The Malta Independent 26 February 2024, Monday
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Politics is turning nasty

Mark Said Sunday, 3 December 2023, 08:35 Last update: about 4 months ago

Our political views have become more tightly wound into our identities than ever before, joining other identifiers such as gender, religion, sexual orientation, job, and location. Because political affiliation has become part of who we are, not just what we think, more aspects of our lives may feel politicised, and, therefore, challenges to our views may feel more personal.

If you are finding it harder to connect with family members or friends who do not share your political beliefs, you are not imagining things. We are more polarised than ever, from politicians down to voters. Dislike and distrust of the other team, or, in other words, out-party antipathy, are growing. Many today say they do not sympathise either with the Labour Party or with the PN, but among voters who still have strong party allegiance, out-party antipathy has increased a lot.

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I do not actually know why that dislike has been growing, but that is certainly one reason why we are seeing heightened negative emotions like anger, frustration, and resentment increase. We are also moralising politics more. We see issues such as immigration, abortion, euthanasia, or LGBTQ rights, for instance, as both moral and political ones, and our stances are linked to our personal identities.

Most of us consume a lot of media, and it is probably not surprising that it stokes our emotional response to politics. How much we consume matters, as does what we consume. With tonnes of choices for news and information, we can curate our media experience in ways we could not years ago. If we follow and interact with people and groups on social media or get news from sources aligned only with our viewpoints, we may unknowingly create epistemic bubbles and echo chambers. This behaviour can reinforce feelings as if we are right and the other side is wrong, or as if we are being threatened when we encounter beliefs that challenge ours.

Spontaneous or planned national protests, the death threats towards civil activists, the inflammatory language online and over the airwaves, and the language of politicians themselves are turning Maltese politics into an ugly, mean-spirited, and nasty affair. What forces are changing this political discourse, and who is to blame? How will this change transform the very nature of our democracy?

Both parties are using increasingly sophisticated campaign war rooms, armed with volumes of research on rival candidates and ready to attack every perceived disadvantage, to fuel the negativity. The problem when you go negative so early before the next general election is that you will have nowhere else to go except negative. A consequence of the vitriol is the diminished esteem Maltese now hold for our major party leaders. This is a dangerous development that opens the door to populists.

I see the reason for this subtle transformation of our politics in a cocktail with three key ingredients. The first is "othering," which I describe as a tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself. The second ingredient is aversion, a reflex to "dislike and distrust" one’s political opponents. The final ingredient is moralization, which causes us to see our opponents as not merely wrongheaded but downright evil. It is the confluence of these ingredients that is making politics nasty. When all three converge, political losses can feel like existential threats that must be averted, whatever the cost.

The result is that party affiliation has become a "mega-identity" that exaggerates our perception of how little we have in common with those on the other side. The parties’ media is partly to blame for this chasm, too. Partisan broadcasters, not to mention the national broadcaster, hardly give equal time to both sides of a controversial topic. Party TV and radio stations are the first to capitalise on the chance to target an audience on one side of the political spectrum, followed by their counterparts pivoting on the other side in response. The rise of social media makes it even easier for people to cut themselves off from opposing points of view.

The country’s political elites have largely led the way in polarising the rest of us, with PN politicians embracing views further to the right and Labourites moving further to the left. We are hearing descriptions of adversaries as not simply wrongheaded or misinformed but also morally inferior. Words like "shameful" and "disgraceful" are being thrown around to drive home that point, and this is encouraging others to do the same.

In this environment, politicians have little to gain and much to lose by trying to find common ground with the other side. Issues that are not inherently partisan are becoming politicised. Character assassination and smears are intensifying not only when policy differences are profound but even when those agenda disagreements look petty and inconsequential.

This pattern of indistinct, unfocused, non-ideological policy positions fostering spiteful attacks rather than constructive engagement stems from a combination of current political reality and a timeless aspect of human nature.

While a heavy schedule of TV ads may not succeed in persuading cadres of new supporters to join your cause, the operating assumption holds that negative ads can suppress turnout for the opposition. That is especially true for negative campaigning that focuses on character issues, portraying an opponent as a reprobate cad who somehow combines senility and conniving crookery.

Politics is now pushing polarisation more destructively than any ideological issue on the public agenda. Regrettably, the main political parties are getting in the way of our well-being.

 

Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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