A politics of belonging

A politics of belonging

I read Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown completely by chance as it was recommended on the Kindle store front page when I was on my way to to buy a book from my wish list. I’ve enjoyed reading Brene Brown before – I really like how she applies academic research to concepts like shame, concepts that others don’t touch. So I thought I’d give this one a chance.

This book is both a plea to a divided, post-Trump victory US to think about and react differently to deep tribal divides, as well as being a more personal reflection on what it means for each of us to find true belonging.

Brown argues that selecting like-minded friends and separating ourselves from people who think differently to us has not delivered the deep sense of belonging we are hard-wired to crave. The way we separate into tribes means we often make assumptions about others views and don’t want to listen to their arguments.

She also points out that there is less and less civility in debates today and calls for us all to claim and care for our own identity and beliefs without degrading others in the process. She argues that we need to get better at disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground, and listening past our preconceptions. It’s so much easier to not engage with people whose views you completely disagree with, but I am up for giving it a try.

It reminded me of reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt a couple of years ago (see my blog), which argues that morality ‘binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as if the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.’

Having read this I then moved on to The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics by David Goodhart, thanks to a recommendation from my former colleague Helen.

Goodhart starts by pointing out that in the EU referendum Remainers who woke up feeling like they were living in a foreign country were merely experiencing what a majority of people in the UK apparently feel every day. His thesis is that the country is made up of two tribes: Anywheres and Somewheres.

Anywheres dominate culture and society – they are the exam-passing classes, they go to a residential university (thanks to a new wave of 1960s residential universities that reaffirmed the boarding school principle) and then into the professions, move to London or abroad for a year or two, then move back to London and other metropolitan areas. They lose touch with their non-graduate friends from home in the process and live far away from their families. They have portable ‘achieved’ identities which make them comfortable with new places and new people.

In contrast, Somewheres are rooted and have ‘ascribed identities’ based on group belonging and particular places, which is why they find rapid change more unsettling. A statistic I found astonishing is that 60% of British people still live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14. Astonishing to me precisely because I’m an Anywhere, with some, but not many, Somewhere friends (mainly through my partner who didn’t go to University).

Both of these tribes have a variety of groups within them, so Somewheres range from northern working-class pensioners to Home Counties market town Daily Mail readers. Anywheres range from radical academics to City bankers. Goodhart looks at survey data to conclude that the population is made up of 20-25% Anywheres and 50% of Somewheres, with the rest being in-betweeners.

The problem is that where the interests of Anywheres are at stake things happen. This is not the case for Somewheres. Yet until thirty or forty years ago the Somewhere view was dominant. In just two generations Anywhere views have replaced Somewhere views, due to legacy of baby boomer 60s liberalism and the mass expansion of higher education. But we’re now seeing the Somewhere fight back of the Brexit vote, Trump in US, and the struggling of either Labour or the Conservatives to get a majority in the UK.

Goodhart rightly points out that it’s time that Anywheres stopped looking down on Somewheres. When people in Sunderland voted for Brexit apparently against their economic interests it was considered stupid, but when affluent people vote for higher taxes it’s considered admirable. He argues that Somewheres are prepared to trade economic gain for political agency and the prospect of a society that takes them more seriously. Whilst the Remain campaign was all about money, the Leave campaign was about restoring meaning to people’s lives and a rejection of the market. Somewheres wanted their vote to act as a break on Anywhere preferences.

I also found it interesting that the rise of Corbyn and influx of Labour members has not changed the social composition of the Labour Party – three-quarters of members are middle class, 60% are graduates, and 40% live in London and southeast. In contrast Conservatives have only 38% graduates amongst their members. They don’t struggle to understand Somewheres because they mostly are Somewheres (albeit more affluent ones).

Goodhart argues that this is leading to a possibly fatal dynamic for the centre-left throughout Europe, as white working-class Somewheres are alienated by louder Anywhere voters on the centre-left. This means in the UK we may see a stalemate politically in the coming years as we had in 1960s and 70s, when  neither organised labour or the establishment were strong enough to prevail.

Some of Goodhart’s policy proposals seem sensible – investment in technical education and Apprenticeships so that non-University routes are valued. But I was left wondering how you hang together a sensible, but technocratic sounding, set of policies that benefit Somewheres into a narrative that restores meaning for Somewheres as well as materially benefitting them? This is something that the Democrats are struggling with in the US at the moment and need to find an answer to before the mid-terms.

All of this will definitely make me listen to Pod Save America (one of my favourite podcasts) differently and to think differently about my own tribalism. This book should change the way Remainers and Anywheres think and act in the future. I hope people who care about politics use this book as a spur to coming up with a new politics that works for Somewheres as well as Anywheres.