Image of White House
Seeking peace after the culture war. Acrylic DC Capitol - Red White & Blue. Photo  ©

Nicholas Raymond, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

January 2017

The inauguration of Donald Trump as President represents a seismic cultural as well as political change in America. Emmanuel Kattan, British Council Director in New York, takes a personal look at the issues this poses, reactions emerging from across American society, and what it could mean for the UK. 

The election that propelled Donald Trump to the US presidency brought to light divisions in the social fabric of the country, which have been widely compared to those highlighted in the UK by the EU referendum. While these splits are not new – in either country – they have arguably been exacerbated by highly divisive campaigns.

The growing polarization – between urban and rural communities, between college educated and less well educated, between privileged and underprivileged – suggests deep fractures at the heart of American society. Profound social and racial tensions also emerged in America in the wake of the elections: between November 9th and November 14th 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment against women and black and LGBT people. Many have suggested that a similar, if less dramatic, trend can be observed in Britain.

Across the US, the last few months have also suggested a long-term and fundamental breakdown of trust: in the political establishment, in the business and financial elite, and in the media. In order to create the conditions for mending these divisions, three important challenges must be overcome:

1. The “echo-chamber”

One picture that arguably emerged from the elections was of a country where groups – liberals, progressives, white working class, Latinos, African-Americans, – are unaware of how others think, of their struggles and aspirations.

This phenomenon is compounded by the media echo chamber. The advent of online media has increased dramatically the range of news sources people have access to. Never before have we had the power to be better informed. Yet most people get their news from a limited number of sources. Social media helps ensure that the political views we are exposed to comfort our values and confirm our view of the world. A growing number of news stories circulating in that space are simply faked, shamelessly riding the coat-tails of those political views.

It will be important for the UK to find new ways of talking to the US after the inauguration of Donald Trump

Watching American television news during the year-long presidential campaign, it was obvious that two separate conversations were taking place, with few commentators making the effort to engage constructively with the “other side”. The two media camps catered to their own constituencies – on the one hand mainly rural or small-town, largely white and working or lower middle class America; on the other, disproportionately urban, college-educated, multicultural communities. As a result, the media echo chamber helped entrench already stark political and social divisions in the country. This effect will have to be addressed if polarisation is not to grow. Indeed, efforts to resist the process should be international. In particular, it will be important for the UK to find new ways of talking to the US after the inauguration of Donald Trump, at governmental levels, via civil society, and by people-to-people contacts, reaching out to all communities, not just those with whom we have traditionally engaged.

2. The politics of self-interest

A second challenge is to bridge the gap between the “ruling elites” and large swathes of the American population that feel disenfranchised and ignored. One leitmotiv in the campaign has been the criticism of the political establishment for being self-interested, “out of touch”, and indifferent to the economic struggles and cultural preferences of the working and lower middle classes. Such criticism is not unique to the US. There are similar trends in many parts of the developed world, including the UK.

From the media community to university campuses, free speech was increasingly under pressure. When this happens, the very possibility of a common space where a rational debate can take place among citizens fades away

This breakdown in trust was exploited during the campaign, sometimes resulting in a rejection of expert opinion and research-based arguments. Much of the campaign was driven by emotion – fear, anger, and sometimes even hatred – on all sides. The line between fact and fabrication became blurred. Unfounded beliefs held sway against factual evidence. From the media community to university campuses, free speech was increasingly under pressure. When this happens, the very possibility of a common space where a rational debate can take place among citizens fades away.

One challenge, therefore, is to build a new political and cultural agenda that transcends party lines and, against those who use power as a tool to further the interests of privileged groups, whether they are of the left or the right, to restore confidence in politics as a mechanism for the pursuit of the common good.

3. The politics of identity

Over the last decades, American politics has been shaped, in part, by the recognition of diversity and the value that it brings to society. But such an emphasis should not overshadow the defence of joint interests that bind communities together. The American election showed signs of being dominated by “identity politics”, with group and community affinity playing a significant role in how people voted.

That is why analysts like Mark Lilla, Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, have been arguing for appeals “to Americans as Americans… emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. [To] emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote.” 

In other words, the challenge is to create the conditions for a constructive national conversation – a conversation that transcends religious, racial, social and ideological divides. There are already signs that this is happening. Several foundations indicated that they would increase funding for projects that support community cohesion, intercultural understanding and social justice.

For example, Eboo Patel, Founder of Interfaith Youth Core - an NGO that trains youth leaders to build relationships and respect among diverse faith communities on 350 campuses across the country - agrees that we need to focus on commonality. But he warns: “Stop focusing on boring commonality. You have to do the work of identifying commonality that feels as inspiring as the disagreement is intense – and that doesn’t magically appear.”

Similar efforts may be needed to rebuild trust in a post Brexit UK. The challenge today, on both sides of the Atlantic, is to create the conditions for a public conversation where individuals strive to reach consensus using argument rather than emotion. It is to give voice both to what makes us unique and to what binds us in a common destiny with our fellow citizens, within and across national boundaries.  

This may sound idealistic, but several UK initiatives, emerging from civil society, are also working towards that goal through transatlantic alliances (something ever more important given the need for the UK to find ways to engage with post-election America). London based think tanks like Counterpoint and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue are working with US partners to develop policies that balance respect for diversity and social cohesion. The Rockefeller-funded ‘100 Resilient Cities’ helps city officials around the world – including in over 30 cities in the US and the UK from Boston to Belfast and Greater Manchester to Greater Miami – address common challenges, like building healthy multicultural communities. 

Initiatives of this kind can perhaps help us to re-imagine our identities, allegiances, and responsibilities stretching from our own community out to our nation and to the whole world. They can help us hold together, in a state of creative tension, our specific allegiances (to communities of faith, language or tradition) and our duties as citizens. They could also form part of an important British move to explore new ways of engaging more broadly with today’s United States and its people.

Emmanuel Kattan, Director New York, British Council

See also