Healthy Debate is Dying

Matthew Howlett

Violent protests after an election are highlighting the polarisation of modern politics. (Photo: The Guardian)

The election of Donald Trump as president-elect of the United States has sent shockwaves through the entire political system and turned into a nightmare scenario for Hillary Clinton and her supporters. On a night that was expected to produce a relatively comfortable road to the White House for her, it became clear that the support for her rival was much higher than anticipated. What followed was torturous for Democrats across the US as state after state turned red. By the time Ohio was called for Donald Trump, the unthinkable was now inevitable.

Reactions of sadness and disappointment were quickly replaced with anger and resentment. How did this happen? How did America vote a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic Republican into the White House? Social media was completely dominated by disappointed Democrats blaming everyone under the sun for the events of election night. This then escalated into demonstrations which, in turn, became violent in places.

What is ironic is many people beforehand expected violent protests and the inability to accept a democratic vote to be coming from Donald Trump’s supporters after the president-elect’s apparent unwillingness to do so himself should he lose. Yet now Mr Trump has won, the same people who criticised the “basket of deplorables” are now producing deplorable actions of their own.

However, should we really be surprised by this? After all, what is becoming quickly apparent in the fluid nature of modern culture is that we as a society are becoming less tolerant of alternative opinions to our own. All you have to do is look at social media comments on any vaguely political post to see keyboard wars between “racist bigots” and “dumb liberals.” An environment of such hatred for anyone with an opposing view is making it hugely difficult for undecided voters to have open, amicable debates about the issues that will actually affect their lives.

The polarisation of politics can only be tied in with the rise of social media, and specifically, the content that users see there. Mark Zuckerberg has recently been forced onto the defensive over Facebook’s role in circulating fake news stories before the US election, and the accusers have valid points. Social media is designed so that its users are presented with posts that will be tailored to their tastes. So if you retweet or share a pro-Trump article, chances are, you are more likely to be exposed to more of the same. This is especially problematic on Twitter, where character limits prevent any kind of detailed argument for the contrary.

The other problem with this is the nature of the people sharing these articles. To get noticed amid the several hundred million regular users of Twitter for example, the comments are likely to be greatly exaggerated, resulting in more people taking notice of you. These are the tweets and status updates that are therefore seen by more people. The more balanced views, that tend to trigger a much lower number of responses, are kept somewhere deep in social media’s trending topics algorithm, resulting in extreme views being portrayed as popular.

Of course this isn’t entirely different from somebody buying the Daily Telegraph regularly because the content matches their views. In many cases the language is exaggerated in similar ways for similar reasons. However, newspapers are subject to more rigorous regulations about what they can print than social media, where similar such guidelines are virtually impossible.

What the unregulated publishing of articles then does is present fabricated, loosely true, or politically biased stories as fact, and more and more people are believing them. Not only that, the accounts which circulate stories such as these are essentially providing online safe spaces where users are only subjected to one point of view. This has long been a problem on university campuses, where certain speakers have been banned because of certain views they hold, and now this appears to be spreading further afield. Political opinion has therefore been portrayed as a battle of good versus evil, when the reality is much less clear and straight forward.

Election results of the last few years have come to reinforce this point. Each time we go to the polling stations, the losing side turns to social media to lament everyone who voted against their views. The 2015 UK general election was no different, the EU referendum was exactly the same and now, the US election has continued the same worrying trend. Lambasting people with alternative opinions may make the accused feel better about their side losing for a brief few seconds, but all this is doing is serving up an ideological war between the left and the right that provides the perfect environment for a Donald Trump to thrive in.

The huge task now facing everyone involved in politics is how the rifts of a brutal 2016 are to be resolved. The starting point of any healing process has to be the content published in the media. The unfortunate reality of both Brexit and the US election is that voters were force-fed information that led them to conclude that this was a choice between the “establishment cronies” or the “dumb racists.” This is simply not healthy for democracy. Surely the most important issues for voters should not be largely exaggerated character flaws and instead be the social, economic and cultural issues that are important to the voter in question.

But I doubt even this will help much if supporters of the “anti-establishment” candidates continue to be discarded and rejected by society. Not all of the 62 million people who voted for Donald Trump are racists. Many people who voted for Mr Trump willingly ignored the waves of controversy because they felt left behind by a political system that, they believe, is built to preserve the political elite. What the opposition appear to fail to understand is that these people simply prioritise their own prosperity over any social issue. Mocking them for this is only going to fuel the anti-establishment fire even further.

Sadly, the polarisation of western politics is only likely to get worse if society is not willing to be more tolerant about opposing views. Calls for unity from virtually all high-profile politicians in the wake of both Brexit and the US election are simply being ignored. Unfortunately, a time where two people with opposite opinions on political issues can speak amicably about them appears to have gone.