In recent years, it seems, the Western world has become more politicised. From Trump, to Brexit, to Covid-19, to what TV shows you like to watch, people now choose to view almost anything through a political lens. You might think this is a good thing. “Fantastic, the population is becoming more democratically engaged, just when it needs to.” After all, the world’s next ruler – China – is not going to be a democracy, so democracy needs all the support it can get. Right?
In this newly political world, you might be tempted to talk about your political views as much as you possibly can. You might even wear them as a badge of honour. People on the right wear the badges of ‘pragmatism and realism’. People on the left wear the badges of ‘kindness and compassion’. Both wear their respective badges with pride. And if you are on the more extreme end of the right or left spectrum, you might feel compelled to ‘convert’ any heathen unbeliever from the other side to your particular worldview.
We call this completely futile exchange a ‘political debate’. It could happen in the Houses of Parliament, at dinner with friends or family, or in the echo chambers of Twitter. In every scenario, the result is the same. Neither side listening. Both sides talking over each other. Both sides increasingly convinced the other side is ‘evil’. And both sides left feeling even more convinced about the unquestionable, cosmic correctness of their own views. Why is this happening?
Political Polarisation Is An Ancient Phenomenon
People like to blame social media for the polarisation of politics in recent years. While this is true, it’s important to understand that political polarisation has always existed, particularly amongst politicians. Part of the problem is the way our political systems work. To get into politics in the UK, for example, you can’t say, “I don’t really have a political affiliation, I just want to make a positive difference in this country.” No. From a young age, you would have had to say, “I am wedded to the church of the (left-wing) Labour Party or (right-wing) Conservative Party. I will hand out flyers, pay my dues, and demonstrate my complete and utter devotion to the party. Please let me in.”
The people who eventually become politicians are the most ideological in the country. They all clearly care more about their party than the nation. After all, this was a prerequisite to them being allowed into the party in the first place. This is why you have embarrassing events like weekly ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ in the UK. The two party leaders stand in front of a crowd of their most fanatical supporters (MPs). The leader of the Labour Party says something; his supporters cheer (it’s always been a him by the way). The leader of the Conservative Party says something; his supporters cheer (only twice has it not been a him). Sometimes both sides will literally boo and heckle the other side when they speak.
It’s about as sophisticated as watching fans hurling insults at each other at football matches. This isn’t unique to the UK. It’s the case for most televised political debates, across the world. In what way are they ‘debates’? Both sides have gone into the discussions with the explicit determination to ignore or argue against everything the other side says, even if there is some truth in it. In hundreds of years of British parliamentary debates, I doubt many prime ministers have ever said, “Actually, yes, you make a great point there; I’m going to take this on board going forward.” Psychological research shows that those with the most polarised political views see their opponents as less than human. Why would they ever take the advice of people who they don’t even consider to be people ?
People Don’t Like To Be Told They Are Stupid
What about us mere mortals? I’m afraid things are mostly the same here. There is a famous saying that you shouldn’t talk about three things at the dinner table: money, religion, and politics. And for good reason. With religiosity declining in the West (but growing everywhere else in the world), people now hold onto their political views like religions. If you were at a dinner party, would you ever make it your mission to convince a Christian that their belief system is a bit silly and that God doesn’t exist? Similarly, if you were Christian, would you spend the evening trying to make everyone believe that the magic baby died for our sins?
In both cases, hopefully not. The sort of people who would probably don’t get invited to many social events. Or won’t in the future. So why, then, does someone (usually the most politically ‘engaged’ person of the group) think it will be possible to convert everyone to their political worldview in a couple of hours?
It will never work. We are all stubborn creatures. We don’t like to be told our views are wrong. And be honest, have you ever had a conversation that has made you fundamentally change your worldview overnight? You’ve probably spent decades justifying why you believe in the things that you do. I doubt a tipsy conversation at a pub is going to make you change your mind. More likely, all that will happen is that people will argue, become angry, and the evening will be ruined.
I’m not holier than thou, by the way. I thought Brexit was stupid at the time. I still think it’s stupid. I will probably always think it’s stupid. Given these factors, trying to convince me otherwise will most likely be futile. I have a certain view. I’ve done my research (it’s my job). And I’m unlikely to change my mind on it. I’m emotionally attached to the issue, which means I’ll struggle to talk about it objectively or rationally. I know this about myself. If you are honest with yourself, can you truly say that you don’t feel the same way about many issues on the political spectrum?
There are probably issues like this for all of us, that no single conversation has a hope of addressing. So, if you feel the urge to convince your friend or colleague to change their ways, abandon their lifelong views in favour of your much better ones, just remind yourself whether you would if the roles were reversed. And if you feel the need to write an entire article debating politics – while questioning the utility of debate itself – you’ve probably missed the point. (Clearly, I find it hard to practise what I preach.)
What To Do Then?
If having political debates is futile, what can be done about rising political polarisation? Not much, sadly. For the most ideological of your friendship group or family or whoever, it’s best to realise they are gone. They have a religious devotion to their political movement. If they change their mind one day (they probably won’t) it will be on their own volition. Perhaps they vote for a politician you hate. Maybe they’ll change their mind if this politician makes decisions that make their life worse. But as Donald Trump proves, even this might not be true. So I doubt they will change their mind because of a conversation with little old you.
Pick your battles. If you have friends who aren’t ideological fanatics, there might be room to have conversations. You’ll listen to each other, and actually consider what the other person is saying. You probably won’t change your mind, but will at least evaluate their arguments. You already know who these people are. Hold them close, and feel free to debate politics with them as much as you want. For the others, don’t waste your breath. If you do, and realise how unenjoyable and futile the experience of two people talking past each other is, just remember that you were warned. And, crucially, to adopt all of the views you’ve read in this article as your own forever more. Thanks.