Polarised Politics Makes Society Worse | Matthew Cowley

People with different political views to your own merely have different perspectives on how to make society better, rather than whether to make society better. If you believe that their policy prescriptions do nothing to improve society, or even make it worse, then challenge them on the policies that they propose, not their moral character. If we insist on an antagonised and tribal political environment, then we will only make society inherently worse.

Last week, a 2017 intake MP said that she isn’t friends with people of the opposite political persuasion because she believed that they are ‘ambivalent to the suffering of [her] constituents’. I would posit an alternative hypothesis: she believes that her opponents are ambivalent to the suffering of ordinary people because she isn’t friends with any of them. Those who actively and avowedly avoid social relationships with people of opposite political positions tend to have a fairly two-dimensional understanding of what it means to hold that position.

They make assertions about things they think people in that group believe without any nuance, and largely without being close to the truth. Because they have never had a conversation with a friend who holds that position they have no understanding of why those people think as they do, and they take the easy route into assuming that it is out of self-interest or ignorance, rather than being part of a more complex and three-dimensional set of political prescriptions for how society should run.

The reason that such a lack of understanding makes society worse is simple: it is only through discourse with people who have a different worldview that you can get a fully rounded impression of all of the issues in society, and the ways in which you might solve them. If every party operates in a policy echo chamber then they will isolate half the problem and attempt to solve that, without ever being aware of alternative problems or potential pitfalls in their plans. Worse than not listening, if a legislator truly believes that their opponents do not care about improving people’s lives, then they will dismiss any criticism of their policies out-of-hand, and society will suffer from poorer policy.

The same arguments as to why a government with a small majority is better than one with an overwhelming majority apply to why people need to accept that politics is not good vs evil but rather a group of people who identify different societal problems attempting to improve things. Policy is better when it is calmly and rationally discussed by political opponents, because getting an understanding of how your opponents think enables you to come up with better, more nuanced and more well-rounded approaches to improving society.

Another massive problem of an antagonised political sphere is that genuinely believing that political opponents are ambivalent to societal problems acts as a justification to abuse of those candidates – it is irresponsible of someone in a position of influence to promote such a belief. Believing someone doesn’t care is a requisite for sending them abuse and threats, so a society in which that belief is actively propagated is one where abuse of opposing candidates will become more prevalent. We saw a sharp increase in abuse of candidates of all political persuasions in the 2017 General Election, and such an atmosphere has massive negative implications for policy-making.

Abuse of candidates becoming a part of the political scene will actively put off potential candidates and activists, and may encourage those who do choose to engage in politics to become more guarded. That will mean that it becomes more difficult to get legislators with a wide range of backgrounds and ideas to run for office, and it will weaken the quality of the pool of legislators for voters to choose from. A less diverse and weaker group of legislators again reduces the effectiveness of policy-making, especially when coupled with legislators fearing abuse being much less willing to criticise policies.

Activist suppression is another outcome of polarised politics, which inherently reduces the effectiveness of politics as an institution. There is an attitude in modern politics that being a member of and volunteering for a party means that you support every single thing that party has ever done, unless of course it is the party that the person making the accusation is a member of. Broad-church parties grew out of the knowledge that sometimes your party leadership (and by extension, policy) will reflect a different strand of ideology to your own within the organisation.

Discouraging opponents from joining political parties by implying that they have to support all existing policy to do so is an inherently bad idea. Not only does it mean that the party you disagree with will become more inflexible in its approach, adopting an increasingly narrow ideological band of policies, with fewer contributors to policy discourse blunting its effectiveness and thereby worsening the policies that a government led by that party would pursue, but it also severely weakens your opponents. A strong party needs strong opposing parties in order to remain strong – opposition and finding chinks in policy are a crucial part of policy-making; while electorally weak opponents encourage the party you support to become sloppy (as epitomised, if a case study were needed, by the 2017 Conservative General Election campaign). We need our opponents to be sufficiently well-funded to give the party we support the encouragement to be at its best, and we need them to have sufficient party members to have well-rounded policy discussions.

From an objective point of view, the other reason that we should be actively encouraging our political opponents to join parties links back nicely to the reason you should have friends with opposing beliefs. In an echo chamber, we fail to understand why our opponents act in the way that they do, and in our failure to understand we assume the worst of their intentions. One part of political activism is to go out and talk to people about why they should support a certain party and to provide them with that understanding of why a party thinks the way it does. Good understanding of your opponents is crucial to solid political debate, and a large number of activists spreading that understanding improves both policy-making and tolerance of opposing views.

It is very easy to assume the worst of your political opponents. It is very easy to shun them and construct two-dimensional pictures of their views which fit with our own worldview. Politics isn’t easy, it isn’t two-dimensional, and our own view of society is but one piece of a much bigger jigsaw. In this time of antagonism, if you genuinely believe that members of another party don’t care about improving society, I would suggest going and talking to some of them – you’ll probably find that they care just as much as you, they just have come to different answers to the big political questions.

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