When two tribes go to war

Imagine that a Democratic President had secret conversations with the Russians in the lead-up to an election, employed his family in key jobs, failed to publish his taxes and had offended key allies. Republicans would be demanding impeachment, and insisting that being in public office required a higher standard of behaviour.

Of course, the current situation is the other way round and Republicans are defending their man. But back in the 1970s, Republicans did drift away from Richard Nixon when the full extent of the Watergate affair became clear.

Politics has undergone a significant change in the last 40 years, and not just in America. Parries have come to be dominated by their members, and those members are more partisan than the general public. Republican Congressmen, by and large, do not have to worry about being defeated by the Democrats but they do have to worry about a primary challenge from within their own party.

In Britain, the Labour party opened itself up to new members and was taken over by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, an extreme left-wing backbencher. Conservative party members, largely old, white and male, seem to have undergone a similar radicalisation. When this happens, political parties become like football clubs. You cheer for events that boost your own team; you boo when the opposition has the ball. If the referee awards a penalty, you dispute the decision and accuse him of bias. All that matters is that your team wins.

In a recent poll, 54% of Conservative members said they would want Brexit to happen even if their own party were destroyed; 61% said it should happen even at the cost of significant damage to the UK economy; 63% and 59% respectively said Brexit was worth the cost of Scotland and Northern Ireland were to leave the UK. In short, members of the Conservative and Unionist parties are no longer either conservative or unionist.

The two tribes — Brexiteers and Remainers — have transcended the old class-based political divide. Instead there is a division by geography (those in cities voted Remain, those in small town and rural areas voted Leave) and age (the young were Remainers and the old Brexiteers). This is a very similar divide to that in America where cities are Democrat and small towns Republican and the young are more liberal than the old.

But these tribes are marked by mutual misunderstanding. The temptation is to assume that the other side has a hidden agenda; that Remainers are traitors, the right in the pocket of bankers and so on. As with football, if the other team is winning, it’s down to cheating.

It makes for a dispiriting climate. Some cheered when Nigel Farage was doused with milkshake but, in a world where acid attacks have occurred, we really shouldn’t want people to throw liquids at famous people. When a man shoves a woman into a pillar, and holds her by the neck, most people would react with horror. But because the man was a Conservative MP and the woman was a climate protester, some on the right leap to his defence.

These divisions are unlikely to heal soon and that will make it more difficult to deal with all the big issues that face societies, from climate change through to ageing populations. As the song goes, when two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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