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Open & Closed: The Moral Divide in our Politics

This is the second edition in my series, Polar Opposites, which is looking at contemporary political polarisation in the Western democratic world. As parts of the series are published, you can find them under the Polar Opposites? tab at the top of the screen.


How do you guess someone’s political opinions? You might’ve never considered this question, but you most certainly have an answer to it. After all, before you speak in a group about something as potentially controversial as politics, you probably want to know what people around you are thinking. No one wants to risk looking like (at best) a fool or (at worst) a social pariah. So you will quickly scan the room, guess as best you can what people are like, and then decide what you should (or should not) say. Moreover, research shows the more you think you're surrounded by people ‘like you’, the more freely you will feel able to speak.[1] But this invites the question – why do we assume someone is ‘like us’ in the first place?

I think it’s fair to say most of us at least unconsciously answer this by assuming political differences can be predicted quite easily. If you know someone’s party membership, gender, income, race, religion or location, surely you can pretty accurately guess their political opinions? Trump voters – oh they’re white, evangelical, male and probably blue-collar. Remain voters – aren’t they all privileged, educated, metropolitan elites? And so it goes on…

Yet, research by Think Tank, More In Common (MIC), shows that political differences might not be so easy to spot. Instead, MIC’s research demonstrates quite convincingly how political opinions stem from deeper ‘core beliefs’,[2] defined as “the system of beliefs, values and identities that reflect each individual’s experience and shape his or her interpretation of the world.”[3] What’s interesting is that by analysing patterns in these core beliefs,[4] MIC is able to divide a country into ‘segments’, and these segments prove to be far more predictive of political opinions than race, gender, class or any other factor. You can see the segments in the UK and USA below:

Image (Left) from pg. 7 of 'Britain's Choice' & Image (Right) is Figure 0.1 in 'Hidden Tribes'

For instance, one of the US segments MIC identifies are the Devoted Conservatives, and while 92% of self-professed ‘Strong Republicans’ in 2018 approved of President Trump, 98% of Devoted Conservatives approved of him.[5] Meanwhile, on the question of race in the USA, roughly 1 in 5 Progressive Activists and 1 in 8 Devoted Conservatives are ethnic minorities. Yet, when ethnic minorities are asked whether they agree that ‘the rights of black and brown people are more protected than the rights of white people in the USA’, virtually no ethnic minorities among Progressive Activists agree, while nearly two-thirds of ethnic minorities among Devoted Conservatives do![6] What this shows is that people’s core beliefs more than any other factor drive people’s politics.

This is vital for understanding polarisation because our polarised politics isn’t ultimately a class, racial, or gender war, but a clash of those with different moral and psychological outlooks on life. For instance, people’s negative or positive perception of immigration correlates strongly with their perceived sense of threat. In the UK, those who agree with the statement ‘the world is becoming a more dangerous place’ are more than twice as likely to have a negative attitude to immigration (33% vs. 15%). Meanwhile, those who think more optimistically about the world’s security are 21 percentage points higher in their approval of immigration (60% vs. 39%).[7] Similarly, in the USA, whether you think people are too sensitive about race or don’t take racism seriously enough strongly correlates with your views on personal agency. If you think individuals are themselves mostly responsible for their life outcomes, then you are over twice as likely (70% vs. 30%) to think that people are too sensitive about race. On the flip side, only 1 in 3 people who think people’s circumstances are largely determined by forces outside their control believe race is treated too sensitively.[8]

Now this isn’t to say that material characteristics like socio-economic background, ethnicity or education level don’t impact people’s core beliefs and psychology at all. For instance, Established Liberals and Progressive Activists in the UK have the most positive views on immigration and this can be tied to them having the lowest threat perception of any segments. Yet, their low sense of threat can’t be separated from the fact that people in these segments are also the most likely to come from the highest socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Meanwhile, Loyal Nationals have the highest levels of perceived threat and so unsurprisingly they have the most negative attitudes towards immigration. Yet, again this can’t be entirely disconnected from the fact that Loyal Nationals are the most likely to come from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds and live in more deprived areas.[9] Likewise, on issues of race, 99% of USA Progressive Activists agree that ‘many white people today don’t recognise the real advantages they have’. However, not only are American Progressive Activists the second-most likely to be white (after Devoted Conservatives), they are also the segment with the highest socioeconomic and educational status. So It is clear that white Progressive Activists are likelier to have more advantages than the wider population - both white and non-white.[10] This might be why when you take Progressive Activists out of the data, less than half of all other Americans agree with this statement.[11] On the flip side, though US ethnic minorities in different segments differ on whether they think their rights are more protected than those of white people, within each segment, including the most conservative, ethnic minority members think their rights are less protected than their white counterparts.[12]

So to be clear, this research is not saying that material factors have no effect on people’s political opinions. Your core beliefs and psychology will of course reflect your life circumstances to some extent. Nonetheless, life circumstances alone are insufficient to predict people’s politics because people who otherwise have the same material characteristics can still differ markedly in their core beliefs and thus their political opinions.

