Here’s how we solve the global crisis of tribalism and democratic decay

Brexit 2019.jpeg

(Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Tim Dixon, Co-Founder, More In Common


People who happen to be alive at historic turning points are often slow in sizing up these major shifts. It’s natural for the human brain to rely on familiar ways of thinking to make sense of what’s new. Just think of how the first cars were described as “horseless carriages” and cinemas as “motion-picture theatres”.

As we approach the 2020s, there’s growing evidence that we’re at a historic crisis point for modern democracies and pluralist societies. Political systems across the world are simultaneously experiencing deep disruption, with a startling escalation of polarization and tribalism. Cast your eyes across nations as diverse as the US, France, Germany, the UK, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Sweden, Poland, Brazil and the Philippines. In each of these countries we see similar patterns: public frustration with the status quo, populist insurgencies, the division of groups into “us-vs-them”, political deadlock, attacks on democratic norms and a sense that meritocracy and rational policy-making are increasingly passé. Since the Second World War, many democratic countries have experienced divisive flashpoints, but there is something unique in the postwar era about the way pluralism and democracy are simultaneously under siege in so many places.

Yet we are struggling to make sense of it. By default, observers often define these developments through the familiar lens of election results and left vs right politics: a “shift to the right” or “rise of the far right”. But much more is at play. Issues of identity, belonging and tribalism are supplanting the longstanding left vs right spectrum once defined by attitudes towards the size of government and intervention in free markets.

Deepening distrust

For the past three years, More in Common has been analysing public attitudes in established democracies to better understand the forces that are driving us apart, and what can bring us back together. Working with social psychologists and leading market research firms, we have commissioned detailed national studies in the US, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Greece. These studies create a national segmentation based on people’s core beliefs and tribal attachments. (To identify which of America’s “hidden tribes” you might belong to, you can take a sample quiz here.)

The picture emerging from these studies shows more than just shifts in public opinion about specific issues. There is a deepening distrust in each other – not just in institutions – with growing tribalism and intolerance of those with different beliefs and backgrounds. Multiple centrifugal forces are driving societies apart, and few of these forces are unique to any one country. Economic factors are playing a central role: rising inequality, stagnant incomes, job insecurity and the division between prosperous cities and “left behind” regions. But the perfect storm of conditions for social fragmentation come about from the convergence of economic forces and changes in culture, technology and the media landscape. Against a backdrop of weaker social connectedness and the erosion of local community life, these forces often play into existing faultlines in societies – widening racial, religious and ideological divisions.

The more polarized a society, the more people view difficult issues through a tribal lens rather than in terms of the common good of all. This makes pluralist societies less resilient, more vulnerable to social stresses, and less able to navigate the typical 21st-century crises such as political deadlock, rapid demographic change, economic slumps, climate events, technological change and threats to national security.

National segmentation studies in the US and Germany, 2017-2019

National segmentation studies in the US and Germany, 2017-2019.

Image: More in Common/YouGov/Ipsos/IFOP

The most troubling conversations I had in the past year were with experts in conflict prevention, who look at the deepening polarization in the United States and see patterns that in other societies have led to widespread civil violence. Whether you see that as realistic or alarmist, we should never take it for granted that societies always have the resilience to withstand the forces of division. Building and sustaining resilience to social stress is hard work. One of the great accomplishments of democracies is how they have made it look so easy for so long. But in reality, maintaining the rule of law, accountable institutions, independent media, social trust and strong civil society networks is immensely complex. Advanced democracies have not only struggled to build democratic infrastructure in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq; at home, they have been eating into their social capital, and failing to replenish it.

A proactive agenda

We need to do much more than cross our fingers and hope for a swarm of political candidates with the supernatural formula of personal charisma, strategic smarts and a captivating agenda to counter the divisive forces of authoritarian populism. We need to rebuild our social capital and strengthen the centripetal forces that can counter the appeal of us-vs-them tribalism.

This is a profound long-term challenge. But one reason for hope is that even in deeply divided countries such as the US, people have not given up on believing their divisions can be overcome. More in Common found late last year that 87% of Americans believe the United States is more divided than at any point in their lifetimes. Yet 77% of them also believe that their differences are not so great that they cannot be overcome.

Image: More in Common/YouGov

So what does a proactive agenda to reverse polarization look like?

We need champions of innovation in every walk of life to turn their skills towards the challenge of rebuilding social trust and connection across the lines that divide us: city from country, brown from white, conservative from liberal, Christian from Muslim, new immigrant from native citizen, unskilled from graduate, cosmopolitan from town-dweller. At the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils last November in Dubai, lively conversations were sparked as we imagined what might be achieved if we turned our extraordinary human capacity for ingenuity and innovation towards the increasingly urgent global challenge of countering polarization. There is a potentially powerful role for the World Economic Forum in shining a light on what is working best.

It means a fresh lens for policy-making, seeking to develop policies that counter deepening social fractures and address the insecurities that make people vulnerable to us-vs-them narratives. Strengthening social contact is a start. For example, how can urban planning, housing and schooling policies counter the segregation of people into clusters of homogenous wealth, racial and ideological groupings? In labour market policy, amid automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, how do we build people’s confidence that their hard work will be rewarded and address fears that the rug is soon going to be pulled from under them?

For the tech sector, this means reworking business models that, however unintendedly, disseminate misinformation, exploit psychological vulnerabilities and provide a platform for extremists. But we cannot expect the sector to get its house in order by itself. Regulators must play their part in strengthening incentives for social media platforms to take their impact on democracy and social cohesion far more seriously. Tech firms must embrace greater transparency and accountability.

