People are being persuaded by the pessimistic politics of polarisation and populism


Donald Trump’s unexpected victory was a shock to a huge amount of us early on Wednesday morning.  To those of us that found his rhetoric abhorrent and dangerous it represented a new low of electoral defeat that we found absolutely perplexing.

Comparisons have already been made and parallels drawn between this event and the recent Brexit vote in the UK that saw a referendum victory for those that sought to remove Britain from the European Union.  It’s easy to see the similarities – bitter, negative campaigns with the victorious side relying on a wide range of misrepresentations and outright lies, a significant polling miss and a subtext throughout both the campaign and aftermath that mainstreamed the language of identity and division.

It’s simplistic just to offer this bilateral comparison of events though and I instead want to place them in a wider context of a trend that we have seen snowballing since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.  During this time we have seen an exponential rise in the absolute rejection of the status quo and the replacement of the kind of political thinking and models that have served us since the end of the Second World War.  In our desperation to dismiss, in its entirety, the political classes and the systems they utilised, there has been a tendency to accept almost any replacement or none at all.  Reform has been refused in favour of destruction.

The effects can be seen across many democracies, primarily in the Global North, and at least in part explain the rise not just of Trump or the vote for Brexit but to a lesser extent the support for Senator Sanders in the democratic primaries or the 4 million votes UKIP achieved in the 2015 British General Election.  It informs the rise of the far left in Greece and Spain and the far right in Poland and Hungary.  It will impact the French general election next year in which Marine Le Pen will be a major force and is behind the domination of Scottish politics by the SNP in the UK.  It is a phenomenon that has picked up speed and it is now a question not of whether or not it will spread but where to.  To some extent it has already shown signs of refusing to limit its influence to Europe and America with India, The Philippines, Turkey and Egypt all conceivably able to be described as victims.

This new politics has no uniform appearance, reacting and adapting to the social, political and historical contexts it finds itself in.  It does however, share some common traits and I will attempt to explore the most important of these in some depth later in this piece.  The rejection of the status quo often extends beyond the political arena to that of science or other expertise.  “The people of this country have had enough of experts” Michael Gove stated during the Brexit campaign and though the quote was belittled by those that found such a remark preposterous it only served to harden support amongst a good chunk of the 52% who voted.  It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a member of Syriza delivering the same line about the ECB or a Trump supporter challenged on the absolute lack of support for their candidate amongst almost every single news publication in the country.

This political shift has been identified by many names.  The rise of identity politics, demagoguery, post-truth politics, fear-inspired voting.  I’m going to use the same phrase Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister of the UK and Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam, uses to describe it – the politics of grievance.  Clegg, despite the torrent of sometimes legitimate and often thoroughly ignorant criticism levelled at him personally after he took his party into coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015, is an astute political mind.  And, in as much as language is an influential tool, his label makes sense.  It hints at the emotional and illogical nature of this new movement but it also offers a justification, a reason, a bridge to communicate with it.  We might not react in ways we’re proud of when we feel grievance, when we feel we’ve been wronged, but we can hopefully overcome our instinct to lash out and replace it with more careful consideration of the consequences.

Here I want to discuss the three main factors I believe are influencing the rise of the politics of grievance.  I do not offer any solutions, only an interpretation of the single most important political phenomenon since the end of the Cold War.  It is important to state clearly these are symptoms not causes.  This is an attempt to explain what is happening not to give a comprehensive answer to why it’s happening.

It is my hope that by framing it in this way and seeking to offer a dissection of its most vital elements we can at least begin to understand the shifts taking place around us and that might be a starting point for a new approach to engaging with or resisting them.


I watched the election night results in unusual circumstances.  As the very first exit polls began to dribble in I pored over them them from tens of thousands of feet above Eastern Europe in an Airbus A380.  I was accessing the plane’s wifi from my smartphone, utilising the very best aspects of the technological revolution that has facilitated the process of economic globalisation.  A process that is being attacked at the moment by those that understand it the least.  I watched in horror as the result became more likely and then inevitable from the transit lounge of Dubai International Airport, a place that sums up the interlinking of the global economy more than other as middle class Japanese tourists sipped Brazilian coffee from an American chain in an Arab city that has been transformed by South Asian labour and global oil exports.  There was perhaps no more apt place to see the latest, and largest in an ongoing trend that is increasingly splitting the world, or at least the developed world in two.