Given then that core beliefs ultimately drive our political opinions, where are the core belief fault-lines dividing our politics?

While Western democracies has traditionally seen their political fault-line lying between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, looking at MIC’s research reveals these groupings don’t really nail down the divisions we currently see. For most of the 20th century, the meaning of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ was largely connected to a person’s view on the role of government and markets.[13] This was reinforced by the Cold War, a titanic ideological battle between two economic archetypes: the Socialist East and Capitalist West. Yet, political debates today don’t seem to rage over the economy so much, and this might be why 70% of people in the UK no longer find ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ relevant as labels anymore.[14] So what is a better way to understand today’s political divisions?

The answer suggested by MIC is that our primary political fault-line today lies between the ‘Open’ and the ‘Closed’.[15] In all countries studied, MIC finds that “politics is increasingly dominated by issues of culture, identity and integration.”[16] While the ‘Open’ are receptive to cosmopolitan values, multi-culturalism and pluralistic identities, the ‘Closed’ are (you guessed it) closed to these things, preferring consolidated nationalist values. Yet, the next question must be – why the difference? Why are some people ‘Open’ and other people ‘Closed’? Though MIC doesn’t explicitly look into this, by collating other pieces of its research together I think I can give a promising answer.

Just as older left/right divisions were (and still are) fuelled by a moral conflict over the justice of economic systems, it seems clear that a moral conflict lies beneath this more recent polarisation. When you analyse moral foundations in both the US and UK,[17] two distinct sides start to emerge. While every single segment in both countries holds the foundations of ‘Care/Harm’ and ‘Fairness/Cheating’ relatively highly and equally, the two sides begin to differ significantly in response to the moral foundations of ‘Authority/Subversion’, ‘Purity/Disgust’ and ‘Loyalty/Betrayal’. While the Closed segments continue to hold these moral foundations about equally with Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, the Open segments see a noticeable drop in their importance.

Image (left) is Figure 3.1 in 'Britain's Choice' & Image (right) is Figure 4.11 in 'Hidden Tribes'

This I believe unlocks the key to the polarisation puzzle. It is clear most Open and Closed people in the UK and USA want their societies to protect the vulnerable (Care) and ensure equality and justice (Fairness). However, unlike the Closed, the Open simply do not consider submitting to tradition (Authority), abhorrence for things that evoke disgust (Purity) and standing with one’s family or nation (Loyalty) to be as morally sacred.

This I think creates two areas of friction along our political fault-line. The first layer of friction this causes is the disregard the Open have for parts of life that have significant moral value for the Closed. This can be seen on such topics as standing for the national anthem (which underlines loyalty and respect to the nation), respecting the police (which demonstrates obedience to authority), and submitting to religious morality (which may judge acts as ‘sinful’ even if they do not cause obvious harm). This disregard creates further friction because moral foundations do not exist within isolated bubbles. For instance, athletes in both the USA and UK have been causing controversy because they either kneel rather than stand during the national anthem (USA) or take a knee in support of Black Lives Matter ahead of football games (UK). If moral foundations of Loyalty and Authority do not rank as highly as those of Care and Fairness, then it makes moral sense to use the platform of high-profile sporting events and their nation-celebrating rituals to highlight national injustices. However, if you hold all these foundations equally in importance, then expressing Care and Fairness at the expense of national Loyalty and Authority might understandably spark moral discomfort. To put this example in the language of moral foundations, while Open segments often interpret the actions of those opposing ‘kneelers’ as due to the Closed’s lack of Care and Fairness, in reality it is the Open’s own lack of Authority and Loyalty that makes them unable to appreciate why kneeling during a nation-celebrating ritual should be a problem at all.

This interconnectedness of moral foundations (or lack thereof) leads to a second layer of friction regarding the appropriate direction and limits of Care and Fairness. As much as we might want to make the lives of everyone in the world better, we are constrained by limits of geography and resource. We must therefore prioritise who we will show our Care and Fairness towards. The Closed tend to direct their Care and Fairness towards those they share familial, cultural or national ties. Helping these people expresses their own Loyalty, while also being something that seems quite ‘natural’ (and so Pure). Their Care and Fairness then is characterised by boundaries. Within these boundaries there is a strong imperative to help, but this drops for those on the outside. Unsurprisingly then, foreign aid is often a sore point for the Closed. To paraphrase numerous homeless individuals I’ve spoken to, “why is our government giving money to foreigners when there are still British people like me who are suffering?”

Meanwhile, because the Open reserve their highest moral value for Care and Fairness alone, they see less reason why boundaries should constrain their help. The extent to which you qualify for Open people’s help is not determined by how connected you are to them, but rather how much harm they can prevent in helping you. For this reason, they frequently look beyond boundaries to find the most vulnerable and in need. If preventing the most harm means giving foreign aid to people on the other side of the world, then that’s what they should do. This laser-focus on the most in need often leads the Open to be seemingly very dismissive of those in their own immediate national and cultural vicinities whose suffering is nonetheless judged as less than those of worse-off groups. Unsurprisingly, Closed groups (who do generally come from lower socio-economic and more deprived backgrounds) often feel unfairly neglected and dismissed by Open segments.

