Many so-called liberals are great at diagnosing destructive political tribalism when it manifests in other people, but are often blind to the same pathologies within their own ranks
I wrote a long piece earlier this month about deepening political tribalism as it relates to Brexit. After the piece was serialised in Country Squire Magazine, much of the pushback I received from the usual suspects within the Remain camp (university professors and the like) only served to prove my point – that Brexit merely exposed, rather than caused, the increasing depths of partisan tribalism afflicting Britain.
This tribalism is not the exclusive preserve of the under-educated, supposedly simple-minded working classes whose emotions and voting habits are apparently so easily manipulated by Rupert Murdoch, Cambridge Analytica or the dozens of other shadowy figures who now stand accused of ushering in Brexit for their own nefarious ends. Indeed, through their growing obsession with these new scapegoats, many of those opposed to Brexit reveal themselves to be capable of behaving in an equally aggressively tribal manner without even realising that they are doing so.
It never occurs to many of those people who occupy the groups most statistically prone to supporting Britain’s EU membership – students, university professors, artists and arts workers, young urban professionals – that they might be doing something so base, so primal as to be influenced by tribal behaviour. Why? Because many are used to seeing tribalism as a pathology affecting only the poor, the uneducated or others traditionally seen as either victims (like welfare recipients) or potential threats to be mitigated (juvenile criminals or nascent Islamist extremists). To many journalists, academics and politicians, tribalism is seen as something afflicting only society’s losers and outcasts, not something which might also pull the strings inside AC Grayling’s neocortex.
The idea that political tribalism might just as easily drive the behaviour of an Oxbridge professor, a PR director on a six-figure salary or a young university student often simply fails to compute, but it is a real and frequent occurrence nonetheless. Being educated and even nominally aware of the existence of tribal impulses does not automatically make one immune from being driven by tribalism oneself, particularly when one possesses the intellectual capacity and vocabulary to rationalise one’s behaviour as more noble and high-minded than it necessarily is.
And so time and again we see those who would normally be first to decry tribal behaviour engaging in its most vicious forms, whether it be the American college students or graduates who refuse to visit their Trump-voting parents or public figures who believe they have license to say the most horrible things about Leave voters and Brexiteers from atop their perch on the “right” side of history. More concerning, since these new converts to overtly tribal behaviour supposedly make up much of the cognitive elite, they seem unable to acknowledge the drawbacks of their behaviour or the many ways in which it actively harms their end goal, be it overturning the result of Britain’s EU referendum or prematurely turfing President Donald Trump out of office.
Smart people should be capable of noticing when an existing strategy is not delivering results and adjusting course to deliver better outcomes, but many within the anti-Brexit academic, cultural, commercial and political elite instead seem intent to double down on losing strategies which may feel cathartic but fail to achieve their political ends. Only political tribalism can drive nominally smart people to behave in so counterproductive a way.
Political tribalism causes anti-Brexit members of the elite to act out in a couple of negative ways – firstly by failing to understand or acknowledge the true motivations and drivers for the Leave vote, and secondly by engaging in public statements and actions which actively alienate many of the people whose good opinion they need to court and convince in order to change their minds. In my recent long article about political tribalism and Brexit I covered a number of the ways in which anti-Brexit elites harm their own cause through misbehaviour and bad messaging, but it is also worth focusing on the way in which political tribalism causes Brexit opponents to consistently ignore the full range of valid reasons which drove thinking adults of good character to vote to leave the European Union.
The first is a binary worldview which sees the EU as representing (if not always achieving) the highest ideals of mankind, and euroscepticism as the antithesis of all that is good in the world. This widely held opinion reveals itself in every tweet decrying Brexit as the result of unchecked xenophobia and racism (or a neo-imperial quest for lost glory) while simultaneously ignoring the EU’s manifest flaws. The best one can often get in debate with a pro-EU activist is an exasperated admission that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!” uttered through clenched teeth, though specific proposals for such reform or estimates of their probable implementation are always curiously lacking. Meanwhile, despite post-referendum polling which showed sovereignty and not immigration as the key driver of the Leave vote, heinous racist or xenophobic statements are taken to represent the broad church of pro-Brexit opinion.
