We seem to be moving into a new politics. For decades, politics has been dominated by the debate between left and right. Now there is a new debate between populist nationalism and liberal international. That was seen very clearly in the French Presidential elections in which both centre-left and centre-right parties collapsed, leaving a contest between Macron and Le Pen.
Something similar happened in the recent European elections, in the UK, and some other countries as well (though not right across Europe). In understanding this new development it is important to recognise that this is not solely a UK phone phenomenon. It is not, therefore, solely a result of the UK anguish about Brexit. There is something broader going on.
It seems to me that the new debate reflects, even more than the left-the right debate, differences in personality and psychological orientation. Long ago, Hans Eysenck collected some interesting evidence that centrists are more introverted than extremes of either left or right.
However, it seems to me that the new debate between liberal internationalism and populist nationalism is, strongly related to cognitive complexity. Liberal internationalists like to see both sides of the question, can entertain different points of view, and can see many shades of grey. Populist nationalism sees things in starker terms, with a stronger polarisation between black and white, between ingroup and outgroup.
There are also issues about identity. Most research investigating why people are supporting populist nationalism finds that it is primarily due to a search for a sense of identity. The left-right debate was largely about who could deliver economic prosperity most effectively, and we got used to people ‘voting with their wallets’. Now, it seems, issues of identity are stronger for many people than the issues of economic prosperity.
It is important for religion to engage with these new high-profile issues about identity. It seems the different strands of religion can go both ways in the debate. National identity is often intertwined with religious identity, and religion tends to flourish best when it is a salient aspect of national identity. Then it becomes a matter of fierce tribal loyalty.
However, there is also an element in religious thinking that wants to assert that all people, across the globe, have their same origin in the same creator. Religious leaders, such as Jesus, often want to transcend national identity. Jesus’ attitude to Samaritans exemplifies his wish to transcend a purely Jewish identity. Early Christians became convinced that Christianity was for Gentiles as well as Jews. St. Paul sees the work of Christ as bringing in a new ‘Adam’, a new humanity, something that transcends all national boundaries.
For many of us there is a long way to go in understanding the new politics which has broken upon us rather suddenly. This blog is a small pointer towards the work that needs to be done to understand what politics are about now.