In The Culture Wars, James Davison Hunter talks about how the liberal left lost control of large swathes of the working class vote in the US during the early 1980s. At that time, when African-Americans started to move into their jobs and suburbs and economic conditions left them fearing for themselves, growing working-class racism was met by tut-tutting from liberals, who told them off for it. While the liberals were right and the incursion of African-Americans into this traditional white space was not a bad thing, while racism is bad and should be condemned, there was also no attempt to try to understand the fears of the people and the causes of the racism. Powerless working class people saw their economic conditions being eroded and blamed the most visible, obvious culprit – even if that culprit was completely wrong. In turn, being called a racist and told off by those who are economically and educationally better off than you is a sure-fire way to make you turn away from, and in turn, condemn those “elites” as not understanding you, as looking down at you. And thus, the voters who had once been the mainstay of the Democrat Party drifted away to the right, to populism, to politicians who, while part of the elite who made their social conditions worse, didn’t tell them off but instead embraced their attitudes covertly or overtly, encouraging them and strengthening them.
In Paradise Postponed, John Mortimer writes of the essentially conservatism of the working classes of industrial Britain, the hiding behind “net curtains”, the fear of change. Leading into the Thatcher years, there is a demonstration of the way that, even when it is not in their best interests, the working classes can end up voting for that which protects them from what they fear, rather than what they should be afraid of. The odious Titmuss, conservative MP, is a product of these working classes, of their aspiration and their fear.
As we think about the Brexit vote from the perspective of the left, and as we look at the hate around the world of immigrants and the rise of the radical right, perhaps we need to think again about how we talk about these issues. As anyone who has ever had a fight on Twitter knows, you don’t convince anyone by telling them that they are racist/sexist/homophobic – in fact these responses are sometimes counter-productive. While I don’t think the answer is to tolerate or accept these attitudes or beliefs, perhaps there is a way through. The voting patterns for Brexit tell a story – younger people who are the products of an education system which educates people about acceptance and diversity, younger people whose perspective has become global, are clearly less likely think about politics reactively. It is difficult to know how to connect with those who are older and those who are fearful, particularly when disinformation has become truth in political campaigns. Do we abandon the struggle and focus instead of the young, hoping that reactionary conservatism will wither away as the fearful die. Or do we seek to find new ways to connect. How do we oppose racism and other hatreds without engaging in scolding which further alienates those with whom we should be connecting? There are practical, thoughtful questions we need to ask ourselves if we want to continue the project of making the world a better place for everyone.