The second reason is the exclusionary nature of many of the strongest bastions of pro-EU sentiment. There are people of good conscience in the academic and arts industries who support Brexit, but they rarely make themselves heard for fear of social or professional reprisal. If the prevailing opinion within one’s social or professional circle holds that Brexit is a national calamity with grievous implications for human rights, few people will have the courage (or luxury of courage) to take an openly contrarian view. Unfortunately this only worsens the situation, with those who do most to oppress pro-Brexit sentiment within their respective circles then failing to see that Brexiteers can sometimes be respected colleagues and friends.
Just as increased meaningful exposure to immigrants tends to reduce xenophobia or opposition to immigration, so structured and controlled exposure to Brexiteers might make many of the loudest anti-Brexit advocates realise that their opponents are not the evil masterminds or stupid pawns they have been portrayed as. But ironically, while many anti-Brexit campaigners are eager champions of multiculturalism, they also either encourage or tacitly tolerate a sometimes aggressively ideologically homogeneous pro-EU school of thought to dominate their field – ideological diversity is the one kind which is not celebrated and put on a pedestal.
But the greatest driver (or manifestation) of political tribalism among anti-Brexit activists now is not the deeply ingrained sense of moral superiority or self-imposed isolation from contrarian viewpoints – rather, it is the degree to which many of the afflicted now seem willing to latch onto anything from issues of concern to downright conspiracy theories, promoting them as valid reasons for nullifying or re-running the EU referendum in order to seek the “correct” response from the electorate.
The latest cause du jour is Cambridge Analytica, which seems to have transformed itself in the minds of Remain supporters from the tawdry and morally questionable data huckster outfit into a shadowy, all-powerful corporate behemoth which single-handedly tipped the balance and inflicted Trump and Brexit on a naive and defenceless world. The re-emergence of Cambridge Analytica in the headlines following news of its connection to a Facebook data “breach” and the Trump presidential campaign has only encouraged those already looking for reasons to invalidate (rather than argue against) Brexit to seize upon the scandal and make a lot of tenuous and irresponsible insinuations.
Pro-EU advocacy website InFacts can now be found – contrary to their name – raising “questions” whose entire purpose is to put the murkiest deeds of Cambridge Analytica as close as possible to Brexit on paper or a smartphone screen in the hope that insinuations about the former question the legitimacy of the latter.
Prior to Cambridge Analytica, the figure of Russia loomed largest in the Remainer imagination as the driver of Brexit. While any foreign interference in British electoral processes represents an abhorrent and unacceptable attack on our national security and civic institutions, one which we should probably be taking far more seriously both in terms of reprisals and future safeguarding, the idea that even a large scale attempt at Facebook manipulation had a material impact on the referendum result is both unproven and far from meeting the common sense test.
Are Remainers seriously proposing that the full weight of UK government advocacy, the massed ranks of the artistic and cultural world, a plurality of big business and heavyweight external interventions from the likes of the IMF and even President Barack Obama, all encouraging a Remain vote, were overshadowed by £1 worth of Facebook ads and the addled efforts of a Twitter troll farm in Russia? Apparently so – and yet many of the high profile personalities and Serious Thinkers who make and amplify these assertions are unable to step back and escape the prison of their political tribalism for long enough to appreciate how unhinged their conspiracies are beginning to sound.
In short, a significant strand of anti-Brexit opinion remains obstinately unwilling to consider any failure on the part of the Remain campaign or the European Union itself, instead attributing their every setback and woe to crude dismissals of the electorate or fantastical conspiracy theories of the type embraced by leading Remainer intellectual Professor AC Grayling.