We live in increasingly polarised times.  Social media encourages us to surround ourselves with opinions that reflect our own and discourages thorough critical analysis of anything that is comfortable to our own biases and prejudices.  We have become less willing to engage in a political arena that requires consideration and compromise as pre-requisites for progress.  While it’s true to say that the population as a whole is better informed than at any point in history, it is the quality of that information and our ability to process it that has failed to accompany the increase in volume.  This has promoted what I call the rise of the medium information voter.  Stuck between the classic definitions of low information voters – the ones politicians struggle to reach with their messaging that force us into a world of memorable soundbites and repetition – and high information voters, the medium information voter may not be changing the content of the political discourse but they are changing the tone of it.  These are people, and I acknowledge myself as one of them sometimes, who want to consider themselves politically engaged but avoid the engagement part of that.  The media sources they use already agree with them, so do the people they discuss them with.

Interestingly, and this is purely an anecdotal observation, awareness of this tendency does not seem to alter people’s behaviour.  It is easy to see this bubble effect mentioned in popular culture, in academic literature, in almost any political conversation and yet the exact same patterns continue.  People know they’re creating a bubble for themselves, they understand they’re sheltering themselves from uncomfortable conversations and they’re happy to continue doing so.  When we do encounter people who hold different beliefs than us we feel emboldened by the bubble we spend most of our time in to reject them out of hand, to ascribe motivation where it should be impossible to do so and to act with real vitriol.

There is a tendency for this tailoring of the news and literature we digest to lead to the phenomenon Nicholas Negroponte labelled the Daily Me.  That our intake is so specified to our interests that it discourages us from discovering new interests.  This applies just as much to the ideologies we lean towards as it does to the topics we read about.

There is an inviting tendency to describe this split in twentieth century terms, to conceptualise our increasing extremes with ideas like left and right wing or socialism and capitalism.  In truth these concepts are still useful and if the years since the 2008 financial crash have taught us anything it’s that we don’t, as some had asserted, live in a post-ideological world.  But one divide, one example of this polarisation, is more subtle than that.  The left, in this modern case, the socialists, are not defining themselves by their relationship to the means of production or their union membership.  They are, as much as anything, defined by their relationship with the process of globalisation that has radically transformed the world since the nineteen seventies.  They are the people who understand it and often the people who benefit from it.  They are the urban, educated citizens of the world who can’t see immigration as a threat in a world that allows them to find work almost wherever they want.  They are young, mobile and they understand the economic advantages of global trade and the impact that has on their own life.  That isn’t to say they’re entirely uncritical of the globalisation process as no sane person should be (I’m going to deliberately avoid the “What is globalisation?” problem here because it’s a lengthy distraction to reach a specific definition of something I think most of us understand in a broad sense) but they largely understand that the free movement of capital and labour across borders is potentially a force for good in the world.  They are less prone to buying into the identity divisions and nationalism because they surround themselves with a more heterogeneous group of people.  Simply, it’s harder to be told to hate foreigners when you’ve travelled more, LGBT people when you shared a house with a queer activist at university or racial diversity when you’re surrounded by it.

The opposing group is entirely the opposite.  Older, poorer, worse educated, rural and static they have seen a world they thought they understood shift around them and feel with some justification that they’ve been left behind.  They are the blue collar workers whose jobs have gotten worse or disappeared, who have seen the global economy shift without the support necessary to adapt with it.  They are the people who have lived in one or two locations for most of their lives and seen their wages drop in real terms along with job security and in many cases this hasn’t been compensated for enough by falling prices meaning they’ve endured a decades-long gradual decline in living standards.  For these people they see the political classes as having failed them and are willing to latch on to almost any explanation for that uncritically.  That this hardship has correlated with rises in global migration makes for an easy scapegoat and the blindingly obvious counter argument that correlation does not imply causation is too rarely entertained.  The figure of blame is easy – it is foreigners coming to use services and take low skill jobs or it is companies callously outsourcing work overseas.  Never mind that these are symptoms of a wider economic shift that provides a net benefit globally and convergence for the economies of the developing world – these people see their immediate situation worsening and their inability to accurately intellectualise the larger macroeconomic picture allows for the introduction of a false narrative of explanation.  Often at the expense of the most vulnerable – low wage immigrants, refugees and those in need of support from the welfare state.

