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The extension of political conflict is corroding liberal democracy
In the last month, two incidents have ignited debate about the role of politics in British society. Firstly, the football commentator Gary Neville excoriated the Conservative government during television coverage of the World Cup final. Secondly, the London New Year fireworks featured pro-Ukraine and LGBTQ+ fireworks, the same display having pro-EU fireworks in 2018.
Liberal democracies need engaged voters and spaces for political debate – party identification even stabilizes democracy – yet these cases are different, involving the intrusion of politics into public spheres which are traditionally non-political; let us call this the extension of political conflict. Britain is far from alone, this phenomenon occurring across the West and particularly in America. For two reasons, I worry that the trend corrodes liberal democracy.
Firstly, liberal societies need non-political spheres. Liberal theorists have always been concerned with this, early thinkers underlining restrictions on political activity, yet anti-totalitarian liberals such as Arendt and Popper emphasized this particularly. In totalitarian regimes, everything is considered political, justifying party control of spheres such as work and sport.
Political systems in the contemporary West are incomparable with 20th century totalitarianism and will not turn into such regimes, yet the trend is concerning. Many of us relish breaks from politics. Like few other activities, politics initiates conflict, meaning that it stresses us in ways that non-political activities do not. I adore politics (readers may have guessed!), yet watch football in the hope of avoiding it. At its best, sport enables connections which transcend ethnicity, class and belief; politics gets in the way of this.
Admittedly, sport is socially embedded and concessions to (non-partisan) politics must be made – for example, certain campaigns against racism have their place – but this should not extend to partisan comments from analysts. Some retort that everything is political, but I do not see how activities such as birdwatching, sex and optometry are political in a meaningful sense. If one insists on the contrary, we return to similarities with totalitarianism.
Secondly, the extension of political conflict undermines civility. Whilst democracy entails debate among voters, it requires civility to an extent that other systems do not. If supporters of losing candidates are to accept defeat, they must regard opponents as tolerable. For this reason, democracy has historically taken root in homogeneous societies.
Across the West, this model is under strain, certain American voters now being unprepared to accept defeat, and conflict extension is a key cause. In an important article, Hare demonstrates that attitudes among American voters have become more unidimensional. Increasingly, political conflicts permeate society, reflecting partisan divisions and undermining civility. Countries such as Britain are not as divided as America, yet conflict extension seems to be occurring across the West.
When public firework displays take positions on controversial issues, they provoke partisan reactions, poisoning debate further and turning aggrieved groups away from public spaces. Even if the end point is not civil war – though there are concerns about this in America - the phenomenon engenders disengagement and lack of trust, scholars associating these trends with weaker democracy.
Both conservatives and liberals are complicit in these trends – in British football, conservatives have campaigned for the wearing of poppies – yet liberals seem to be on the front foot, the commentary and fireworks incidents both championing liberal causes. Liberals have arguments why such interventions are appropriate – some are convincing, these cases being eclectic and context-dependent – yet if we adopt a broader perspective, these justifications seem contingent.
Minorities tend to resist the extension of political conflict. Historically, liberals form minorities and, to this day, conservatives promote conflict extension in contexts in which they are powerful, certain southern US states being examples. But the modern, post-material West is unique; majorities hold liberal values, particularly elites, meaning that liberals have incentives to extend conflict. One could argue this enables a more authentic liberalism, minority status constraining previous liberals, yet I am unconvinced; restraint is central to liberalism.
How will this end? Though liberalism has proved less resistant to conflict extension than we may have hoped – as liberals have become dominant, many have simply imitated traditional conservative practices – liberal democracy may be different, this system institutionalizing neutrality and civic independence. Friends of liberal democracy should hope these institutions prove resilient, along with those who just wish to enjoy football and fireworks.
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