The deep divide between the people and mainstream politics and media
A dangerous gulf exists in liberal democracies between people’s concerns about their lives, their countries and their future, and the priorities, proclivities and pre-occupations of mainstream politics and media.
When societies come under increasing pressure and strain, as they are today, they tend to fracture along traditional fault lines such as class, religion, ethnicity or race. Those in power promote and exploit these fractures. Profound public disquiet is easily manipulated, and expressed as more obvious or tangible grievances.
So while the inequalities and oppression faced by minorities have their own, legitimate, narratives, they can also reflect something more: liberal democracies today are floundering, seemingly incapable of dealing with today’s civilizational and global challenges – biophysical (eg, climate change), socio-economic (eg, growing inequality), and psychosocial (eg, the crisis in mental health).
This fracturing is especially apparent in America because of its susceptibility to a political focus on racial divisions and antagonism. This emphasis is obvious in recent politics, especially with Donald Trump and the far-right. However, the Democrats also played on these divisions in the sense of using them for political leverage or gain – as revealed in Hillary Clinton’s infamous ‘basket of deplorables’ remark.
A 2020 study, Bowling with Trump, shows how this process occurs. It argues researchers have attributed Trump’s success largely to ‘racialised economics’, where economic hardships are seen in racial terms, not personal; they are blamed on ‘other groups’. But the study suggests that more fundamental to Trump’s support has been heightened anxiety and a lack of social attachment or belonging. This increased racial and national identification, which was politicised as racial prejudice and nationalism.
The authors say their results imply that racial voting behaviour in 2016 was driven by a desire for in-group affiliation as a way of buffering against economic and cultural anxiety. This suggests ‘that the need for relatedness is a key underlying driver of contemporary political trends in the US’.
The Bowling with Trump study also notes that Trump’s supporters have been said to be ‘in mourning for a lost way of life’. Liberal commentators interpreted this nostalgia in terms of historic, white, male privilege. However, this is not the only possible meaning or interpretation: there have been many social, cultural, economic, environmental and technological changes since the 1950s (the oft-cited, historic benchmark) – in income-inequality, work, education, mainstream and social media, relationships, the family, and climate, for example – that have increased a shared sense of isolation, insecurity, uncertainty, risk, and precarity.
These changes fed into the growing and over-arching political influence of postmodernism, with its multiple narratives, relative truths, ambiguities, pluralism, fragmentation and complex paradoxes. A consequence has been a flourishing of conspiracy theories. All this has served to increase the wear and tear of the social fabric.
The danger in the fraying and fragmentation of public debate and discussion is that we lose sight of the bigger picture, and its more fundamental elements, with the result that we are caught up in perpetual conflicts over what are, at least in part, derivative or secondary causes and consequences.
The standpoint of ‘we are all in this together’ offers the advantage of creating more generous and tolerant ways of understanding today’s world, encouraging people to look past the rancour and conflict promoted by politicians and media, a condition that has become so entrenched and ingrained that it appears to be the natural and inevitable order of things.
Surveys show people are aware of the existential risks we face and the need for a radical change of course, a new paradigm of progress. For example, in 2013 I collaborated in a survey that investigated the perceived probability of future threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Across the four countries, over a half (54%) of people rated the risk of ‘our way of life ending’ within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, and almost three-quarters (73%) rated the risk at 30% or greater. Almost 80% agreed that ‘we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world’.
Yet this awareness eludes mainstream politics and media. Our journalistic and political cultures remain stuck in a paradigm that constrains electoral choice and is crippling democracy. The mutually reinforcing cultures of journalism and politics are outdated and dysfunctional, defined by conflict and contest rather than cooperation and consensus; deepening our difficulties rather helping to solve them.
It is this failure that lies behind the unease, mistrust, and disenchantment in the electorate, not just political corruption and incompetence, and policy mistakes. It is part of a layered political complexity, resulting in what I have described as the ‘demise of the official future’: a loss of faith in the future that governments promise, and on which they base their policies.
This demise is causing a cascade of consequences. Our visions of the future are woven into the stories we create to make sense and meaning of our lives. This ‘storying’ is important in linking individuals to a broader social or collective narrative – as the Bowling with Trump study makes clear – and affects both our own personal wellbeing (by enhancing our sense of belonging, identity and agency, for example), and societal functioning (by engaging us in the shared task of working for a better future).
We need to place these fundamental frameworks of how we understand the world at the centre of political debate. Such a debate would be very different from today’s emphasis on ‘issue’ and ‘identity’ politics, whose elements are kept firmly within the conventional model of progress. The interconnected risks facing humanity cannot be solved by focusing only on the discrete, specific issues that characterise and define today’s politics, however legitimate the concerns are in themselves.
In science, paradigms change when they are confronted by a growing body of anomalous and contradictory evidence that they cannot explain or resolve. So it is with politics, which also confronts a growing array of policy failures, unsolvable problems, and bitter divisions – but is struggling to understand or resolve them. We need a new paradigm that better acknowledges and addresses the emerging realities of planetary conditions and limits, and our better understanding of human needs and wellbeing.
There is no reason why political debate cannot be reframed in this way – except for the entrenched cultures of politics and journalism, which are both too ‘short-sighted’ and too ‘narrow minded’. We need to change the ‘idea’ of progress, and to do that we must change the ‘idea’ of politics and journalism.
This article is based on a longer essay published last month in the American magazine, Salon.