Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Our Polarized Worldview Politics

As I write this, consider some of the developments we have seen in Western politics in the past few months:
  • The Brexit vote, where support for Leave correlates highly with views on immigration, yes, but also on completely unrelated issues such as the death penalty
  • The Republican Convention opened yesterday in Cleveland. Two speakers referred to Hillary Clinton as "the enemy." Not ISIS, not even "radical Islam," but the rival party's nominee.
  • The near-election of Norbert Hofer as President of Austria, along with possible projections of radical right victories in France and the Netherlands in 2017. All of this is against the backdrop of the Republican Party's nomination of Donald Trump--who has pushed many boundaries both in terms of his rhetoric and his evident lack of qualification to be President.
What is the common thread? I argue in my ongoing research that mass politics in many Western nations is shaped increasingly by one's worldview. That is, one's basic outlook towards basic social and political questions like order versus openness, expression versus conformity, tolerance versus punitiveness. This is an ongoing realignment of mass politics, driven by a confluence of factors, that is more or less complete in different societies. This contrasts with previous generations of mass politics, which were driven more by class or religious identity (i.e., if you were working class, you voted Labour; if you were Catholic, you voted Democrat, etc).

Why is this happening?

I think there are two important developments that made this shift possible. The first is the rise of mass education, media, and other contributors to what earlier scholars termed "cognitive mobilization." Like other strands of modernization theory, earlier proponents of cognitive mobilization thought it would be associated with certain (what they viewed as positive) outcomes: increased cosmopolitanism, reduced party identification, etc. That has not quite worked out as planned. However, what I think has happened is that increased cognitive mobilization allows individuals to connect their own worldviews to their political behavior more easily than in past generation.

The second key development is the economic and social transformations of the past thirty (or so) years, which have eroded those traditional class and religious alignments. Globalization and technological change have resulted in the destruction of many traditional working-class industries, as Western economies have shifted to technology and service economies. The logic of traditional links between social democratic parties, unions, and working-class voters has been undermined as this transformation unfolded. Now, increasingly, social democratic parties find their voters among middle-class public sector workers. Add to these the social changes (driven in part by that cognitive mobilization) on issues such as multiculturalism, minority rights, feminism, and so on.

Put these two factors together--an electorate that is increasingly capable of connecting values to political behavior, while becoming less attached to traditional political alignments--and the conditions are ripe for this sort of worldview realignment.

The third necessary condition to achieve that realignment is an entrepreneurial politician or party, who can successfully mobilize voters on political issues connected to these worldview differences. It's important to emphasize that it 'takes two to tango' in this respect. As center-left parties (or the mainstream in some European countries) embraced minority rights and multiculturalism, rival politicians found that the space was open to draw away previous supporters of those parties by emphasizing the opposite.

In the United States, the Republican Party has done that in waves--Nixon on civil rights and law and order, Reagan on social values, Bush on the 'War on Terror'--each of which drew authoritarian voters towards the Republican Party. (These successive waves are part of the reason that the parties are so deeply aligned by worldview now--at least among white voters). The Trump candidacy is sort of the culmination of that process--a candidate who is supported by a base of social conservative and white nationalistic voters who are most animated by calls to stop immigration and limit the expression of minority rights.

In Europe, the process has unfolded (or not) to varying extent, as the emergence of such a politician capable of mobilizing such concerns is somewhat exogenous. The underlying worldviews are the same, though some of the political issues are specific to the European context: immigration, Islam, and the European Union are the motivating issues (American issues like civil rights, abortion, and gay marriage have had little to no relevance). The best examples to see of this process unfold rapidly would be the Netherlands, Sweden, or Finland, where a radical right politician/party emerges somewhere in the past fifteen years and sees a big surge in support--to the extent that their parties are now the third largest (or better) in those countries.

When one looks at the Brexit vote, one can imagine the possibility of this process unfolding. In many cases, the Leave vote was highest in areas that provided relatively more support to UKIP in the 2015 General Election and that were traditional Labour strongholds, suggesting the potential for a realignment to occur in Britain (or England and Wales, anyway). With both Labour and the Conservatives going through leadership challenges and recriminations, the door would be open for UKIP to seize a lot of Leave voters--but its own institutional dysfunction may prevent that from happening.

Why is it creating poisonous politics? 

