Society and Culture

On Brexit and ideological tribalism

Have you ever wondered why many Tories spent the past two elections implying that Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn hated Britain and would destroy its institutions?

Or why progressives within the Labour party regularly accuse the Tories of “attacking” the poor, women and minorities?

Or perhaps why classical liberals and libertarians got so animated about the paucity of free market ideas in the Conservative manifesto?

A new edition of the book The Three Languages of Politics by the US economist Arnold Kling might have the answers. To Kling, much of the apparent polarisation of discourse in the United States occurs because those deeply involved with politics self-divide into three broad tribes. These tribes do not just have different ideas, but have developed whole distinct languages to analyse societal and policy problems.

According to Kling, conservatives have a tendency to communicate through the prism of civilization vs. barbarism, seeking to restore or promote the former at the expense of the latter. Progressives communicate through the language of division, separating people into the oppressed and the oppressors. Classical liberals, in contrast, tend to view things through the axis of freedom versus authority.

This framing is problematic and polarising, because these distinct languages mean we often talk directly past each other.

Does the same framework explain the rhetoric in the UK? In many areas, yes.

Consider the “austerity” debate. Many prominent conservatives explained the need for fiscal consolidation in 2010 as necessary to avoid the chaos and breakdown seen in Greece. Labour voices opposed the cuts as cruel, often identifying victim groups – such as the poor, women and public sector workers – who were said to be paying for the sins of the Tories’ banker friends. And classical liberals made the point that public spending cuts, which reduced the size of government, would grant the private sector more room to grow.

The BBC is another example. Natural conservatives feel the need to highlight the Beeb’s historic role as a national institution, creating shared experiences, enriching our culture and providing a reasoned, shared platform in contrast to the brashness of US cable TV. Progressives like to think of the BBC as an island for the oppressed in a sea of commercial TV ruthlessly seeking profit. The classical liberals? They cannot abide that the BBC is funded by a compulsory licence fee, particularly given changing tastes and technologies.

If we are to have constructive discourse, based upon persuasion, all sides must be able to internalise these huge differences in language and learn to speak to each other. It is incumbent on those of us who are involved in politics or policy to see problems through the framing of other tribes and understand their concerns and viewpoint.

Sadly, the tribal nature of the languages – and our use of them to win approval from other members of our group – means that often positions are taken to extremes and used to shut down debate.

One only has to explore Twitter to find progressives who genuinely believe classical liberals and conservatives do not care about oppressed groups, conservatives who believe many progressives and libertarians want to destroy western civilisation, and classical liberals who think both progressives and conservatives are rampant authoritarians.

Could Brexit provide an opportunity to overcome this? The EU vote and its subsequent fallout is interesting in that it has fragmented each tribe into two broad groups.

Brexiteer conservatives talk of how the EU and mass migration are undermining British sovereignty, law and culture, while pro-EU conservatives instead highlight how leaving the EU contributes to the overthrow of an international order that has kept peace and stability.

Progressive Brexiteers link the EU with a “neoliberal” agenda, and often discuss Greece and other southern countries as the oppressed; progressive pro-EUers talk of how the Brexit vote has launched intolerance and anti-migrant feeling, while threatening their rights.

Classical liberals are divided too, between those who see the EU as a protectionist big government force and those who see it as liberalising Europe towards a free trade and free movement zone.

This realignment and coalition-building developed around Brexit provides an opportunity for greater acknowledgement of the preconceptions and languages of each tribe. As we leave the EU and repatriate a host of policy areas, domestic politics will become more powerful and important again.

Hopefully the legacy of these coalitions will be a greater appreciation of the viewpoints of other tribes, and a more constructive discourse will result.


This article was first published in City AM.

Ryan Bourne occupies the R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at Cato. He has written on a number of economic issues, including: fiscal policy, inequality, minimum wages and rent control. Before joining Cato, Bourne was Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Head of Economic Research at the Centre for Policy Studies (both in the UK).

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