 or economically inactive (inc early retirement), not including the unemployed or students. Working people rich and poor, are a minority of voters.
Large numbers of voters can vote for policies that are economically damaging – austerity, brexit – knowing that they are immune from the consequences. They know there will be pain, but they also know that it will be other people who will bear that pain, not them. The last 10 years have been the political equivalent of the Milgram experiment.
As the proportion of the electorate who don’t work has increased the tendency to vote for economic pain for other people has risen.
This split between workers and non-workers was pretty stark in the Brexit vote:
And remain voters:
The remain campaign spent most of their time talking about the economic consequences of Brexit without realising that lots of Leave voters knew there would be consequences but didn’t care, because it wouldn’t effect them
Young vs Old
There are 2 tribes on either side of the age divide:
A group of older voters, mostly retired or economically inactive, who are politically powerful, with a socially conservative political identity
And a group of younger voters, who work, who are economically and culturally powerful, with a liberal poliical identity. Brands and companies chase younger, liberal diverse consumers, not retired conservatives.
Older voters are frustrated because despite voting regularly to make the UK more socially conservative, and more homogenous the reverse has happened – we have become more liberal and more diverse. Younger voters are frustrated because political decisions are being made that will damage the economy and which they will have to bear the brunt of, while continuing to support economically inactive and retired voters.
It is largely older voters who enthusiastically inflict economic pain on younger and poorer voters. My dads generation grew up with a well funded NHS, free education, low (or no) unemployment, secure jobs, cheap housing, good pensions, big pay increases and yet have been encouraged to think of themselves as hard done by in comparison to a younger generation who have none of those things. Their sense of grievance towards a younger generation who have none of their privileges if deeply embedded despite being total nonsense. Just because an idea is stupid doesn’t mean that people won’t believe it.
Just like the remain campaign wasted it’s time talking about economics Labour activists spent the last general election telling people that the Tories didn’t have their economic interests at heart, without realising that voters weren’t interested in a class based analysis – they were interested in identity. That’s one of the reasons why Corbyn managed to lose a majority of non-working voters AND working voters for the first time in a generation.
This will end when the demographics shift. This is already happening in the US were older white conservatives are resorting to increasingly desperate methods to rig the system to maintain their political power. The last Republican President to come to power with a majority of the popular vote was George Bush sr in 1988.
We in the UK have this yet to go through, although the obsession on the right with voter registration, and boundary changes is a foretaste for future battles that the left are ill prepared for.
These identities aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Social media is allowing us to create new kinds of community, a new way of belonging in a world that is becoming more and more atomised. I like the networks and communities that I belong to on social media, although I do put an awful lot in, creating content like this blog. And loads of quizzes.
We are entering a long period of loneliness, atomisation and anxiety, and there will be plenty of people who we will be encouraged to blame when things go wrong, which they are likely to. Each side we feel hatt it has been vindicated whether it is closing borders or investing more int he NHS. 3 months of isolation will only make people cling fast to their identities. We might all be Morrissey by the end of it.
Boris Johnson has made some terrible mistakes in his handling of this crisis – the wrong strategy, too slow to order ventilators, not enough PPE, while the damage done to the NHS by austerity inflicted by the Conservative Party is stark and obvious.
Yet Boris Johnson is more popular than ever, and his brand of politics – a mix of spiteful authoritarianism, welfarism and right wing nationalism – will almost certainly emerge as the new consensus. Those who voted for him, particularly those who embraced a Brexit identity, will feel wholly vindicated, and will congratulate themselves on their wisdom, even as they work out what to do with 28 bags of pasta and 200 toilet rolls. Maybe build a papier mache statue of Morrissey?
Instincively I think Trump is in more trouble that Boris. The NHS will bail out the Government, even though they don’t deserve it. Trump doesn’t have the same luxury, and he risks being exposed as the man who made it his mission to trash the Affordable Care Act in the run up to a pandemic.
I leave you with some lines from Marx in the 18th Brumaire:
“the exact combination of circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part“