The answer, I think, is the indivisibility of politics motivated by worldview. While not wanting to romanticize earlier eras of politics (particularly if one thinks of the brutal labor battles of 1970s-80s Britain), politics oriented around class or even religion was more amenable to compromise. Particularly in the case of class conflict, it was relatively easy to forge solutions that split the difference between workers and business. This was particularly true in the consensus political systems of Scandinavia or Northern Europe, where power-sharing arrangements were institutionally encouraged. It was more problematic in the US, UK or France, but some of that is arguably because of the "winner takes all" of those political systems. Even religion, while susceptible to violent conflict (as in Northern Ireland, for example), was more amenable to a "live and let live" arrangement between rival religious groups--as long as political domination of one group over the other could be credibly prevented. In addition to easier potential solutions (split the difference, or live and let live), both types of conflict made it potentially easier to "see it from the other side."

When mass politics is motivated by worldview, compromise and empathy are more limited. There are two problems at work. First, the issues themselves tend to be non-divisible. Consider, as an example, the refugee crisis in Europe. If you believe that the influx of Muslim refugees represents a threat to your society's security and cohesion, then there is no acceptable number of refugees to which you will agree. As another example, if you believe strongly in individual autonomy and expression, then it is hard to accept any limitation on gay or minority rights. You demand fully equal treatment. These issues are, in each case, fundamental and non-negotiable.

Second, and maybe more problematically, is that the adherents on each side of this worldview divide really cannot see it from the other side. Those concerned about the threat of terrorism and cultural decay from immigration really cannot understand why anyone would advocate admitting refugees given these threats. This lack of empathy makes it easier to assume that their rivals must be stupid, naive, or evil. (This is how Republicans can break into "lock her up" chants directed at Hillary Clinton while Democrats warn that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Vladimir Putin). And, from the other side, supporters of a 'welcome culture' find it hard to see their rivals as being anything other than racist or xenophobic. The same is true if one thinks about the gay marriage debate in the US. Opponents' arguments that it would threaten 'traditional' marriage made no sense to supporters, who would increduously ask how one (same-sex) couple getting married could affect another (opposite-sex) marriage. What they didn't understand is that the threat is to social cohesion--in the view of opponents, traditional marriage is a bedrock value that holds society together; if it is destroyed, what else could follow?

In short, political conflict motivated by rival worldviews, where each side struggles to understand the other, and issues that are largely indivisible (because they are rooted in those worldview conflicts) makes for a difficult combination.

What can we do to reduce the nastiness?

The honest answer is that it is tough. One set of recommendations, offered by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (for example), focuses on increasing understanding of and empathy for rival worldviews. Basically, we should try to learn to understand and accept that different people see the world in different ways that generate different hopes and concerns. Doing this will allow a better understanding that those with whom you disagree are still good people--they have different goals and worries than you do. This is good advice, but there are probably limits to how effective or widespread it could really be. In a similar vein, British political scientists Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin have been pushing the point that the rise of UKIP and the Leave vote reflect a "revolt" by those "left behind" voters who feel that the political mainstream looks down upon them.


Political reform, to the extent that it is possible in a polarized environment, is also a good idea. I noted above that institutional arrangements mattered in earlier eras--strikes were less common in states with consensus political systems, for example. The same wisdom can be offered here. Institutional changes to promote proportional representation and inclusive decision-making would have some benefit.

PR has the benefit of producing parties that reflect their true electoral standing, while doing a better job of allowing wider representation of different worldviews. In the US, Donald Trump (or, I should perhaps say "Trumpism") has taken over the Republican Party, despite the fact that many Republicans don't really agree with his views. If the US had some sort of PR, there would be a "Trump Party" that gained the 20-25% support that is probably a more accurate reflection of the American electorate. Instead, the winner-takes-all system will force many Republicans into a choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and many will choose to vote Trump despite some misgivings. The same is true on the other side of the ideological spectrum, where there are many Bernie Sanders supporters who fail to see that theirs is truly a minority position in the US. PR in this case at least takes away some of the illusion about where you really stand. It also forces your party into the position of either having to compromise (as hard as that may be) or be excluded from governing altogether.

But, given the low likelihood of institutional change (especially in political environments that make compromise difficult), the long answer may be that the same sort of realignments that produced/are producing these changes will come along. Consider the US example: Trumpism, taken to its logical end, does not seem like a winning electoral formula. Instead, it seems a pretty good way to ensure the strong and consistent support of an electoral minority. If that is right, then someone within the Republican Party will figure out how to shift the party's position to appeal to a different set of voters not (as) defined by worldview. In turn, that will reshape the Democratic Party's electoral coalition as well, and a new alignment will emerge. In Europe, the answer may be more contingent on specific countries. Including radical right parties in coalitions can help to legitimize them (and their policies), but it can also undermine their credibility if and when they fail or make ugly compromises in power. Of course, the bigger challenge for the social democratic left is how to offer credible policies (presumably oriented around economic interests) that would retain or win back the support of their authoritarian but economically center-left voters.

Until then, the new politics of worldview may well continue into the future, and it will promise more of the same in terms of polarization.