How to defeat the politics of division and polarisation

National politicians need to learn the lessons of solidarity and co-operation that thrive locally

Shana Cohen08/10/2019

Over the next few weeks we will see if the political tactic of accelerating divisiveness triumphs over calls to restore civility in the UK.

Neither of the two biggest parties can claim innocence when it comes to demonising opponents.

The spectre of angry, destructive politics that has become so entrenched in the UK (and indeed in other countries, such as the US) over recent years needs to be explored in more depth. But, more importantly, so should ways of countering such negative and polarising strategies.

We need to ask: how can people mobilise effectively across race, class, gender and political differences? And how can politicians capitalise on this experience to devise alternative narratives to the current rhetoric, whether it’s the general diktat to “protect the 17.4 million Leave voters” or the more specific threat of “support Brexit or face the consequences”?

Any plan to counter the stoking of social tensions cannot be simply a return to the conditions that made this strategy attractive in the first place. Ultimately it should not rely on legal constraints.

The basis for devising an alternative politics is already in existence but is not yet being articulated, acknowledged or appreciated, particularly by the party leaders charged with managing and interpreting politics nationally.

I am American, and I lived in the UK for 13 years before coming to Ireland to work. During my time there, I witnessed, and worked with, dozens of examples of effective co-operation between representatives of diverse ethnic and religious groups. I spent days talking to local social activists whose backgrounds may have differed but who all shared the same values and concern for social justice and the protection of individual rights.

Lost faith

Like many disaffected populations who often support far-right movements and populist leaders, the local social activists I met had, for the most part, lost faith in national government and political elites. They distrusted the ability and motivation of national policymakers to protect the populations they served – most of whom were low-income and marginalised groups.

They wanted to influence policy but did not believe anyone would listen. They also recognised that the political elites had become too removed from the everyday lives and realities of the residents in their constituencies.

To counter this trend, these local activists adopted a completely different approach from the “nativist” politics that was dominating the national public sphere. Quietly and under the radar, they provided another perspective to the normalisation of anti-immigrant stances in policymaking that were dominating elections and headlines.

They worked together to mobilise resources for activities ranging from food banks to multifaith exercise classes to school-based parent support groups. One food bank founder I worked with was an atheist but relied upon Muslim and Christian donors in his area to maintain supply. The effect of this cross-faith co-operation was to embed the food bank in the community while protecting the dignity of its users. Project organisers were incentivised as much by moral principles and outrage as social need.

The organisers of a Muslim-Jewish dance class kept it going to give themselves a safe space (for religious women) to exercise and, inversely, provide themselves the freedom to compartmentalise religion by just exercising.

As the UK, and indeed other countries, including Ireland, deal with political tumult, we need to extract the lessons from these local experiences of solidarity to develop an alternative to the divisiveness that has been allowed to prevail for too long.

However, activists also express a concern that spotlighting successful local co-operation may also undermine it. At a meeting I attended years ago in Belfast with local Protestant and Catholic clergy, all of the participants concurred that the “quiet work” sustained during the Troubles had laid the foundation for the peace process. The conundrum, they explained, was that attracting attention may push participants away. At the same time, they argued that local methods of co-operation still needed to be accounted for in the process of seeking reconciliation.

Epitome of politics

An orthodox rabbi in north London provided a example similar to the Northern Irish clergy’s. His community was living in the same densely populated area as a conservative Muslim population. Because they knew, and trusted, each other, they were able to rapidly deal with problems that could provoke tensions between the two communities. Trust between individual leaders contributed to co-existence.

A logical policy course would be to invest in “quiet work”, supporting capacity-building among the frontline organisations working with diverse populations. But championing the localisation of politics is not enough on its own, as this trend can be pigeonholed and subsequently ignored by national political elites.

National politicians need to take on the lessons of solidarity and co-operation that have been thriving locally while Westminster has been disintegrating. Ironically, far from being anti-political, these communities are actually experiencing the epitome of what politics should be all about. Subscribing to the enlightenment ideas of tolerance and equal rights, their respect for difference and individual dignity protects and strengthens democratic institutions.

Too many political parties across the world are not embracing co-operation across diversity. However, by learning from what is working locally, and by linking practical examples of effective action with concepts of solidarity, there is some glimmer of hope that politics – and even the extreme, polarised and damaged politics of Westminster – can change for the better.


This article appeared in the Irish Times on 1 October 2019

Posted in: BrexitDemocratic accountabilityPolitics

Tagged with: democracy

Dr. Shana Cohen

Shana Cohen Head Shot

Dr. Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC.

She studied at Princeton University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Her PhD analyzed the political and social consequences of market reform policies in Morocco for young, educated men and women. Since then, she has continued to conduct research on how economic policies have influenced political and social identity, particularly in relation to collective action and social activism.

She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield, and most recently, University of Cambridge, where she is still an Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher.  Her areas of teaching have included global social policy, globalization, and human services.

Before coming to TASC, she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. In her role at the Institute, she became engaged with interfaith and intercultural relations in Europe, India, and the Middle East.

Beyond academic research, Shana has extensive experience working with NGOs and community-based organizations in a number of countries, including Morocco, the US, the UK, and India. This work has involved project design, management, and evaluation as well as advocacy. She has consulted for the World Bank, the Grameen Bank Foundation, and other private foundations and trusts.



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