Friday July 01, 2022

How the left was lost

November 20, 2016

As the dust from the US election settles, it’s time for people the world over who think of themselves as progressive, pro-diversity, globalisation and equality, pro-science and all the usual progressive buzzwords to make a confession. We’ve been getting the absolute blazes kicked out of us, the world over.

The shunning of the European project by one if it’s biggest members, the American election of a man publicly hostile to a staggering array of Americans, rising European right-wing extremism – progressives have spectacularly failed to translate the great cultural and social wins they enjoyed in the last few decades into permanent political realignment.

First, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it is not electoral democracy that has failed – the ballot box channelled a deep well of rage and bitterness into a referendum vote and a shock Presidency, and did not allow it to spill into nationwide riots or a civil war. That is the upper limit of what can be expected of the box, and believing that it promises more than that is a dangerous myth.

How, we ask ourselves with a great wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, can people move against their own interests? Some of them have it bad, but don’t they see that this will make it worse for everyone? Sometimes, it is simply because they are ill-informed. But the lesson of history is that even a person with no prospects and no brighter tomorrow values dignity and attention so highly they will often put it above their own material interests – and certainly above the material interests of others.

Is the world full to bursting with racists and sexists and people who hate other religions? Improbable; active hate requires time and energy that only a few people have. Jobs and children are exhausting.

There are structural issues, of course, but for the most part the people who voted Brexit, voted for Trump and will probably vote in Marie le Pen in France are not card carrying members of the KKK or neo-Nazis but people who are angry or scared and don’t think much about people not like them.

People, by and large, will only really move to protect their tribe. This may not sit well with deep moral thinkers, but it is an absolutely core part of human nature; trying to change it within our lifetimes is the dizzying height of arrogance.

People like me. My friends, my family. People I can have a bite, a drink and a laugh with. People who are real, three-dimensional humans rich to the last drop with reasons, quirks and motivations. This is your tribe. Human beings are not likely to actively ‘naturally’ hate outsiders, but certainly can more easily be persuaded to vote against their interests, or blame them – for complex problems.

Are you smugly contemplating how this describes all those Neanderthals who voted for Trump and Brexit and the Swiss People’s party and other people objectively worse than you? Because you just thought of a huge chunk of three countries with long traditions of democracy and universal education like they were subhuman.

They’re not part of your tribe, though, are they? Surely they must be racist, sexist, hijab-pulling, cross-burning xenophobic caricatures.

No. Listen to yourself. Everyone who voted for Trump cannot be part of the Klan. If that were so there would be no United States left.

The left the world over has always insisted that large groups are not monoliths – that a handful of terrorists don’t represent Islam, that inner city youth and migrants are not like the criminals flashed onscreen so often on the news and on lazily written TV shows. How then can we immediately paint people who disagree with our positions – fine positions, often – as cartoonish villains and drooling simpletons?

The tribalism that sits in the marrow of humanity can work for us if we can expand the tribes. The more clients, colleagues and friends a person had from groups who genuinely felt afraid of the outcome, the less likely, I’m sure, they were to vote along nationalist or far-right lines. It’s hard to get numbers on this, but it’s a universal part of human nature: we protect our own, our tribe, whatever they look like. But to expand that circle requires us to engage with those who are not like us in thought, just as we expect them to engage with those who are not like them in creed or colour or faith.

You can hold a thought in your head without being overcome by it. You can speak civilly to someone who does not think like you without betraying your tribe. You can even engage with someone you legitimately hate for what they have done or will do, if for no other reason than because it is better to know your enemy than to be blindsided by them.

It’s comfortable to be surrounded by people who don’t challenge us, who applaud rather than argue when we speak. And sometimes, it just feels good to shut someone down in full view of your liberal friends. But for those who aspire to more than the fleeting high of exchanging high fives with our own echo chamber, for those who actually want to influence others (and by no means does that have to be everyone) that can’t be the norm. For us, that needs to be the chocolate in our diet of discourse: a cheat day, a treat that we know is terrible for us, a guilty pleasure we indulge once in awhile.

This is not a moral argument, but a blueprint of strategy. One of the most sacred constructs in progressive values is the scientific method – testing our beliefs, accepting what doesn’t work, and adjusting. There is great satisfaction in a rage and isolation born of self-righteousness, but time and again it has proved a losing strategy. I hate losing. Let’s find something that wins.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: