The New Political Divide, Part III

The New Political Divide, Part III


If the first part of this ramble was about the expanse of this divide, and the second wondered what opened it, this is prodding at how deep it runs through society.

As political analysts come out of their bunkers try and grapple with what this election really means (beyond the stark fact of President Donald J Trump). We will hear about the need to understand the flyover states, non college-educated whites. Feelings on globalisation and immigration will be used to connect two events that feel very similar without being ostensibly connected. Lines will be drawn to “the rising tide of populism” across various parts of the world, a “western spring” perhaps.

It’s that ephemeral feeling rather than the analytical nuts and bolts that is the most fascinating political (although it feels more cultural than political) development to follow. Not least because it seems to contain an insurgency against analysis itself. In 2008 it seemed that we had solved elections, the models were now so good they should come with spoiler warnings for people wanted to enjoy the suspense of a traditional election night. These results were in so many senses losers being beaten by what they didn’t understand, and winners being surprised by their victory.

Shell-shocked pollsters have thrown out the idea that Trump supporters systematically refused to talk to pollsters they identified with the establishment they opposed (and that is a problem with no easy solution). It’s now impossible to be neutral observers, there are no refs, judges, or scorekeepers anymore. Or rather they’ve found themselves swallowed up by the playing field in may cases against their will.

When political discourse devolves into “if you aren’t with us you’re against us” then everyone is a target, and the defining point of this election (and a major point in Brexit) was whom are you against. The distant dictators of the elites in media and government faced off against the fruitcakes and deplorables with neither having a great interest in understanding another point of view, let alone compromise. The opposition is now the enemy.

I suspect analysis will show a greater clustering of supporters than ever. I mean this both in the geographic sense of precincts but also culturally, as we’ve built our own echo chambers. People don’t just fear the people who vote differently they’re also mystified by them. They don’t think they know people who could think so differently to themselves and can’t work out how you could believe such things. It’s impolite to discuss politics in person so it is sectioned off to online bubbles of personal profiles of people who think alike and in that small consensus lose connection with how anyone could think otherwise. They’re staring at caricatured shadows on a cave wall, horrified by the results produced from a source they can’t comprehend.

The bonds of a society are common experiences and common values. There might be different perspectives but you’re at least looking at the same thing. It’s a common observation that we’ve seen a cultural fracturing in recent years, everything is now on-demand, accessible, and tailor-made. You don’t need to ask if it’ll play in Peoria when you’re aiming your album or tv show at a small select segment of society. When an inherently national cultural event like a presidential election squashes everyone back together again divides are converted into clashes. Familiarity may breed contempt but distance gives rise to de-legitimisation and de-humanisation. The humanity of your neighbour is firmly established in a way that unseen opposing voters you hear about cannot be.

Trump’s victory speech felt like an echo of Margaret Thatcher declaring she wanted to bring harmony to replace discord, with Trump as with Thatcher, harmony seems a long, long, way off.


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