It takes a lot to make intelligent and accomplished people behave in a way which is both counterproductive to their interests (they will never stop Brexit by repeatedly shrieking that Leave voters are stupid automatons who were hoodwinked either by Vladimir Putin or sinister corporate interests) and damaging to their long-term reputations. In fact, one of the only things which can induce such a mania in so-called “respectable” people is the phenomenon of political tribalism, whereby it becomes more important to be seen as strongly aligned with and supporting ones own people than it is to be either pragmatic or empathetic.
And when it comes to Brexit, so strong is the force of political tribalism among certain demographics that even those whose job it is to understand political and constitutional matters find themselves unable to acknowledge, let alone meaningfully engage with, the real issues which prompted millions of decent people to vote for Brexit, instead blaming “fake news”, the Russians or Cambridge Analytica.
Tom Peck makes a reasonable observation in the Independent:
People have almost entirely forgotten that, say, in 2015, when the BBC hosted its first hustings in the Labour leadership contest in a church in Nuneaton, some hitherto unknown man called Jeremy Corbyn was the only one who had anything of any interest to say. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were beyond abysmal, and they remained so throughout the contest.
Is it acceptable to wonder if the fire is only being turned on technology because it hasn’t delivered the results the bulk of the media class wanted? If the Democrats had delivered a candidate better equipped to deal with the shallowness of the media age, and if the Remain campaign had been run as well as the Leave one, this apparently existential crisis would not be occurring.
The comparison with the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest is an instructive one. Then, as now, a cadre of people accustomed to calling the shots and having their worldview acknowledged, respected and advanced at all times – the Labour centrists – suddenly found themselves out of power and influence within the party for the first time since John Smith and Tony Blair ushered in their long period of domination. But rather than engage in any kind of introspection as to why they were so unloved by the Labour base, centrist Labour MPs instead engaged in an unseemly year-long insurrection against new leader Jeremy Corbyn, culminating in the rather disgraceful and ultimately unsuccessful decision to use the shock EU referendum result as a convenient “fog of war” in which to take down their new leader.
Why did the Labour centrists behave in this way? Because they were motivated more by tribal affiliation and beliefs than political principle or even civic decency. They (rightly) sensed that their tribe was under attack from the hard-left Corbynites within the party, and worried that their status would be permanently eroded were Jeremy Corbyn able to cement his grip on power. And thus rather than spending the following years attempting to hold the Conservative government to account, as an Opposition party is supposed to do, we instead saw the biggest names from Labour’s centrist wing engage in a long period of unseemly infighting – because political tribalism trumped their commitment to either party unity or the national interest.
The funny thing about political tribalism is that its most ardent practitioners tend to see themselves as being immune from the phenomenon while ruefully detecting its presence among nearly everyone with whom they disagree. Thus it simply never occurred to many of the Labour MPs who made it their primary mission to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn that they were primarily motivated by tribal interest, just as many of those who howl the loudest about Brexit cannot bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that their behaviour is driven by anything other a rational, fact-based analysis of the common good.
The Liberalist Insurgency
The vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president have been widely painted by many establishment opinion-setters as an assault on liberal democracy and liberalism itself, as progressive or enlightenment values fell prey to reactionary populism spouted by right-wing demagogues. Indeed, it pleases many of those who oppose both Donald Trump and Brexit (for the record, this blog strongly opposes the former and supports the latter) to paint themselves as brave guardians of liberal democracy and sole keepers of the frame of liberalism in these uniquely benighted times.
And yet when many of the great and the good in the anti-Brexit or anti-Trump camps are not fulminating against their respective bêtes noires, they can often be found undermining and attacking the same liberal values which they claim to champion. How often are those who decry Brexit as the first step toward fascism also found supporting draconian hate speech laws, advocating censorship and No Platforming on university campuses, attempting to excommunicate those who merely profess (without seeking to enforce) traditional social values from polite society and aggressively ushering in radical new gender theory and the divisive intersectional identity politics movement which seeks to stigmatise and oppress any questioning of these goals? None of these behaviours are remotely liberal in the true sense of the word, yet all are being enthusiastically adopted by many of those who also seek to paint themselves as guardians of liberalism in their fight against Brexit.
