15.05.2017

Yesterday Emmanuel Macron entered the Elysée Palace, following a convincing victory in the French Presidential election the previous Sunday. On election day, much of Europe breathed a sigh of relief as Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National – one of the more explicitly populist nationalist parties making electoral progress in the developed world – failed in her bid to defy the polls, and win.

 EducationYet Le Pen achieved almost 11 million votes, one-third of those cast: a new high for the relatively unreconstructed FN and an indication of the degree of disaffection with politics as normal among French voters.

The result reveals the increasingly polarised nature of politics among established democracies, often alongside a surge in support for anti-establishment, nativist and occasionally authoritarian political movements. The French election is the third or fourth widely discussed vote in a series that includes the Presidential Election in the United States, the Dutch general election earlier this year, and the EU referendum in this country almost 12 months ago. And these are simply the most recent and high-profile among electoral success for such parties or movements in Hungary, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden and Denmark.

Analysis of these results has indicated the degree to which new social divides are influencing our politics. Regarding France, John Burn-Murdoch and colleagues at the FT suggest that an individual’s level of education was one of the most profound factors influencing their vote – even more so than income.

This educational divide was also a profound feature of the US Presidential election and the Brexit vote: with Trump going so far as to declare on the stump, ‘I love the poorly educated’.

This is a divide that has emerged only relatively recently, but is profound. As David Runciman of Cambridge University has described it, in the US, graduates only favoured Obama over Romney by 50 to 48, while in 2016, one poll put Trump’s lead over Clinton among white men without a college degree was 76 to 19. In the UK, among those who left school without any qualifications, 73 to 27 voted for leave.

Interestingly, YouGov polling of the current General Election campaign in the UK indicates a similar pattern – with level of education having overtaken the class divide, which has influenced party preference for as long as the Labour party has existed.

It is possible that this new divide is a product of long-term changes to the structure of society – with more people going to university, meeting their partners there, and increasingly forming what Alison Wolf has termed ‘super-families’, where both partners are highly-educated, high-achieving professionals (and their friends are too). In any case, it seems this structural change has led to fewer shared experiences, few shared spaces, and a much diminished shared language.

At The Challenge, where we want to see a more integrated society where there is understanding and appreciation of each other's differences, we consider this to be a problem. There is a substantial evidence base that shows people increasingly mixing only with people who are ‘like them’ comes with all sorts of negative consequences for how we live together.

Robert Putnam’s work suggests that people living in diverse but segregated communities tend to ‘hunker down’ – trusting neighbours less, feeling more negative about their local areas, and engaging less in civic behaviours (such as voting, volunteering and donating to charity).

This in turn increases fear of crime, and enhances the risk of civil unrest: the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel found that 71% of the riots which took place in the UK in August 2011 occurred within the 10% of areas of the country ranked as the least socially cohesive.

While democratic politics has arguably always been about disagreement and division, a lack of shared experiences and therefore social integration can produce a gap in empathy. This in turn means you struggle to understand and sympathise with those you disagree with, and are unwilling to accept compromise: you begin to see those you disagree with as ‘enemies’ rather than ‘opponents’. As Cas Mudde, an expert on populism based at the University of Georgia, has said:

‘You compromise with opponents, who have different views and you start to find middle ground. But you can’t find middle ground if the division is moral. I think that it is problematic to see your fundamental struggle as one that doesn’t allow compromise.’

That’s why, as part of our research plans for this year, we’re going to be investigating how having a more mixed social circle influences an individual’s social and political attitudes. We think that mixing with people from different backgrounds might make someone more empathetic, more open to compromise and less absolutist.

But that’s to come. In the meantime, support comes from an unexpected quarter. The latest ad from the brewing company Heineken as part of their #OpenYourWorld campaign is an excellent illustration of how human connection can overcome apparent social and ideological barriers - you can watch it here.

Ralph Scott