The way we seek opinion and evidence in 2016 necessarily weighs in to this polarising effect.  The traditional model of having a limited set of media sources mostly adhering to a pretty decent set of journalistic guidelines and standards had its disadvantages but so does the new way of accessing news through a series of partisan sources and sharing them with like-minded people on social media.  This not only creates a false image of the political arena in which one is operating, and therefore reduces opportunities for the non-adversarial communication and empathy required to reach meaningful compromise with political opponents, it also reinforces opinion and hardens sentiment, often to the point of resistance to new evidence on a topic.  Public opinion researchers have commented recently on the amount of people who respond to the question “Where do you get most of your news?” with the answer “Facebook”.  Facebook, of course, does not produce news content so such a response is nonsensical until you realise that, by presenting a series of links and statuses in a continual feed, facebook has not only become possibly the most popular source for news, it has also become one that equalises all other sources.  Links appear essentially identical regardless of whether they’re coming from a respected journalist through an established conduit with rigorous editorial guidelines or a conspiracy theory blog run by a single individual with a very poor grasp of the topics on which they opine.  This explains the surge in popularity of sources such as The Canary or Breitbart News.

So two things are happening at once.  We are genuinely moving further apart in our views to a more polarised electorate and we are also changing the way we view and react to the other pole.  There is not just one form of polarisation taking place, either.  The internationally minded global citizens and localised victims of globalisation divide I described is just one example of this paradigm.  We could look at socially progressive and socially conservative polarisation, too, or even single issue polarisation on issues such as climate change or fiscal policy.  The template remains the same.  Move further away from the opponent, surround ourselves with like-minded opinion and refuse to engage with the other beyond unhelpful caricature and demonisation.

None of which is to paint a rose tinted picture of a past where we all occupied the same narrow sphere of opinion and respectfully disagreed over minor matters of policy.  It should be understood that diverse ranges of opinion are nothing new and neither is violent disagreement.  I am of the Christopher Hitchens school of debate that believes intellectual discussion is a full contact sport and that people do themselves a disservice by treating opinions they don’t share with a faux respect or humility.  If someone states a belief in the indefensible they are leaving their opinion open to criticism in the harshest possible terms whether it’s “West Ham will win the league”, “I’m voting UKIP” or “God exists”.  But that disagreement was always at least based on some agreed upon rules of engagement.  The idea that one party presents an argument and some evidence to back it up and then the other party takes issue with either the evidence on offer or the logic of the accompanying argument has been lost in favour of something much less communicative and much more tribal.  This tribalism pushes us further and further to the extremes, rendering moderation and careful consideration of the facts a dangerous way to end up stuck in the middle and tarnished as a traitor from both sides.

N.b. As a small caveat, I should note that the vast majority of my social circle identify with some of the left wing elements I’ve mentioned here and will probably take offence at my characterisation of them as a secondary side of the Trump, Brexit or LePen coins.  It’s an analogy I stick by, though, and though I must confess my own political leanings mean that I view that end of this newly polarised world as more benign, it is the centre ground I am mourning the vacation of and it is the rush to extremes – both extremes – that is responsible for that.


The single biggest trend of the last eight years in global politics is the rise of populism.  There are different and competing definitions of this phenomenon but for the sake of simplicity and brevity I’m going to, somewhat inaccurately, define a populist as a figure offering easy solutions to complex problems and that these solutions are centred around a reductionist view of where people should target their blame.  There are political science majors shaking their heads and exhaling in frustration at that definition right now.

It is populism when Trump blames immigrants for stagnant wages and deteriorating quality of life for working class Americans.  It is populism when Jeremy Corbyn blames poverty on bankers.  It is populism when Syriza blames Greek economic problems on European fiscal policy and it was populism when Hitler blamed the Jews for every financial and social ill in nineteen thirties Germany.  As you have probably already concluded, some populism is more dangerous than others.  I know some (including baby faced nearly-Marxist Owen Jones) that would argue that populism in itself isn’t inherently dangerous and is a tool that can be used to deliver truth to the masses, I tend to disagree but let’s at least put it on the table.

One of the most common forms of this resurgence in populism is through nationalism, an appeal to people’s shared national identity and an offer to concentrate the problems that face a nation on some other national outgroup.  Again, there are differences between nationalisms and it is used for different purposes.  We should conceptualise and treat the nationalism of Marine Le Pen, for example, in different ways and with different tools to the seemingly more palatable and inclusive nationalism of the Scottish National Party but we should understand that both share the same intellectual underpinning.  Nationalism is inherently populist – it otherises groups based on imagined ideas of people and nation and offers an enemy as a scapegoat.  Mexicans, Muslims, unskilled eastern European labour, Westminster – all have been painted in that light in recent years by those who would seek to reduce the very real but ever complex and multi faceted problems faced by those they appeal to down to a false idea of shared heritage, culture or ancestry.

