Why people don’t listen to the ‘unifiers’ in an age of polarised politics

WHEN THE HUMAN GENOME was sequenced most non-scientists — including Bill Clinton who funded the research — who kept abreast of the leap forward were startled by the discovery that all human beings share 99.9% of the same DNA. Think about that for a second: all the heights, colours, shapes and tawdry personality quirks that you might find appalling in others — they are rooted in one tenth of one percent of what makes them them.

However, if you spend 99.9% of your time conversing about how much you have in common with others, don’t expect to be the cornerstone of your social circle. People don’t find commonality interesting. They like the connotations, but don’t like the practice. How much of gossip is based on how much Steve from Accounts has in common with everyone he works with…? None. How about the fact that Steve is having an affair with Jen, or lied about which College he attended? That’s the stuff that enlivens water cooler chatter. And the primacy of ‘difference’ now drives Anglo-American politics more than at any time since the Goldwater campaign.

The rhetoric of violence, discord or just plain prejudice are running the day. Mass-mobilisation, of course, requires a leader to turn a phrase that taps into something deep within a collective conscience — like a gut feeling that something has gone wrong with the American project; or that you’ve lost out because of establishment conspiracies that have held you back in life. But, it’s inevitably an uphill struggle to argue that the best way to right those atavistic wrongs is by coöperating with people who you might disagree with. That’s not the rhetorical tool most politicians reach for in times of polarisation. Rather — they tend towards the low-hanging fruit of otherness. Convincing millions of people that they haven’t achieved their true potential because of the surreptitious pursuits of immigrants is either skilful (if you are a sociopath) or deeply troubling (if you are not).

Whether it’s morally repugnant or otherwise, it has succeeded in shifting the playing field of politics. Extremists revel in attention — a familiar trait of Trump is fielding an outlandish statement that sounds a dog-whistle to his ardent supporters and forces his rivals to repudiate the comment. And thus the news cycle is spun in several days coverage of whatever nonsensical ‘shooting from the hip’ Trump began with.

This is cancerous for national discourse, and attention span. ‘Common sense’ politics should hold that in the face a rigged game where you are the loser, you might be inclined to unite with other people in the same position. It’s Trump first Act; and needn’t be a repulsive premise for collective action. But what Trump does next is the abhorrent part…