For political leaders and civil society, this means reinvigorating representative democracy in ways that make it more relevant to new generations. We need low-barrier ways to engage ordinary citizens more meaningfully, not just the loudest voices with the most strident views. We must also rethink the incentives that reward those politicians, advocates and campaigners who pursue victory at any cost – too often at the price of belittling opponents and undermining wider public trust in the system.

For culture and the arts, this means doing more to promote empathy and understanding across lines of division. For example, while reality television is often linked to conflict, trivia and vulgarity, the genre also creates opportunities to foster empathy by exposing us to people with different backgrounds and beliefs to ours. Deliberative opinion polls and citizens’ assemblies show that even people from opposing viewpoints and backgrounds consistently find common ground when brought together to solve a problem. Politics and a media driven by the “attention economy” are providing fewer real-world examples of how this can work. Perhaps the entertainment industry can step into this gap.

 

When we entered a new century almost two decades ago, few in advanced democracies were anticipating the turn of events that has led to deepening social fractures and democratic crisis. As a result, we allowed our systems and institutions to atrophy. We have begun to pay a price for this neglect, but that price could yet become much greater. We all have a stake in ensuring that pluralist societies are resilient to the threats of division, tribalism and systemic breakdown. We need a resolve to combat polarization, new coalitions to provide leadership and a much stronger ecosystem of initiatives to awaken us all to the threat of deepening divisions, to rebuild our social capital and renew public confidence that free and democratic societies are best placed to advance the common good of all.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Coronavirus: European roadmap shows path towards common lifting of containment measures

MasterCard @ MWC14: Innovation in times of regulatory uncertainty

Ending the era of dirty textiles

Big data is coming to agriculture. Farmers must set its course

A reality check on inclusive innovation

Trump’s Russophiles under investigation, Europe remains ‘en garde’

How a trade war would impact global growth

This Japanese experiment shows how easily coronavirus can spread – and what you can do about it

UNESCO lists wrestling, reggae and raiho-shin rituals as global treasures to be preserved

Eurozone’s sovereign debt not a problem anymore?

Does the EU want GMOs and meat with hormones from the US?

Why your next work meeting should be a ‘walk-and-talk’

Meet Alice, the battery-powered plane that could herald the age of electric air travel

WEF Davos 2016 LIVE: “You just don’t know if the oil price will be 20$ or 100$ in the next 2-3 years!” top Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff underscores from Davos

Mobile health technology: Advances, Facilitations and Promotion of Autonomy

A Sting Exclusive: “Cybersecurity Act for safer European Industries and Consumers against cyberthreats”, by MEP Niebler

Why collective action is the key to saving our forests

Commission’s Youth Initiative fails first hurdle by not sufficiently consulting young people

With potential to boost profits by up to 20 per cent, a woman’s place is at work, says UN labour agency

Environmental liability rules need revamping

Lack of involvement, or lack of opportunities?

A roadmap for destination management in the digital economy

ECB: Euro area should smooth out the consumption and income shocks of its members

Coronavirus Global Response: the Commission’s contribution to the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX)

Why protesters disrupted London Fashion Week

‘Think beyond farm jobs’ to reach sustainable development, UN agriculture chief advises African youth

Top officials say UN will support Bahamas’ rescue, relief efforts as Hurricane Dorian churns in Atlantic

From underestimation to valorization: how mobile technology is transforming global health

All sides in Yemen conflict could be guilty of war crimes, UN experts find

MWC 2016 LIVE: Verizon boasts momentum for IoT platform

“At the Environment Assembly citizens expect clean, not hot air”, the Head of UN Environment in Europe underscores in a Sting Exclusive

Mobile Technology Saving Lives: Changing healthcare systems with simple technological solutions

Stop the waste: UN food agencies call for action to reduce global hunger

Don’t dismiss start-ups founded by millennials. This is how they succeed

Myanmar: Departing UN rights expert still hopeful for democratic transition

Will the end of QE come along with ECB’s inflation target?

Permafrost is thawing so fast it’s gouging holes in the Arctic

Brexit mission impossible: Theresa May was so desperate that had to appoint Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary

European Super League: Why more football is an imperfect solution to sport’s business model problem

Texting is a daily source of stress for 1/3 of people – are you one of them?

ACP-EU Parliamentary Assembly: strengthening the partnership

Everybody against Japan over yen’s devaluation

Nicaragua: MEPs demand an end to repression of political opponents

COVID-19 vaccine development is more global than you might think

What little Cameron got in Brussels seems enough to keep Britain in the EU

It ain’t over until Google says it’s over

Azeri natural gas will keep the EU warm soon

From Policy to Reality: Discrepancies in Universal Health Care Systems across the EU

Is there a de facto impossibility for the Brexit to kick-start?

Militias force nearly 2,000 to leave Libyan capital’s largest shelter for internally-displaced: UNHCR

Visa liberalisation: Commission reports on fulfilment of visa-free requirements by Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries

UN chief calls for ‘enlightened self-interest’ from world leaders to save ‘the whole planet’ from climate change

A Europe that Protects: Commission calls for more efforts to ensure adoption of security proposals

World is ‘on notice’ as major UN report shows one million species face extinction

New York City has a plan to fight fast fashion waste. Here’s how it works

Changing world of work needs new jobs strategy

How LA plans to be 1.6°C cooler by 2050

VP McGuinness on women’s rights: “Not an option, but a duty”

Security Union: Commission welcomes political agreement on removing terrorist content online

Discussions kick off among MEPs and national MPs on economic governance

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s