Let’s recognise, too, that nationalism in its most dangerous form overlaps significantly with racial superiority doctrines.  Trump has not been swept to power exclusively because of his appeal to white supremacists but he energised that terrifying minority of American society like no candidate since Barry Goldwater.  Similarly, the far right in Europe is forming a cohesive, continent-wide attack that hides behind a façade of promoting political Islam as its enemy but is couched in the language of white supremacy.  This kind of overt racism (as opposed to the more subtle, insidious racism that pretends from a position of privilege that racial inequality doesn’t exist) may not be a majority, or even a significant contributor to the overall political process but it is growing in popularity and its proponents have proven they feel emboldened to translate their bigotry into real violent actions.  I disagree with almost everyone I know and the vast majority of moderate political discourse when I say this but: This kind of racism should be met with force at every opportunity.  It is this element that threatens to evolve populism into fascism.

Populism is nothing new, of course, and has a history of gaining support in times of crisis and uncertainty, which absolutely describe the current global situation.  Nor should it be underestimated in its ability to influence a population.  Populism is powerful.  A good example of this power can be seen in Russia where Putin has carefully latched on to the uncertainty of the post-Cold War period to offer a cult of personality style nationalist populism that has seen Russians willing to make great sacrifices for a cause he is able to paint as “them versus us”.  When Western sanctions crippled the country’s economy in the aftermath of his horrifically nineteenth century annexation of Crimea it was part of a plan that gambled that it had the upper hand.  That while the Russian economy suffered, Putin would be presented with enough domestic troubles to cause him to think twice about his expansionist geopolitical moves and zero sum strategy.  Instead Putin was able to convince his countrymen to take the hit on the chin and shift the blame elsewhere through his populist analysis.

The cure for populism is remarkably similar to the cure for polarisation.  It is reasoned assessment of the facts and thorough critical analysis of claims.  It is an attempt to see problems and disagreements in all their contextual complexity and to bury oneself in the detail of debate.  It is a genuine attempt to reach an accurate understanding of the problems people face and to collaboratively design multi-faceted solutions to them.  Unfortunately, such a panacea is unlikely to be forthcoming, either from the political classes or the populations they represent.  It is not an easy task at the best of times and it is made near impossible by the third factor of the politics of grievance I want to discuss.


The final element worth highlighting in this new politics of grievance is that of pessimism.  Originally I had conceptualised this in my head as a more narrow idea, that of loss of faith in institutions.  Clearly I changed it for nothing more than the sake of alliterative appeal but it actually makes more sense to think of it as a broader issue.  The way institutions are viewed is shifting, sure, and it is worth exploring that as one of the main ideas within this pessimism but it’s a wider disillusionment that needs to be understood.  An increasing chasm in people’s minds, almost all people’s minds, between how they perceive things to be and how they imagine they should be.  It’s this distaste for the direction people see the world as heading in, even when they utterly disagree about what that direction is, that makes the prospect of supporting any change of direction, regardless of the consequences, worthwhile in our minds.

The loss of faith in institutions is a disturbing trend – measured periodically in the US by Gallup’s confidence in institutions longtitudinal polling and on a more ad hoc basis in Europe and the rest of the world.  Ill-informed complaints that “the system is rigged” or “you can’t trust politicians” are hardly a modern invention but the frequency and force of the disillusionment seems to be increasing, creating a distance between the body politic and the arena designed to reconcile and govern.  It is a dangerous distance that threatens to make extreme solutions seem logical and it is the responsibility of all of us to close it.

Ironically, this is often linked to the spread of polarisation in ways that see opposing groups complain that the systems and institutions that represent or serve them both are biased or broken but in precisely opposite ways.  Trust in the media to report events truthfully, for example, seems to have taken a massive hit with most individuals perceiving biases against their position.  Clearly this can’t be true in all circumstances.

The truth is that most of these institutions – the media, government bodies, world leaders, international organisations ARE flawed.  If we had a perfect model for any of them there would be no need for the myriad different forms of government and systems of governance we see around the world.  They should be criticised and reformed and improved.  But when the rhetoric becomes so extreme as to invite the dismantling of them it fails to recognise what exists in their absence.  The UK’s Brexit vote is a perfect example of this.  In the entire debate there were many reasonable criticisms of the EU put forward.  Everything from parliamentary process to agricultural subsidies.  But none of them came anywhere near being worth abandoning the project for.  Not in economic terms nor cultural terms nor political terms.  But abandon it we did, because the pessimism around the institution had grown to such a degree that people were unable to make an accurate assessment of the facts.

