In her wonderful narrative non-fiction of working communities in Louisiana, Strangers in their own Land, Ari Hochschild describes what she describes a ‘deep story’.
These Tea Party advocates express a common worldview through which their interactions with the outside world – business, politics, community and church - are framed. Given awful pollution by local chemical companies of the Bayou d’Inde estuary, you might have thought this community would welcome the Environmental Protection Agency. As a Federal agency though it attracted deep suspicion. Federal Government is seen by Tea Partiers as against hard-working people – even in poor, polluted areas – and part of the problem rather than the solution. They see it as giving a helping hand to the undeserving and leaning on working people – when it should be for people like them. These communities needed and were suspicious of the Federal Government in equal measure.
The easy narrative when looking at these Louisianan communities is to stare to the heavens and wonder how it is that people can act so obviously against their interests, health and well-being. Many who voted remain have asked similar questions of some of the poorer communities who voted Brexit. There will also be deep stories of betrayal, loss, identity, patriotism, independence and absence of control in many of Britain’s communities which face cultural anxiety and economic insecurity. But the thing about deep stories is that we are better at spotting the narratives of others – especially those we feel to be mistaken – more readily than we spot our own. What’s your deep story?
A few years ago, I was co-author of a report on identity politics, the Fear and Hope report, which made quite a splash. Of most concern was the portion of the UK population categorised as ‘latent hostile’ or ‘active enmity’ (the latter category willing to tolerate violence in defence of their culture). Taken together these groups constituted 23% of the population. A roughly similar proportion were ‘confident multiculturals’ or ‘mainstream liberals’.
The Fear and Hope report has been periodically updated by Hope not Hate, the anti-extremism charity. In the latest report, Rosie Carter, brilliantly gets under the skin of some of the divides within British society, and has conducted deep research, as Ari Hochschild did in her study, embedding herself in communities in Bristol and Grimsby to sense the ‘deep stories’ that sit beneath political attitudes and action. The result is the richest and most complete Fear and Hope Report to date. The title has been amended slightly – it’s now the Fear, Hope and Loss Report. By adding the ‘loss’, a profound and motivating emotion is highlighted. Many of the places that voted Brexit are those communities that have lost jobs, industry, civic and cultural life, a sense of voice, and a sense of community. Real human stories lie at the heart of some the deep stories that have emerged.
Yet something has shifted since 2011. The number of ‘confident multiculturals’ and ‘mainstream liberals’ have gone up from 24% of the population to 39% of the population. There are some methodological changes but the shift is nonetheless striking. The ‘latent hostiles’ and ‘active enmity’ have remained roughly the same proportion of the population. Now, if I had been told in 2011 that’s where things would be in 2018, I would probably have thought these shifts signalled a society that had become more open, tolerant, and even united – albeit with very significant challenges around identity politics. This is not where we are. We are more divided, antagonistic and in many ways angry. Why? My hunch is that the biggest shift is on the liberal side.
Those on the right of the identity axis, like the Tea partiers in Louisiana, had been detached from opportunity and wider society in many respects. They tend to live in areas with high deprivation, low qualifications and poor health. They are more likely to be found in towns than cities (hence the support of Centre for Towns as a partner on the report). Carter’s analysis demonstrates conclusively the link between economic insecurity, cultural loss and far right attitudes – she is thus able to tie the Universal Credit shambles to increasing risk of antagonism.
Whilst these cultural anxious groups have been detached, my hunch is that liberals and multiculturals – from classical liberals such as we find in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties to metropolitan multiculturalism more likely associated with the modern Labour party - have too often detached themselves. There is consequently too great a lack of empathy and understanding of the challenges that non-metropolitan areas face – from economic insecurity to a sense of cultural change over which there is little influence. That lack of empathy skews policy toward cities and London in particular. Brexit has made and will quite possibly make the antagonism worse. It has not been uncommon to hear what is essentially hostility towards those who voted leave from liberal, multicultural remainers. So those ‘tribes’ who were hostile in 2011 have remained so; liberal tribes have also become more hostile. We are more divided than ever before: not the picture that would be anticipated from the data alone.
This divided present is reflected across the Atlantic in a new report from More in Common. The political debate is being driven by progressivism activism on one side and ‘devoted conservatives’ on the other. Almost 90% of Americans see the country as the most divided it has been in their lifetime. I’m sure that similar outcomes could be identified in Italy, Germany, France and across Europe. And we should not ignore the shifting face of activist cultural antagonism. A decade ago, the BNP was the main challenge. Now it is the Tommy Robinson mass social media movement claiming ‘free speech’ as their cause. The reality of its motivation is something far more sinister and divisive.
Perhaps a starting point for dealing with these divided states is to acknowledge the presence of the ‘deep stories’ of many and conflicting types - including our own. Then there must be some acknowledgement of the real experiences of life, economic security, community and opportunity that drive these stories for liberal multiculturals, communitarians and everyone else alike. The future can be more optimistic – hope can prevail – but only if we desist from othering and demonising those whose perspectives we find hard. Perhaps then we can begin to move towards more common solutions – beyond fear and loss.