By Julie Wittes Schlack
In their 2016 book, Democracy for Realists, political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels assemble compelling evidence to support their central premise that “even the most informed voters typically make choices not on the basis of policy preferences or ideology, but on the basis of who they are — their social identities.”
That’s why in recent months, C Space has been trying to understand not just the rational, but the social and emotional drivers that led to the stunning victory of Donald Trump and may yet defy predictions of a Conservative victory in the UK. While we have and will continue to explore voters’ conscious beliefs and aspirations, we also recognize that humans are still hard-wired as social animals, perpetually cognizant of who lies within and outside of our tribe. We hope that through this work we’ll be able to develop a clear, relevant point of view on how belief in a party, person, or brand strengthens or fractures – a “Belief => Disillusion” curve – that will have implications for businesses as well as government.
But if our social and political discourse is to improve and generate positive change, we must first understand where and how people define these affiliations. To that end, we created a series of media galleries – in the US-based Hatch community and in the UK based Speak Up Britain online community – in which we asked people to post images and descriptions of people who thought like themselves, people who supported their political opponent, and – in the most telling exercise – pictures that depicted how they thought the opposition perceived them.
The many images we received tell a story of two nations, both divided, but with noticeable differences in both the degree of polarization and the targets of each side’s ire. And from the perspective of this Canadian-born, naturalized American citizen, the stereotypes of the Brits hold up: You are generally more courteous and cordial in your disputes than are we Yanks.
In the US exercise, the differences between Liberal and Conservative, Republican and Democrat, Progressive and Authoritarian were stereotyped and extreme, featuring pictures of Klansmen and tree huggers, gun-toting toothless hillbillies and cockroaches, of giant Sumo wrestlers facing off against scrawny weaklings. But if these images were stereotypes, the pictures that people posted of “the other” were flat-out vicious, even more extreme in their vitriol and rage than those depicting how the other side saw them:
The pictures submitted by UK participants featured some similar themes.
Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters assumed that others perceived people who thought like them as stoned hippies, lazy deadbeats (“flat scroungers that keep whippets and have large flat screen TVs in every room visiting the bingo every day”) or, as in one woman’s colourful description, “an old school, working class harridan.”
In contrast, some Conservative supporters assume that others see them as mad ranters or destroyers of the National Health Service, or – as in this remarkably self-aware image submitted by a 65 year-old woman – as those seeking to isolate themselves (From Europe? From the masses?) in an ultimately self-destructive fashion.
But while there were commonalities in how each group felt perceived by the “other,” the emotional quality of the UK images was much more muted than their American counterparts. They were characterized by irony or amusement, not rage.
And that generally gentle tone was even more evident in the Speak Up Britain community’s portraits of their political opponents. While a handful of left leaning participants characterized the Tories as affluent, selfish fox hunt lovers, tax dodgers, and market traders; while a minority of Tory members characterized the Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters as socialists or Marxists, both sides’ depictions of the other were factual and emotionally neutral. They posted pictures of David Cameron or Nicola Sturgeon, of people posting signs supporting UKIP or opposing Brexit.
Most remarkable to this American observer was the obvious reluctance of British participants to stereotype anyone, as typified by these two submissions:
“I think Charlie Chaplin was a democrat supporter in the USA, but had socialist/marxist leanings allegedly. I chose Charlie to represent people with opposing views because he is a funny character and makes me laugh. Thus I believe we can have opposing views without getting angry or upset.” Maryann, Conservative, 45-54
“I do not think there is any one typical person who shares either my views or otherwise. Here is my picture of a crowd of ordinary folk to represent me and a picture of a crowd of people in suits as a stereotype group of Conservative voters. Neither are remotely accurate of course.” Kath, Labour, 45-54
Despite these marked differences in tone between UK and US voters, there was also one notable similarity. Across the political spectrum, participants saw themselves as decent, normal, and typical. And what gets lost in the heated haze of the current political climate is that they’re probably right.
In their landmark book on conflict resolution, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury emphasize that the key to a successful negotiation is to avoid bargaining over positions, but instead to find common ground based on shared principles. For instance, positional debates over the NHS or Obamacare can wage indefinitely, but agreeing in principle that society has an obligation to preserve the health of its members can set the foundation for co-creating new solutions.
However, that process of finding shared principles and common ground must be fueled by the assumption of good intent.
Just as the world learned about gravity, antibiotics, and evolution from you Brits, perhaps you may yet teach us all another lesson about retaining an appreciation of our common interests even in the throes of political strife.
This alarmed, appalled, and generally amazed American sure hopes so.
Julie Wittes Schlack is a founder and product innovation leader at C Space.