Behind The Breakdown Of Political Consensus


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Across Western democracies, the social cohesion that once sustained political consensus has severely eroded. A new segregation is emerging as a combined result of the collapse of socializing institutions and the rise of polarizing practices.

Mandatory military or civic service is gone in most liberal societies. Universal public education, in which all classes, races and ethnicities mingled, has been relegated to less well-off communities while those who can afford it receive a private education from preschool to university. Add to this the inequality that is growing with the widening bifurcation of the globalized digital economy into high and low-wage sectors, which translates into neighborhoods further separated by the cost of housing. And add to that the mass migrations in recent years that have brought a larger presence of outsiders into societies once settled in a fixed identity.

At the same time, mainstream media plays to cultural niches in highly competitive markets while the business model of social media companies maximizes virality among the like-minded. This division of the social imagination into silos, where stereotypes replace real experience with others, both fuels and is amplified in the discourse of demagogic politics. These symbiotic forces contribute mightily to the chronic incapacity to reach a politics of consensus.

In The WorldPost this week, we examine the forces that are fraying social cohesion in the West and what might be done to repair it. We also look at the case of Singapore, where attentive public policy has fostered enduring harmony in that ethnically diverse city-state.

One key culprit behind the broken bonds of society, Francis Fukuyama explains in an interview, is the explosion of identity politics. “What we call identity politics grew out of the social movements of the 1960s, around the demands of African Americans, women, gays and lesbians and other marginalized groups for recognition of their dignity and concrete remedies to social disadvantages,” he says. “These demands have evolved over the years to displace socio-economic class as the traditional way that much of the left thinks about inequality. They reflect important grievances, but in some cases, began to take on an exclusive character where people’s ‘lived experiences’ determined who they were. This created obstacles to empathy and communication.”

As Fukuyama sees it, identity politics have now moved to the right in reaction. “There are several factors conspiring to produce the wave of populism that has emerged in Europe and the United States,” he argues. “One has to do with globalization and its highly unequal impact on developed country populations. Outsourcing and technological change have not just impacted working-class incomes but have also led to a broad social decline that is perceived as a loss of status. High levels of immigration have further challenged traditional notions of national identity, providing an opening for populist politicians who have blamed elites for this situation.”

For Fukuyama, anti-elite, peer-driven social media plays a critical role. He writes, “It is very hard to disentangle cause and effect here: Clearly, Americans would be polarized without social media, and yet the decline of trusted integrating institutions has also contributed to polarization.”

As for mending the common bond, Fukuyama proposes “more deliberate approaches to national integration, like a national service. There are very few places where Americans from different social class can interact with one another, as they used to in the days of mass conscription.”

Social scientist Jutta Allmendinger echoes Fukuyama’s concerns. “Given how crucial overlapping social circles are to cultivating solidarity within a nation, it is worrisome that there are fewer and fewer interactions between different social groups occurring in modern society,” she writes from Berlin. In particular, she focuses on the growing poverty and education gap.

“Germany as a whole has become more segregated since the 1980s,” she reports. “In about half of the country’s bigger cities, we now find neighborhoods in which more than 50 percent of children grow up in poverty. This is affecting the makeup of preschools and elementary schools where children from different backgrounds up until the age of 10 would usually mix. Now, these schools turn more and more into insular bubbles with little interaction between rich children, who are rarely of an immigrant background, and less privileged children, some of whom are migrants. Without such interaction, it is difficult to see how children from different backgrounds can develop an understanding of each other.”

Like Fukuyama, she calls for a period of mandatory community service so that different social groups mingle, an idea her survey shows is supported by 70 percent of Germans. “Germany,” she concludes, “needs policymaking that focuses on the common good instead of offering single-issue reforms for particular groups, which may cause certain parts of society to feel neglected and increase fragmentation as more people isolate into their narrow social groups.”

Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco focus on integration and migration. “If the 20th century was the century of mass migrations, the 21st century will be the century of the children of immigrants,” they write. “In California, over half of the children who walk through the classroom door live in immigrant-headed households. In the United States, 26 percent of children have immigrant parents.” In American neighborhoods and schools, they see a new segregation taking place. “In some regions of the United States, more than 40 percent of Latino students, two-thirds of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants, are isolated in non-white schools and … more than two-thirds of the students attending those schools are poor.”

Kishore Mahbubani explains how Singapore has avoided the divisions plaguing multiethnic societies in the West to become “the model for inter-racial and inter-religious harmony.” In Singapore, he notes, “social cohesion did not develop by chance. It stemmed from decisive government interventions beginning in the early days of independence in 1965. Since Singapore’s population at the time was 76 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay and 7 percent Indian, the government made four different languages official in the Constitution in 1965: Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English.”

Similarly, he reports, ethnic integration policies set “racial quotas for each public housing block roughly equivalent to the ethnic breakdown of the country’s population.” Political leadership follows the same pattern. He notes, “The cabinet is currently 68 percent Chinese, 11 percent Malay and 21 percent Indian.”

Mahbubani concludes: “Wise and pragmatic public policies have brought Singapore’s different ethnic groups together. The world would be a more balanced and stable place if the spirit behind these formulas was replicated globally. Treating each community with respect goes a long way, but respect alone is not enough. As Singapore’s example reveals, regulation is needed to prevent social divides.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.