Can we make society sticky again?

Tim Dixon on polarisation, populism, and what we can expect heading into the 2020s.

Twenty years ago and on the verge of a new century, public debates were abuzz with the promise of globalisation and the ‘dot-com’ boom. The mood is very different today. Just months from a new decade, a mix of angry populism, tribalism and polarisation looks set to shape the mood of the 2020s.

Across the Western world, few remember any time when their country has felt so divided. An Ipsos poll released this week showed that six times as many Australians agree as disagree that we’re at increased danger from political divisions compared to 20 years ago. The mood is even darker in the US, UK and much of Europe.

Blame what you will – social media, far right populists, inequality, the diffusion of media sources, the rise of disinformation, cultural and demographic change, the rise of loneliness – so many forces are driving us apart. Meanwhile the forces that once held us together – shared values, shared stories, shared experiences, shared community life – have never felt weaker.

Does it matter? Or is this just the new normal?

The trouble is that the forces of polarisation never turn up for just one drink. Once started, societal polarisation tends to spiral. Misunderstandings turn to disagreements, disagreements to contempt, contempt to rupture and too often, intimidation and violence as well. In an era of tribalism, people make excuses for their own side’s behaviour no matter what, because they loathe the other so much more. Clever populists stand ready to feed and exploit the cultural, racial and ideological fractures of their societies.

Bring the historians into the room, and many will remind us: societies fail more often through internal breakdown than external threats (though sometimes the two can work hand-in-hand).

I co-founded More in Common a little over two years ago because a set of events convinced me that we’ve reached a historic crisis point. Societies are fracturing. “Us-versus-them” sentiments are on the rise. And just when we’re faced with the collective crises of rapid climate change, forced migrations and the automation of millions of jobs, we are losing our belief in the common good. We’ll make little headway on these crises while we view them through the lens of tribalism.

A six-country research program has led us at More in Common to one major conclusion. Society’s glue is becoming unstuck, and it’s going to be hard work to restore the stickiness. We’re going to need new ideas, new initiatives and new civil society institutions to rebuild social capital. This has wide-ranging implications for institutions, policymaking and more – especially the tech and media businesses that profit from division. And at the level of national politics, we somehow need to find our way out of the toxic political culture to recognise that what Australians share in common is larger than our differences.

I am struck that when conversation turns to how we change the tone of social discourse, we turn away from political words to ones that are more spiritual: empathy, virtue, forgiveness, even love. Consider the title of a new book this week from Arthur Brooks, the leader of one of America’s leading conservative bastions, the American Enterprise Institute: “Love Your Enemies”. Brooks is rational, secular and fiercely empirical, yet his answer to the culture of contempt corroding our democracies starts with the words of Jesus.

This hasn’t been a good week for the institutional church, but local faith communities are one of the few places that still bring diverse groups of people together. One example that I know well is the C3 Ryde church. Twenty years ago it didn’t exist. Today, it brings together over 1,000 Sydneysiders of all ages and more than 45 nationalities to worship, connect and serve in their community. In places like this, people find hope and a sense of belonging that transcends their many differences.

It’s not inevitable that Australia becomes more polarised. But if the 2020s is not to be the decade of deepening fractures, we are going to need many more examples of events, places, groups and institutions that transcend our tribalism. We can do it, but it will require focus, imagination and a sustained shared endeavour.

Tim Dixon is the co-founder of More in Common and based in London. He was chief speechwriter for Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He will deliver the Richard Johnson Lecture on “Crossing the Great Divide: Building bridges in an age of tribalism”, at NSW Parliament House in Sydney on March 12 and State Library of Victoria in Melbourne on March 13.