Our politics isn’t just polarised – it’s facing an existential split │ Jake Scott
Polarisation is becoming something of a zeitgeist in British politics – it’s always been the case that two parties, representing opposing ideologies, have dominated our elections, but the underlying assumptions across the people of this country were firm. Parliament; monarchy; church; family; the basic institutions of the nation were respected. The noisy intellectuals might have been pushing for the abolition of each in them in turn, but the foundations were solid.
Now, however, I worry that the population has been divided in two (not necessarily equal) parts over the very foundational questions necessary for the unity of a body politic.
Conservative theorists discuss the significance of a pre-political identity, stressing that politics is not the thing that holds us together, but manages that which would otherwise pull us apart. But significantly, leftist theorists have discussed this too; Chantal Mouffe emphasises the need for an underlying consensus over “the rules of the game” – it’s important to note that Mouffe references conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott in this discussion.
Political scientists have called this general agreement the “Overton window” – the potential range of a discussion in which productive discourse can take place. The window can shift, narrow and widen as discourse is pushed and pulled in different directions over time. For instance, a topic might begin life “outside” the window, but if enough people discuss it and give it legitimacy, it enters that window – but in an abstract form. Then, as that topic gains legitimacy, it takes on a more solid form, and the window widens or shifts to encompass the topic. That is the broad idea behind the term. But how wide can that window be? Is it elastic, or rigid? Does it mediate the extremity of discourse, or does it take on the radical nature of any topics it encompasses? These questions are central to understanding the term – but what if the window splits?
One of the most influential theories of politics in the late 20th century (and influenced Mouffe, whom I discussed above) came from Carl Schmitt, a German conservative thinker who believed politics was essentially defined by the “friend-enemy relation”. Schmitt was careful to stress that there is no fundamental definition behind “friend” or “enemy” – that each term was entirely relative to the conflict that caused the emergence of the two identities. If, for instance, that conflict was national, then those terms could be defined in national terms – English and German, for instance. If it was economic, then economic class could be the determinants – proletariat versus bourgeoisie.
For Schmitt, the friend-enemy relation presented an existential split. The conflict that had created the two antagonistic camps had become so determinant of identity, that the camps were fundamentally irreconcilable. As Paul Hirst summarised it, it wasn’t that the two sides were disagreeing over an issue; it’s that they were arguing about two completely different issues. Hirst termed this the “gulf of difference”; there is no longer any common ground between the two camps, and the conflict has become existential, in that the identity of one camp must be completely negated (in other words, destroyed).
Schmitt was a product of his time, and believed this existential negation had to be defined by the possibility of violence (and, by definition, killing). Mouffe believes she has found an answer to this theory in the broad consensus argument, but I think she misses the point; there is no possible consensus, because the two camps are either incapable of finding one, or simply do not want to. Schmitt’s solution was the leader, an inspiring individual capable of taking control of the situation and resolving it – by any means necessary. It’s worth bearing in mind that Schmitt was a legal theorist, and underlying his writings is the assumption that the animalistic part of our brains driving us towards this conflict would be mediated by the rational part of our brains that would recognise our relative power in the conflict, and lead us to back down if we were the weaker party.
But what relevance does a 1920s German legal theorist have for 2010s Britain? Well, as I indicated above, I believe we have reached a tipping point, and that the consensuses underlying our body politic has fallen away – the Overton window has split in two.
One of Barack Obama’s enduring phrases was “there is no liberal America, and conservative America; there is a United States of America”. It’s a sentiment I have a great degree of sympathy with, but sympathy very rarely impacts fact. I believe in Britain there is now a liberal Britain and a conservative Britain, with the two having entirely separate (and equally legitimate) conversations, but never talking between each other.
Consider the conservative part. It revealed itself most explicitly in the Brexit referendum, and has been vocal ever since. Note: I don’t mean conservative in terms of party politics, but in terms of an attachment to a particular vision of Britain that has either been openly derided or subtly suppressed in the last forty years; I mean conservative in that it believed in the viability of the nation state, the possibility of democratic accountability within a recognised hierarchy of authority, and the (relatively) loose homogeneity of culture necessary for the classical ideas of democracy to exist. These beliefs, as I say, have been derided, but they are valid, and ought to be remembered as such. And it wasn’t that the EU was painted as a folk devil, but that the EU genuinely did threaten this vision of the world: increasingly pooled sovereignty between nations, the emergence of a transnational governance system, multiculturalism and a fluid economic system.
Now consider the liberal part. Concerns over quite socially important issues – sexism, racism, homophobia etc. – are frequently derided as ‘snowflake syndrome’, that to be so terribly worried about these issues is to be dismissed as a pearl-clutching weakling. But these issues remain significant: sexual harassment is a serious issue, homosexual people are killed for being so, and racially motivated violence remains a problem. When something essential to a persons identity is denied moral legitimacy, it threatens that person’s dignity.
Now the issue I think comes from the fact that, to each of these parts, the subjects discussed by the other is outside of their own Overton window. To a liberal, to discuss immigration as a net negative is beyond the pale, while to a conservative to discuss LGBT rights, for instance, is a slippery slope that will lead down a dark path. Everyone seems to be aware of the danger of echo chambers, yet no-one seems to be aware of when they are in one or not. And the demonization of political opponents only makes the situation worse as, rather than opening dialogue and being prepared to understand our own sides’ errors, we double down.
In essence, we are at a turning point. If we continue down this path, we will see an existential split form between the two groups that will alienate them entirely from one another, and delegitimise each in the eyes of the other. Or we can rebuild our common ground, find that consensus once more and move forward in a positive manner. I think the first step must come from recognising that politics is not everything – that might sound basic, but sometimes we need to go back to basics.