Though seeking to apportion blame is generally not helpful, it might be worth making the argument that the blame for this pessimism lies both with the electorate and the political elite.  The electorates who, with access to more information than any other people in history, have steadfastly refused to engage with it in order to reach reasonable conclusions.  And the political elites that have encouraged such ignorance with needlessly inflammatory, adversarial tactics that have benefited them in the short term but bred distrust in the valuable institutions they serve.  When was the last time you heard two politicians respectfully disagree?  Let’s not pretend that politics has until recently been a bastion of good behaviour and civility but is it not true to say that there has been a recent, noticeable increase in divisive rhetoric and partisanship everywhere?  Older house members and Senators in US politics talk fondly of times when deals were made by reaching across the aisle and working to find a compromise that benefited ordinary Americans.  Now tea party politics means that one’s allegiance to their party necessarily means opposition to the other, regardless of the merit of their argument.  It has the effect amongst the general population of crying wolf, somewhat.  People either buy into the increasingly nasty arguments and become more tribal and polarised, or they become disillusioned by the incessant, almost juvenile, nature of it and switch off entirely.  Politics needs to reinvent its language and its relationships and voters need to understand the civic infrastructure that serves them somewhat better than they do now.

I think it’s reasonable to trace this pessimism back to the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/2008.  The causes of the crash are often poorly understood and it is revealing to ask people to explain the events that led up to what will be remembered as one of the defining moments of the early twenty first century.  What is understood and remembered, though, are two key elements.  The first is that few people predicted it.  This failure to see what was happening until it was too late might be argued to have had a direct influence on Michael Gove’s “enough of experts” quote years later.  The shaking of public confidence was real, even if it ignores the fact that economics is a social science and a game, therefore very much of grey area and debate (despite what some neoclassical microeconomists might tell you) and that some voices were predicting a crash of some magnitude, they were just far enough out of the mainstream not to be widely listened to.  The second memory that lives long in the narrative of the financial crisis is the bailouts that accompanied the crash in some of the world’s largest economies.  The fact that these bailouts were necessary, that they probably prevented a run on the banks and a Great Depression amplification of the hit the global economy had already taken, largely falls by the wayside.

For clarity’s sake I’m not defending the miss or the reaction as perfect in these circumstances.  Economists and investors were too relaxed about the risks being taken in the financial services sector and the bailouts did serve private interests as well as public ones but overall the crisis was pretty well managed, though there is some variation on that assessment on a country by country basis.  It was right that there should have been a thorough and reflective analysis of the events leading to the crash and the response and in some cases that has happened, in many others it hasn’t happened sufficiently.  But in our rush to create a simple and digestible story of a complex and layered historical event we have failed to recognise the successes inherent within it.  Which leads us to this situation of complete distrust in the very bodies that did react soundly in a lot of instances.  Populists can exploit this simple narrative to promote their own, deeply flawed solutions and because we have moved from a rational assessment of encouraging legislative reform to rejection of any kind of rational solution, we buy into the illogical extremism.  Let us not forget that declared progressives voted for Brexit on the basis of opposing corporate influence and the billionaire Donald Trump was just elected on a ticket of curbing the worst excesses of Wall Street.

The politics of grievance will likely not be a passing fad.  It has already become the new normal, squeezing out a third way approach to liberal democracy and it threatens to engulf even more of the world over the next twelve months and beyond.  It is also likely to become a self perpetuating norm internationally with states reacting to isolationism with isolationism.  Once one group defines themselves in opposition to another it is a difficult argument to make that the same paradigm shouldn’t be adopted by the other group.  The UK’s refusal to be a part of Europe will have an effect on Europe, Trump’s proposed trade war will have an effect on China, the European right’s attitude to Islam will have an effect on the Muslim world.  None of these reactions are likely to be positive.  In order to counter the impact, though, it is important to first understand what we are dealing with.  That was the point of writing this.  Not to create a detailed definition of the trends in global politics, which would take a library of text without coming to an agreed conclusion, but to attempt to create a prism in my own mind through which to view the obviously changing dynamics of the world.  The elements of the politics of grievance I’ve identified are simplistic and insufficient but they’ve offered an illustrative snapshot to me through writing about them of some of the influences of what might be the most dangerous political moment in many generations.



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