A new empathetic politics to save the political nation

Leo McGrath is an undergraduate reading History and Politics at Lady Margaret Hall

Britain in 2016 is wracked by division, uncertainty and mistrust. Momentous events, identity politics and reliance on social media are opening up new fault lines and have revealed ugly and dangerous fissures. What we have seen over the past weeks and months has transcended the boundaries of ordinary political discourse and revealed the dark underside of our public politics. Increasingly the electorate fail to recognise national political institutions as important or relevant, and jettison their responsibility to consider each other with that most basic and civilised emotion: empathy. This an existential threat to this most basic characteristic of democratic politics, and we need to direct all our energies into considering what we can do to create a more healthy and sustainable political culture.

The idea of ‘One Nation’ is employed frequently by Left and Right, and is perhaps the best antidote to these worrying developments. This is because it engenders an understanding that democratic political culture relies on the active pursuit of understanding and empathy between those of different political positions. It relies on the assumption that a common spirit is essential for the coherence of the nation, and a belief that current political systems should be preserved. Above all, it requires a respect of the rights to political rights of legally co-equal citizens.

Our new Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street set her rhetorical course by this ideal. Yet I fear her daunting task will be made all the more difficult by the nature of modern politics. If we look at the origins of the phrase in Disraeli’s novel Sybil, we begin to understand the problem:

[There exist] two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.

Sound familiar? Like the Victorian society Disraeli described, our political culture is increasingly devoid of the capacity and willpower necessary for empathy between those of different social worlds. We are witnessing the final destruction of the sense of common nationhood that has survived since the Second World War.

The electorate is marked, perhaps more than ever, by fundamental social and economic divisions. Politically, this process has been accelerated by social media as a forum for political discourse. Facebook and Twitter have made it easy for people who think alike to surround themselves with each other to the exclusion of others. Algorithms have created echo-chambers millions strong. Such closed social circles make for political shocks, as many Labour supporters found to their cost in 2015, as did Remainers this year. But those parallel universes of which Disraeli wrote, the sheer ignorance, arrogance, and lack of empathy some feel for those who do not subscribe to their view of the world, cannot be healthy for a modern parliamentary democracy.

Arrogance and lack of empathy can be seen among all age-groups in society, but it is most common among Millennials and ‘Generation Z’. In a typical example, I discovered in a recent discussion with a colleague the word ‘woke’ (adj. describing someone ‘awoken’ to enlightened ‘progressive’ views), a phrase now common in some circles. It casually implies those who disagree with them are to be pitied, are lesser human beings, and altogether should be subjected to a decent education (indoctrination). It is a symptom of the vacuous identity politics that is becoming the norm. The callous assumption of intellectual and moral superiority should have no place in our political discourse. Not everyone is guilty of such talk, of course, but it is a sign of things to come as a product of social media politics. Group-think of this kind simply makes empathy between groups impossible.

Some might say I am too pessimistic about our political participation. Take the Internet: surely it widens political participation? Well yes, but such participation!  The environment and method of political engagement affects and directs how we think about other people. If people only experience politics on a platform geared to give you what you want to see, this will affect how we have political discussions, and what we expect from them. Politics will become about identity and conformity. All political colours are susceptible, and we are in danger of creating a nastier society because of it.

The aftermath of the Brexit referendum exposed the implications for our political culture of this lack of empathy. The vitriol the young and entitled metropolitan few poured out over those who dared to disagree with them was truly shocking. Many observers noted how few of them really understood the motivations and reasons behind the vote. Lots of people did indeed vote as a protest against immigration, the establishment, or on the back of false promises. But many voted because they were politically helpless and hopeless, and felt they could do no other. Many people wanted change because they were desperate, and wanted those who lived in another world to hear them.

After the vote, someone of my acquaintance wrote a veritable essay on Facebook describing how everyone who voted to leave was racist, scared of change, resentful of the young and those with opportunities. We all saw such posts. It contained all the arguments one might expect, expressed in the most vitriolic and condescending of tones. This person expressed a loathing and a blind rage for those people who (for the most part) were much less lucky in life than they. The essayist, and many like them, simply failed to engage with those who disagreed with them at a human level. Devoid of understanding, they resorted to insults and petulance. In the words of Disraeli, Brexiteers and Remainers were (and are) so often ‘ignorant of each other’s habits’ and ‘inhabitants of different planets’.

Apart from being deeply unpleasant, a by-product of using doubt of the good motives of those who disagree with us as a political weapon, this is immeasurably dangerous for the health of our society. No polity driven by identity politics and riven with such an unwillingness to empathise is inherently stable or secure. As Conservatives, at a time when a divided Left has abdicated its duty to represent the views of the electorate, we need to encourage a form of political conversation which attempts to get beyond simplistic assumptions and personal judgements. This will be the path to electoral victory and a better Britain.