The next phase of post-democracy? Political disagreement becoming personal prejudice, or, stop being racist against the Tories

I listened to a fascinatingly crap podcast while in the gym earlier – Robin Aitken, introduced solely as a ‘Tory supporter’ but last seen complaining about institutional discrimination against conservatives during his career at the BBC, has produced an episode of Analysis on Radio 4 exploring whether anti-conservative sentiment is the last acceptable prejudice. It’s a rather confused argument, simultaneously explaining away blanket criticism of a political party as prejudice while also arguing that the Tories have changed and so the ‘nasty party’ tag is inaccurate (thus implying that it might have been an accurate assessment in the past). It’s also rather oddly produced, with the most prominent commentators including Norman Tebbitt, who talks about the need to ‘hurt the population’ in a documentary arguing that Tories aren’t nasty, as well as Roger Scrutton, who has been dismissed from journalistic roles for writing about ‘tobacco issues’ while failing to declare the generous salary he was being paid by tobacco companies, in a documentary arguing that Tories aren’t greedy and self-serving. It was all a bit inadequate really, leaving me surprised that it had been made, even allowing for the over-eager interpretation of ‘balance’ likely to be in play when someone like Aitken produces something for the BBC in the present political climate.

However I’m intrigued by the attempt to subsume political disagreement under the logic of identity politics. Not only because it is so axiomatically relativistic a move being made by those who so habitually attack relativism. It also suggests something interesting about broader developments in political culture. As one cringe-worthy Tory analyst said during the podcast: “modern politics is as much an exercise in self-expression as it is in self-interest”. Leaving aside the philosophically and empirically dubious status of such a claim, it nonetheless points to questions about why this form of argument has begun to emerge in the last decade or so. What interests me is how this notion could creep into common circulation, as opposed to its rhetorical deployment by journalists producing bad radio documentaries. I mean things like this, which I found at random through google:

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 16.37.02

The notion of ‘anti tory prejudice’ becomes an organising concept through which other political claims are made. Take for instance this thread I found on the Student Room, in which a poster asks for a ‘survival guide for ultra conservative students’:

Are there any other social/ cultural conservatives here who feel that they are being or have been marginalised in an increasingly liberal modern society?

Why do you think this has happened? and how do you cope with it?

Are there any careers which you feel are more suitable for ultra conservatives? Most modern workplaces seem to be dominated by extreme trendy liberals so which careers are still suitable for a social conservative (outside of the Church)?

I think we can see this psychoanalytically, in terms of the kinds of arguments made by Iain Craib and others, in which many of us are becoming progressively less able to live with discomfort, disagreement and disappointment – in this sense, finding one’s views at odds with those of the people around us comes to feel as if we are attacked by our environment or that we may at any point become so. We shore ourselves up by affirming that they have a problem with us – we confront their prejudice, revealing them to be bad and ourselves to be an innocent victim. Or maybe we just self-select? I guess I’m proposing a particular psychosocial mechanism driving homophily (a statement I write as someone who to the best of my knowledge has never had a right-wing friend).

I think it would be a mistake to treat this entirely at the level of the psychosocial though – if this is a trend, which is far from clear, it’s a complex issue that points to a range of potential factors driving it. I think Colin Crouch’s work on post-democracy could be useful here, offering a framework through which we can begin to ask questions about the political psychology of post-democracy. This is how Crouch describes the underlying idea:

The term was indeed a direct analogy with ‘post-industrial’. A post-industrial society is not a non-industrial one. It continues to make and to use the products of industry, but the energy and innovative drive of the system have gone elsewhere. The same applies in a more complex way to post-modern, which is not the same as anti-modern or of course pre-modern. It implies a culture that uses the achievements of modernism but departs from them in its search for new possibilities. A post-democratic society therefore is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite. I did not say that we were now living in a post-democratic society, but that we were moving towards such a condition.

I’m interested in how the social psychology of political (dis)engagement changes when “the energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena” – what does the political come to feel like under conditions of post-democracy? Chantal Mouffe has argued that those who might otherwise be seen as adversaries (to be opposed) instead come to be seen as enemies (to be destroyed). Her argument concerns the construction of ‘political antagonism’ – could the reduction of disagreement to prejudice be a form that antagonism takes at the level of everyday life?

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