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We can’t go on like this.

We’ve now seen what a decade of division and polarisation can achieve. And the answer is little.

At the end of the start of 2020, we are no further in tackling our biggest challenges than we were in 2010. From the need to de-carbonise our world rapidly, to yawning inequalities of security and opportunity, we may even be going backwards.

Given the urgency and complexity of these problems, another decade of polarisation would be calamitous. We need to be honest about the different values that divide us and work to create a common understanding of our problems – an understanding that recognises that everyone will have to make sacrifices and helps us find solutions.  

The experiment in social media democracy has been disastrous

How did we get here?

Surprising as it may seem now, we entered the 2010s in a state of hope. In the US a very different type of US President, Barack Obama, offered the possibility of change. In the UK, the Olympic spirit was kindling. 

The financial crash and the failure of the post-war reconstruction of Iraq seemed to have washed away the complacencies and conceits of a generation of political leaders who had governed in the previous two decades.

And technology, particularly the accelerating growth of social media platforms, was democratising access to public voice. This was seen as positive thing. But in the end, technology was what enabled and encouraged that hope to turn into division.

The 2010s were the first experiment in mass, pervasive, always-on, real-time contact democracy. The results have been disastrous.

We failed in the 2010s because we blamed each other instead of solving problems

If there is a lesson to be taken from the last decade it’s that it’s not our economic position that defines us politically, it’s our values.

The 2010s brought differing and potentially oppositional value-sets together. Previously contained in individual communities or only visible to people who read or watched certain media, the experiment in ‘mass contact democracy’ meant they were suddenly all in the same News Feed and the same debate. The noise was overwhelming.

Culture wars, Brexit, Trump, the climate crisis, Occupy, the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gilets jaunes, strivers v skivers, anywheres v somewheres, the rise of far-right populism…and much more besides.

Sometimes dark political forces, even orchestrated by hostile powers, created resentment and stoked the flames of mutual resentment. Sometimes, we did it to ourselves. The upshot of all this conflict, orchestrated or spontaneous, was that the problem became about each another rather than the problem.

Our common problems that we really faced together – like the climate emergency or democratic decay – were complicated. Blaming each other was easy. The result was that we failed.

While some progress on the climate was made (on decoupling growth and resource utilisation, renewable energy, and international agreements to limit global warming), we continue to increasingly pollute the biosphere. As smoke engulfs the southern hemisphere, we can see that the current course is a desperate one.

We didn’t tackle inequality. Inequality of wealth, assets and opportunity remain, depending on how rich or poor you were born, your identity, or where you grew up.

We enter the 2020s already divided and if we’re not smart more division will follow. Greater concentration of economic and cultural power combined with greater concentration of knowledge and skills is a profound risk. Unequal access to life-saving and life-improving biotechnologies or high-status and quality education only serve as further risks to social dislocation.

How our values divide us: blues vs oranges vs greens and muscular liberals vs progressive liberals

As I explored in a recent essay in the RSA Journal, the reconciliation of our ‘lifeworlds’ (family, community, friendships) with the big systems (power, money, technology) and the biosphere (environment, genetics, food) is the challenge of our times.

We have failed to adequately respond in the 2010s. A main reason is that we're divided. But division isn’t effective. We have a win-lose form of democracy with value-sets in competition rather than dialogue.

How can we explore a common future where the big systems work with, not against, our lifeworlds? We need leadership to bring different value sets together. Leadership that integrates where possible and divides only where necessary.

Three value-sets are particularly prevalent in modern society. Let’s call them Blue, Orange, and Green*:

  • Blues tend to value order, authority, rules, and moral codes.
  • Oranges are globalists valuing evidence, abstract truth, universal ethics, and expertise.
  • Greens are egalitarians, they value diversity and inclusivity, multiculturalists to their core.

Can we bring them together?

There has been much talk of a decline in liberalism (usually represented by the Oranges). I believe that we’re not in a post-liberal environment but a divided-liberal environment:

  • Muscular liberals, who believe in strong common values with an authoritative nation state mindful of national identity, order, and security found common cause with the authority respectful Blues. (In the UK, this is a large part of the Boris Johnson electoral coalition.)
  • Progressive liberals, the other side of liberalism, have sided with the Greens. (In UK terms, this was the Remain and Corbyn coalitions.)

So rather than becoming post-liberal, society has become bi-liberal. But neither Blue-Orange or Green-Orange seem equipped to build the coalitions we’ll need to really solve our problems. Something broader and more integrating is required.

Building a common understanding of the challenges we face

Where can we start? There are few easy answers. Values divides pull us away from a prime focus on deep challenges themselves.

But I think we can start by trying to create a greater common understanding of the collective problems we face. This understanding has to go beyond the acknowledgement of the problem (‘climate change is real and man-made’) to understanding the urgency of problems and the adaptation and even some sacrifice that may be necessary to resolve them.   

Such common understanding can only come through authentic common dialogue:

  • What will we collectively have to do to face our urgent challenges?
  • What does that require of all of us, what do we all hold in common, and which of differences can we not let go?
  • Where can we act and where should we agree to disagree and accept that?
  • How can we institutionalise more thoughtful citizen-centric deliberative forms of democracy, to help bring in voices across our plural values?

And finally, building on common dialogue, we can begin to move to new and evolved common institutions. They might include things like data trusts to ensure that our pooled data can be used for common good.

Mass investment funds will be needed to help accelerate the carbon transition but how can we help people adapt in their lives, their communities, their skills and work to engender a deeper collective effort for change? Can we combine a carbon and a social transition?

And what might that mean for how we transition through work? Job Security Councils and new access to lifelong learning will have to be part of our collective institutional tool-kit.

What the values divide means for social democrats

Struggling social democrats in Europe, including Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US, might be best advised to see their predicament in the context of the split in liberal values.

How do they reach back to their ‘heartlands’, their base, when it isn’t their economic analysis that has split them from the ‘traditional working class’ but a value split between progressivism and authority values?

Pursuing more community activism isn’t convincing as a response by itself, important though that may be. Social democrats and progressives have lost support not because they are not localist or relational enough, but because they aren’t seen as authoritative enough.

Let’s be honest about what divides us and discover what unites us

Ultimately though, solutions themselves are not sufficient and won’t be sustainable unless there is widespread embrace of what we have in common.

There will be compromises ahead if we are to encourage, through integrating leadership, a fruitful interaction between values rather than the win-lose of the 2010s. Greens, Oranges and Blues will have to accept they none can have it all their own way - even in temporary alliance.

If it’s values that divide us, let’s be up-front about that and seek to discover what can unite us. There is a fierce urgency and it is of now.

* Those who are familiar with the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck, Ken Wilber and others will recognise these value-sets or ‘stages’. There are other ways and names to group values, for example the ‘settlers’, ‘prospectors’, and ‘pioneers’ of the Cultural Dynamics model. Hope not Hate has been analysing values as part of its Fear and Hope series for almost a decade now. What all these approaches have in common is that what divides us is more to do with our values than our economic position.


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