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The toxic polarisation of our politics can be reversed, but it will take humility

Martin Kettle
·6-min read

After Dwight Eisenhower had been sworn in as United States president on Capitol Hill in January 1953, he recited a prayer to the watching crowd that he had written himself that same morning. The words embodied how Eisenhower hoped to govern. “Especially we pray,” he told them, “that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling. May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who … hold to differing political beliefs.”

To a 2020s audience those words may now seem anodyne and pious, the usual politician’s guff that we barely listen to. Race, in particular, would remain an unhealed wound through Eisenhower’s eight years in the White House. Nevertheless, the prayer truthfully embodies an approach to politics that actually worked for much of 1950s America.

Those years are widely seen – the unignorable exception of race apart – as marking, amid a certain mom-and-pop dullness, a high tide of shared national values, prosperity and political depolarisation. As Robert D Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett have put it in their recent book The Upswing, the 1950s are at the swelling summit in the middle of the “I-we-I” bell curve of American life between the economic free-for-all of the 1890s, the era of greater cooperation in the mid-20th century, and the turbocharged renewal of individualism, inequality and hyperpartisanship of the 2020s.

Donald Trump and Eisenhower are both Republican presidents. Yet as leaders, and in the lives they have led, they could hardly be more different in every way. It is completely impossible to imagine Trump uttering the kind of words Eisenhower used in 1953. It is, though, possible to imagine Joe Biden speaking them. Indeed, it would be a surprise if Biden does not make a commitment to cooperation of this kind when he himself swears the oath, in less than two months’ time.

Yet is there the slightest possibility that such an approach would have any effect today, or that it would endure? The question of whether governments in advanced capitalist democracies can bring entrenched and bitterly divided polities together is now the single most important issue facing our politics. America is by far the most urgent and important example of this. But it is true of countries beyond the US too – Britain undoubtedly included.

The odds on Biden – or other consensual leaders in other countries – achieving this are long. Today we are not at the summit of The Upswing’s 130-year-long “I-we-I” curve of economic equality, political cooperation, social cohesion and public altruism, as Eisenhower was in the 1950s. We are instead heading rapidly down the curve to new depths of inequality, partisan intransigence, individualism and selfishness. We may even have passed a point of no return.

Many therefore assert that those more unified and civil days are simply over. Some on all sides actually welcome this, thinking that the downward descent of the old, unified, liberal capitalist state in the early 21st century presents a cathartic opportunity to clear the debris and failures of the past and create a ground zero for a different kind of brave new future.

My answer to those zealots is to be very careful indeed about what they wish for. Putnam’s book speaks for the many millions who don’t think the way the zealots do. It speaks for those who want the tide of the last decade to be slowed, stopped and turned – and who want to believe the restoration of a “we” society, based on liberal democratic managed capitalism, can happen, although in a less unequal and less rancorous way.

One good reason for saying this is that something like it has happened before. The upward trajectory of the “I-we-I” curve in the early years of the 20th century did not descend from out of a clear blue sky, in the US or anywhere else. Instead, it was built on, among other things, economic innovation and greater equality (including for women), laws that broke up monopolies, political leadership that was not afraid of taxing the super-rich, the creation of effective nation state and private-sector institutions, high-quality education, a boom in charity and philanthropy and a media that people broadly trusted to tell them the truth.

Another reason for confidence is that the destroyers have not yet triumphed. Much of what sustained the earlier, more cooperative era endures. What the EU might call the acquis of liberal democracy and internationalism – the body of principles, institutions and civic habits that the present day has inherited from the not-so-distant past – is actually more resilient than the shocks inflicted on it may suggest.

The transition from Trump to Biden illustrates this. Trump’s assault on the electoral process and its credibility has been epochal and terrible, but in the end the transition seems to be happening. The electoral process was tested to the limits, but it proved robust and decisive. Its institutions and principles have survived. Something a little similar may now be happening in Britain over Brexit’s disregard of laws and treaties too.

And yet the divides remain. How can these embittered certainties be eased and eventually bridged? Changing people’s minds may seem to be the answer, but changing a mind is a very long-term process. Opening one’s own mind is more important. And this needs to apply on all sides. Denunciation, lecturing, labelling, and obsessing over language all make things worse, not better.

The key is to prioritise listening and then talking to others. Michael Sandel’s recent book The Tyranny of Merit argues that humility must be central to the reconstruction of the notion of the common good, without which no “we” society can prosper. People don’t need to be humiliated or denied a voice by being told they are bad, stupid, bigoted or unsuccessful. The aim should be to find things we can all agree about, perhaps including such things as fairness, patriotism, helping one another and trying to agree about facts.

Respect for the truth is indispensable. Social media are the chief accelerator in this area of catastrophic decline. Much stronger control over online untruth will be a precondition for rebuilding the common good. This is as true of politics in general as of ensuring a full take-up of any Covid vaccine. But there is material to work with. Public trust has survived in many places. Ipsos Mori reported this week that more than 80% of us trust what nurses, doctors, engineers, teachers, judges, professors and scientists tell us. By contrast, around 80% mistrust journalists, government ministers, politicians generally and advertising executives. The problem lies with politics and media.

Perhaps the Bidens of the world have it in them to change this. Let us hope so. But they need the help of thousands of local citizens if so, meeting at local level to rebuild confidence in the common good. Government matters very much indeed. But the way we treat each other matters just as much. We don’t just need to build up herd immunity to viruses. We need to build up herd immunity to untruth, and to glib easy answers too, and to all those who purvey them, in whatever form.

  • Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist