When societies come under increasing pressure and strain, as they are today, they tend to fracture along traditional fault lines such as class, religion, ethnicity or race. Those in power promote and exploit these fractures. Profound public disquiet is easily manipulated, and expressed as more obvious or tangible grievances.
So while the inequalities and oppression faced by minorities have their own, legitimate, narratives, they can also reflect something more: liberal democracies today are floundering, seemingly incapable of dealing with today's civilizational and global challenges - biophysical (eg, climate change), socio-economic (eg, growing inequality), and psychosocial (eg, the crisis in mental health).
This fracturing is especially apparent in America because of its susceptibility to a political focus on racial divisions and antagonism. This emphasis is obvious in recent politics, especially with Donald Trump and the far-right. However, the Democrats also played on these divisions in the sense of using them for political leverage or gain - as revealed in Hillary Clinton's infamous 'basket of deplorables' remark.
A 2020 study, Bowling with Trump, shows how this process occurs. It argues researchers have attributed Trump's success largely to 'racialised economics', where economic hardships are seen in racial terms, not personal; they are blamed on 'other groups'. But the study suggests that more fundamental to Trump's support has been heightened anxiety and a lack of social attachment or belonging. This increased racial and national identification, which was politicised as racial prejudice and nationalism.
The authors say their results imply that racial voting behaviour in 2016 was driven by a desire for in-group affiliation as a way of buffering against economic and cultural anxiety. This suggests 'that the need for relatedness is a key underlying driver of contemporary political trends in the US'.
The Bowling with Trump study also notes that Trump's supporters have been said to be 'in mourning for a lost way of life'. Liberal commentators interpreted this nostalgia in terms of historic, white, male privilege. However, this is not the only possible meaning or interpretation: there have been many social, cultural, economic, environmental and technological changes since the 1950s (the oft-cited, historic benchmark) - in income-inequality, work, education, mainstream and social media, relationships, the family, and climate, for example - that have increased a shared sense of isolation, insecurity, uncertainty, risk, and precarity.
These changes fed into the growing and over-arching political influence of postmodernism, with its multiple narratives, relative truths, ambiguities, pluralism, fragmentation and complex paradoxes. A consequence has been a flourishing of conspiracy theories. All this has served to increase the wear and tear of the social fabric.
The danger in the fraying and fragmentation of public debate and discussion is that we lose sight of the bigger picture, and its more fundamental elements, with the result that we are caught up in perpetual conflicts over what are, at least in part, derivative or secondary causes and consequences.
The standpoint of 'we are all in this together' offers the advantage of creating more generous and tolerant ways of understanding today's world, encouraging people to look past the rancour and conflict promoted by politicians and media, a condition that has become so entrenched and ingrained that it appears to be the natural and inevitable order of things.
Surveys show people are aware of the existential risks we face and the need for a radical change of course, a new paradigm of progress. For example, in 2013 I collaborated in a surveythat investigated the perceived probability of future threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Across the four countries, over a half (54%) of people rated the risk of 'our way of life ending' within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, and almost three-quarters (73%) rated the risk at 30% or greater. Almost 80% agreed that 'we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world'.
Yet this awareness eludes mainstream politics and media. Our journalistic and political cultures remain stuck in a paradigm that constrains electoral choice and is crippling democracy. The mutually reinforcing cultures of journalism and politics are outdated and dysfunctional, defined by conflict and contest rather than cooperation and consensus; deepening our difficulties rather helping to solve them.
It is this failure that lies behind the unease, mistrust, and disenchantment in the electorate, not just political corruption and incompetence, and policy mistakes. It is part of a layered political complexity, resulting in what I have described as the 'demise of the official future': a loss of faith in the future that governments promise, and on which they base their policies.