Fragmentation: The Tribalisation of Politics

Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian-born independent journalist whose column is published in more than 175 papers in 45 countries.

By Gwynne Dyer


In most democratic countries economic self-interest is no longer driving voters’ choices. Tribalism is taking its place, and that is not an improvement.

Take three quite different countries, all unable to get past political stalemates: Spain, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Spain has just had its fourth election in four years. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went back to the polls hoping to increase his centre-left PSOE party’s seats in parliament enough to make the arithmetic work. He had no chance of winning an overall majority, but maybe with a few more seats and a more willing coalition partner….

Not a chance. He returned to parliament with fewer seats, and so did his skittish intended coalition partner, Unidos Podemos. They have now swallowed their pride and agreed on a coalition, but they need 21 more seats for a majority, and it’s hard to see where they will come from.

This is not how things used to be. A couple of decades ago the PSOE and its centre-right rival, the People’s Party, used to sweep up 80% of the vote, leaving just scraps for the ‘minor’ parties. In last Sunday’s election, they only got 48% of the votes between them.

Or consider Israel, where two elections this year failed to produce any set of political parties – out of a total of nine – with enough common ground to build a coalition government. The two ‘major’ parties together got only 51% of the votes.

Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party tried and failed to form a coalition government. Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party is still trying, and there is talk of a power-sharing ‘grand coalition’ between the two biggest parties, but otherwise Israel is probably heading for a third election within months.

Then there’s the United Kingdom, mired in the Brexit swamp for over three years. The two big traditional parties, Labour and the Conservatives, got 80% of the vote in the last election, but subsequent defections from both parties made a decision on what kind of Brexit it should be (if any) impossible. Why is this happening?

In Britain, the Labour-Conservative disagreement used to be basically economic: Labour sought to redistribute the wealth, while the Conservatives tried to defend the existing order. But not now.

The Conservatives are the pro-Brexit party, but 42% of their traditional voters supported ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum. Similarly, one-third of traditional Labour voters backed ‘Leave’. Never mind the economy; the referendum was driven by English nationalism. Or tribalism, if you prefer.

You can find similarly indecisive outcomes all over the place. The two traditional ‘major’ parties in Germany got only 54% of the vote in the last election. In 2018 Sweden went four months ‘ungoverned’ before a coalition was finally formed. You probably can blame these outcomes on a rising level of anger everywhere – but then you have to explain the anger.

The one common denominator that might explain it is the growing disparity of wealth – the gulf between the rich and the rest – in practically every democratic country.

Since the 1970s, income growth for households on the middle and lower rungs of the ladder has slowed sharply in almost every country, while incomes at the top continued to grow strongly. The concentration of income at the very top is now at a level last seen 90 years ago during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – just before the Great Depression.

We could fix this by politics, if we can get past the tribalism. Or we could ‘fix’ it by wars, the way we did last time.

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