Rest assured: the world is not as divided as you might think | Stephan Shakespeare and Joël Rogers de Waal


TToday’s widely accepted narrative is that we live in historically divided times. Voters are consistently portrayed as “polarized,” as analysts vie to identify the essential schism of the time, whether metropolitan versus traditionalist, people versus democracy, or anywhere versus anywhere.

For a third year in a row, however, the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project supports a different interpretation: that extreme opinions benefit from greater visibility through social media, which in turn creates a particularly dynamic climate of opinion – in this sense, for example, that it can change quickly – but whose underlying forces are defined more by cohesion than by division. Published annually by the Guardian, the Globalism Project is an international and largest-of-its kind survey of public relations with globalization produced by YouGov in partnership with academics from the University of Cambridge. Its findings constantly challenged popular stereotypes of public opinion in this so-called polarized era.

It turns out, for example, that there is no deep division between the mentalities of “open and closed” societies. In fact, few voters support radically open or closed societies, while most tend to favor varying degrees of continuous integration with the rest of the world. Academic theorists of “authoritarian populism” may perceive a new mass disdain for liberal pluralism, but we have found little evidence of this in public sentiment. Instead, majorities around the world maintain a determined belief in the superiority of democracy, with few partisan differences on the issue.

Modern society has not been overwhelmed by demographic schisms either. When we compared those who generally feel more permissive or restrictive towards net migration, for example, we found discernible patterns on average – between the youngest and the oldest, metropolitan and provincial, graduates and baccalaureate holders – but barely to the extent of rival demographic blocks, or dazzling parallel societies.

There is no doubt that many countries have experienced an intensification of the partisan atmosphere over the past decade. Strange as it sounds, however, partisanship and substantial division over politics can be two very different things, as The Guardian recently reported. For example, in Britain, most respondents who described themselves as left or right said they disliked others because they identified with the opposite camp (87% and 73 % respectively). The same type of partisan divide spread to other labels of political identity: a majority of leftists considered themselves feminists (62%) while a right-wing majority did not (70%); or on Black Lives Matter, most lefts were in favor (70%) while most rights thought the opposite (69%).

Yet when it comes to opinions on underlying issues, a different picture emerges. The same respondents were then shown a list of three jobs – housekeeper, nurse and politician – and asked if each was more suitable for women or men, or equally suitable for all genders. This time, an overwhelming majority of left and right agreed, responding “equally suitable” for each job (94% and 89% for the cleaner; 90% and 74% for the nurse; 88% and 83% for the politician). Majorities on both sides also shared the view that it is unacceptable for a man to whistle a woman he does not know on the street (85%, 58%) and that “promoting women’s equality” should be a priority. in modern society (98%, 88%). A similar pattern was evident for other progressive goals of “combating racism of all kinds” and “moving the economy away from carbon-intensive industries towards greener alternatives”.

In other words, when we compare these groups by their attitudes to specific issues, rather than by identity markers, we find a considerable amount of commonality, rather than polarized groups of opinions or conflicting visions. of what contemporary society should look like. In political science, this is increasingly recognized as the gap between “issue-based” and “affective” polarization and supports a thesis that the latter is decidedly more prevalent than the former in many Western audiences.

Indeed, the study finds comparable patterns outside the UK, where notable levels of partisan antipathy coexist with significant overlap in views on gender and race equality and the decarbonization of the economy. . This turned out to be true among rival voting camps of: Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump in the United States; Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen in France; the Greens against Alternative for Deutschland in Germany; the Left against the Law and Justice party in Poland; Vox against Podemos in Spain; and New Democracy against Syriza in Greece.

All of this hints at perhaps the most surprising – but also the most reassuring – result of our research on populism and globalization in recent years: that in countless areas of life, far from being poles apart. , people tend to cluster somewhere between falling on a generally moderate “bell curve”. In fact, this newspaper spotted a similar pattern when it first unveiled the Globalism Project in 2019, namely that the study was notable in that most respondents looked so, well, “normal.” . Large-scale IQ and personality studies tell a similar story – of a bell cast in which most of us are not exceptional, statistically speaking, and often share our strongest traits with the majority.

Social scientists may naturally be eager to focus on what divides populations, or what distinguishes one type of person as disagreeing with another. What’s more striking is how much people tend to have in common, when you scratch under the surface of political labels and loyalties. Social media may amplify the role of identity markers in politics, but people are much more likely to agree than disagree on the underlying trends in what is acceptable behavior and what to do with it. what our priorities should be.

Stephan Shakespeare is CEO and co-founder of YouGov. Joel Rogers de Waal is Academic Director of YouGov

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