More Bipartisanship, Less Tribalism


“When facts change, I change my mind.”
~ John Maynard Keynes

Where is the bipartisanship, respectfulness, balance and empathy in our political discourse? We are moving apart rather than walking towards each other. Increasingly, it seems that on almost every political issue, binary choices of division are being made. This is increasing the levels of division and hatred. Instead, we need to find ways to reduce the toxic tribalism. Instead of hating those who have a different political opinion, we should try and find some common ground.

Trying to reach a societal commonality of empathy and respect through our political discourse will not be an easy outcome. Our political battlegrounds are increasing rather than dissipating and we are now engulfed by a set of culture wars on almost every single political issue.

I recently posted a short commentary video on the issue of toxic tribalism. It went viral:

My video has now received 200,000 views. I also tweeted a photo of myself having a drink with one Remainer friend and two Brexiter friends and with a message that highlighted that despite our political differences, great friends always find some common ground, great conversation, mutual respect and humour. As a result of this, I received a Twitter pile on which only reinforced my original theme of too much toxic tribalism in our political discourse.

I even posted a Twitter poll with the question: Could you date someone who voted differently to you in the EU referendum? Over 12,000 people voted and 53 per cent voted “No”. Spot the problem?

We have become blindsided by the intoxication of aggressive toxic tribalism and group mob mentality. We have been seduced by the dogma that one group is “wrong” and “evil” while our own group is “correct” and “good”. Politics is a set of worded opinions. But it should never become sets of worded abuse. When was the last time we ever heard someone from a different political viewpoint say “good point, I need to learn more on that”?

We see examples of exactly these types of factional battles, especially within political parties, played out daily across social media. It takes a few seconds for strangers to shout each other down on popular platforms such as Twitter, and a lot longer to get to know one another, respectfully listen and even learn something from someone with a different opinion. 

We need to lessen this stubbornness that is tearing the country apart. Since the EU referendum in 2016, and indeed, during the era of Trumpism in the US, the voices of demagoguery extremism have become louder. Shock joke commentators now regularly inhabit our TV and radio studios and social media has become like the virtual version of the world’s biggest pub argument. The spectre of angry, tribal and entrenched political positioning where people pick a side has increased. Pragmatic, nuanced and well thought through respectful debate is becoming a dying art.

We are seeing tribal lines develop on the Coronavirus crisis. It’s becoming a war of evidence and curve charts between lockdowners and unlockers. Yet Covid shouldn’t be hunkered down by party political tribal lines. If someone works in a job that is protected from the Covid lockdown and restrictions, they probably shouldn’t tell those who are at risk of losing their jobs from the Covid lockdown and restrictions that the restrictions are necessary. Try walking in their shoes. It’s easy to push for lockdowns when it doesn’t hit you hard financially. Some of our politicians and media commentators need to remember that.

So rather than seeking to disenfranchise ourselves from anyone who has a different political view, perhaps we should remember that one differing opinion from someone else does not imply that this person is a bad personality. It just means they think differently. And just perhaps, if we got to know them a little bit better, we might actually discover that we like them because we have found other things to relate, empathise and agree with them on.

Perhaps I am being idealistic in seeking to build bridges rather than walls with those who have a different political opinion. Extremism never works. History has taught us that. And we forget those lessons at our peril. But the majority of people are not extremists. The majority of people are decent. We all have our differences, but we must remember that the commonality of decency, respectfulness in debate and common ground far outweighs the narrow and stubborn tribalism of aggressive group think.

This tribal “Us” versus “Them” mentality is not leading us down a healthy path. In fact, it’s slowly destroying our collective society by walking us down an aggressive and narrow path that leads to extremism and toxic tribalism which surely the majority of us don’t actually want. We need more balance, bipartisanship and respectfulness in our political discourse and less confirmation bias and tribalism. Because right now, more than ever, we need to come together rather than walk further apart. We should strive to become more bipartisan and discover what we can agree on. We may find that it’s more than we think.

James Melville is Managing Director of the communications consultancy, East Points West, based in Cornwall, London and Scotland. He also writes regularly for Al Jazeera.