Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Why Twitter doesn't work, Labour won't win and the Lib Dems are irrationally cheerful

It's hard to have sensible conversations with people from other parties on Twitter. Too often, name-calling or petty point-scoring takes over from rational discussion early in the proceedings.

Labour activists find it particular hard to talk to Conservatives because they have convinced themselves that the Labour Party is the fount of virtue. Therefore, they reason, anyone who votes Tory must be an evil person.

Let's call it the Hesmondhalgh Doctrine.

It's predominance in Corbyn's Labour Party mean that it cannot talk to the many voters who have no great love for the Conservative Party but suspect that it is more to be trusted from an economic point of view than Labour.

Meanwhile many Liberal Democrats, when they have been traumatised by the result of the last general election, shrugged, declared a #libdemfightback and carried on as if not much had happened.

An article in the New York Times by David Brooks puts a finger on the social changes that are behind these phenomena.

He writes:
In healthy societies, people live their lives within a galaxy of warm places. They are members of a family, neighborhood, school, civic organization, hobby group, company, faith, regional culture, nation, continent and world. Each layer of life is nestled in the others to form a varied but coherent whole. 
But starting just after World War II, America’s community/membership mind-set gave way to an individualistic/autonomy mind-set. The idea was that individuals should be liberated to live as they chose, so long as they didn’t interfere with the rights of others. ... 
The individualist turn had great effects but also accumulating downsides. By 2005, 47 percent of Americans reported that they knew none or just a few of their neighbors by name. There’s been a sharp rise in the number of people who report that they have no close friends to confide in.
Brooks cites Marc J. Dunkelman, author of The Vanishing Neighbor, as arguing that
people are good at tending their inner-ring relationships - their family and friends. They’re pretty good at tending to outer-ring relationships - their hundreds of Facebook acquaintances, their fellow progressives, or their TED and Harley fans. 
But Americans spend less time with middle-ring township relationships - the PTA, the neighborhood watch.
These middle-ring relationships sound like Edmund Burke's little platoon and Dunkelman sounds very like Robert Putnam, whose Bowling Alone we all read at the turn of the century.

What has this to do with the state of party politics?

Brooks continues:
With fewer sources of ethnic and local identity, people ask politics to fill the void. Being a Democrat or a Republican becomes their ethnicity. People put politics at the center of their psychological, emotional and even spiritual life. This is asking too much of politics.
Once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor. If you put politics at the center of identity, you end up asking the state to eclipse every social authority but itself. Presidential campaigns become these gargantuan two-year national rituals that swallow everything else in national life. 
If we’re going to salvage our politics, we probably have to shrink politics, and nurture the thick local membership web that politics rests within.
He goes on to say we should "scale back the culture of autonomy," which makes my liberal hackles rise and suggests Brooks too is in danger of wanting the state to eclipse every other social authority.

As a liberal I believe in individuality, and we express our individuality through the groups we choose to join. There must be a liberal route to the revival of social bonds.

But the idea that we are asking too much of politics is one I have long been toying with.

Political activists do tend to make their political affiliation central to their identity. More than that, they find their social life, their friends, even their partners, through their activism.

That party membership is such a minority taste now suggests that the 19th-century model of political parties we still embrace is hopelessly outdated.

Yet no politician has the vision or overweening ambition to wrench it apart and allowing something more attuned to our needs today to take its place.

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