BY SAM HOOPER
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.