Understanding this greatly clarifies our most recent polarising issues such as Brexit and Trump. For Closed segments, there is a moral imperative to respect and protect historical culture, maintain traditional understandings of identity, and for these reasons only integrate those into the body politic who agree to conform to the values already present. These imperatives reduce their insecurity, provide stability, and promote connection with those around them. For Open segments though, whenever any of these imperatives is believed to cause harm, such as refusing admittance to refugees from unfamiliar cultures or pressuring individuals to conform to gender norms that make them uncomfortable, they want to overturn these established cultural dynamics.

Yet, there is one final, important missing piece in our jigsaw puzzle. This is because the ‘Open’ are not themselves a fully unified group. In both the UK and USA, while Closed groups are largely similar in their moral foundations with only minor differences, Progressive Activists in both countries have even less regard for the foundations of Authority, Loyalty and Purity compared to other Open segments. This means that Progressive Activists tend to have stronger political views than their Open counterparts and is probably I think why “Progressive Activists are often further away from the average for the population than any other segment.”[1] This becomes significant because Progressive Activists are the most politically active groups on social media[2] and the most likely to live in ‘bubbles’ of like-minded people with shared political views.[3] They are also particularly prominent (though still minorities) in metropolitan cities and within the higher education sphere.[4] All this means that as a group they not only possess a particularly visible cultural platform, but they also have significant power to express it. So although political rants against a ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ are undoubtedly exaggerated, there is nonetheless some basis in the stereotype.

My guess is that most of what I have just outlined will not be revolutionary to you. I mean, gee, who’d have thought in the age of Trump and Brexit that immigration and cultural integration rather than economics would turn out to be a really polarising issue…Yet, I believe what I have outlined here is important for two reasons. Firstly, providing language that more accurately captures reality can only be a good thing. In the UK particularly, political discussion has increasingly tied itself in knots because we lack words outside of the left/right paradigm to explain political behaviour. How do you understand the politics of left-wing, ‘Red Wall’ Labour voters who take a ‘right-wing’ position on Brexit? Or how do you explain a right-wing, Conservative Party government enacting liberal and left-wing policies like legalising gay marriage? Recognising an Open/Closed dimension to contemporary politics that doesn’t necessarily map neatly onto Left/Right identities then can only be helpful.

Lastly, I think understanding the moral foundations lying beneath our political divisions helps us do political conflict better. It is hard to do conflict well when you don’t consider your political adversary a worthy opponent – worthy of respect, fair play, and graciousness. It is easy to dismiss people who are immoral, deplorable, idiotic, disgusting and generally ‘the bad guys’. But research like this suggests people to varying degrees always act from moral foundations – however misguided you might think these are. And if the anti-kneeler does not dismiss themselves as a ‘racist’ and the trans-rights activist doesn’t think they’re just a ‘snowflake’, then perhaps – if we actually want democratic debate – neither should you. Granted, not all opponents prove themselves to be worthy after initial interactions, but when they do, a better democracy becomes possible again.


[1] Hawkins, S., Yudkin, D., Juan-Torres, M., Dixon, T., Hidden Tribes: A Study of America's Polarized Landscape, 2018, More in Common, pg. 131 [2] The full list of ‘core beliefs’ analysed are group identity; moral foundations; perception of threat; parenting style & authoritarianism; and agency & personal responsibility. [3] Hidden Tribes, pg. 18 [4] You can take a shortened version of the British or American test yourself both to understand how respondents are categorised into their segments and also to see which segment you yourself fall into.

[5] Hidden Tribes, pg. 9 [6] Hidden Tribes, pg. 98 [7] Juan-Torres, M., Dixon, T., Kimaram, A., Britain’s Choice: Common Ground and Division in 2020s Britain, 2020, More in Common, pg. 80 [8] Hidden Tribes, pg. 93 [9] Britain’s Choice, pg. 78 [10] Hidden Tribes, pg. 141-43 [11] Hidden Tribes, pg. 8 (after having removed the actual numbers of Progressive Activists surveyed using the data available on pg. 145, and recalculating the overall percentage) [12] Hidden Tribes, pg. 98 [13] Hidden Tribes, pg. 19 [14] Britain’s Choice, pg. 138 [15] Hidden Tribes, pg. 19 [16] Hidden Tribes, pg. 19 [17] Only Executive Summaries of the German and French MIC studies are available in English meaning it is not possible for me to confirm whether a similar pattern is seen in these two other countries.

[18] Britain’s Choice, pg. 140 [19] Britain’s Choice, pg. 11; Hidden Tribes, pg. 114 [20] Britain’s Choice, pg. 140; Yudkin, D., Hawkins, S., Dixon, T., Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart, 2019, More In Common, pg. 40 [21] Britain’s Choice, pg. 275-76 (Figure 1.1.2. Region, Geography & Figure 1.1.3 Educational attainment) Hidden Tribes, pg. 142 (Figure 1.1.2 Region, Geography; Figure 1.1.3 Educational Attainment)


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