It is therefore important that we deny the anti-Brexit campaigners automatic and exclusive use of the “liberal” label, particularly when their actions and words – wheher expressed through contempt for a democratic referendum result and those who voted for it or other stances taken against science, liberty and free speech – are the antithesis of true liberal behaviour. When prestige journalists, academics and politicians who are complicit in these illiberal behaviours also inveigh against Brexit in a way which denigrates Leave voters and fails to even acknowledge the existence of their legitimate arguments we should not allow them to pretend that they are safeguarding either liberalism or democracy when they do so.
And that’s where the word “liberalist” could be very useful. Just as Islamism refers to a fundamentalist, politicised and perverted strain of Islam and the word Christianist has been memorably coined (by Andrew Sullivan among others) to refer to those Christians who profess a harshly authoritarian, theocratic political worldview, so the word “liberalist” (as distinct from “liberal”) should perhaps be taken to mean a hypocritical self-serving authoritarianism masquerading as genuine concern for democratic stability and outcomes, a cynical perversion of true liberalism.
Post-Brexit (and to some degree since the election of Donald Trump in the United States, though the analogy is imperfect), liberalists have effectively become the “faith militant” of progressive liberals, a combative sect who use their typically high-status positions in electoral politics, journalism, culture and academia to inveigh against any political initiative which threatens to disrupt a stale status quo under which they have largely prospered while other groups have largely stagnated.
In order to shroud their blatant self-interest in the more noble garments of high-minded civic duty, liberalists portray their objection to current political developments as flowing from an overriding commitment to individual rights, the protection of vulnerable minorities and the preservation of democracy. This is quite impressive, since many of them have built entire careers on the back of attacking individual freedoms (particularly core civil liberties like free speech) and signing away our right to democratic self-determination by blindly and naively entrusting sovereignty to a supranational political union which represents a non-existent demos, which has never sought public input and which even now shows no real willingness to change for the better.
Taking on this faux-superhero role serves a dual purpose for the liberalists – firstly it allows them to avoid any real introspection as to why the values, norms and institutions they champion are increasingly rejected by a plurality of voters, and secondly it helps to soothe the cognitive dissonance which inevitably arises when people whose identities are so closely tied to projecting the appearance of social conscience and civic virtue act so shamelessly in their own short-term self-interest.
But whatever their protestations to the contrary, the liberalists are engaged in a performative act, if not a downright fraud. That is not to say that there are no legitimate reasons to oppose or even deplore Brexit – of course such a case can be made. But the liberalists will not engage in reasoned debate because they refuse point-blank to even acknowledge the Brexiteer frame of reference, insisting instead that everything is debated through the lens of short-term economic impact. And on top of this obstinacy they treat us to an increasingly tedious and condescending tale about civilisation teetering on the brink and the only safe option being a return to the EU’s cold embrace, with not so much as a nod to Brexiteer concerns.
Political tribalism is not the exclusive preserve of any one demographic group or end of the political spectrum, but the media focus is nearly always on those deemed to have fallen under the corrupting influence of “populist” rabble-rousers – understandably so, because such people are so poorly represented in the politico-media and cultural elite that they can raise no significant objection when one weepy Guardian article after another frets about rising nativist tendencies among the provincial rabble while ignoring rising insularity and decreasing social solidarity within the London-centric elite.
Therefore, it is time that we turn the focus back on the people who ostentatiously fret about the tribalism and populism they so readily detect in others. It is high time that we stop naively accepting the liberalist narrative that their objections to Brexit are exclusively rooted in high-minded concern for the national interest – at least so far as the word “national” incorporates any regard at all for the importance of democratic self-determination. They are not.
Brexiteers may be equally susceptible to political tribalism, but how much more dangerous is it when members of the political, cultural and media elite, with all their power and influence, throw themselves into the opposing side of the anti-Brexit culture war with such verve and venom?
We are about to find out.
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