The vibes theory of politics

Rishi Sunak, who wanted to leave the EU before that cause was popular, is trailing with the Conservative grassroots. Liz Truss, who campaigned with some vigour to remain, polls better among them.

This oddity takes explaining. One theory cites his not being white. Another his reluctance to promise tax cuts. Yet a third his mutiny at the outgoing leader. But all three things are true of Kemi Badenoch, a now-eliminated hopeful, and she is liked on the right.

Allow me a speculation. Sunak’s views are rightwing but what you might call his effect is liberal. Truss, an actual Liberal Democrat for a while, is the opposite. He presents as: know-it-all, at ease abroad, richer than God. She presents as no-nonsense and what the British call “regional”. So, on the basis of accent and a few biographic facts, one Oxonian of public-sector middle-class stock appeals to the metro-snobs and the other to the bumpkin-cranks: two tribes into which our unsubtle age triages so many of us. Policies matter, of course. But so do tribal signifiers. He has to try much harder to seem the same level of rightwing.

I went with “effect” but social media has its own word. “Politics is mainly about vibes.” “Nothing exemplifies the purely vibes-based nature of British politics than Brexiteer MPs rallying around Liz Truss.” “Remember, it’s ALL about vibes.” Wince at the modern-ism all you like: the insight into how people form loyalties is sound. Think of the popular and unexamined hunch that Lionel Messi is a humbler guy than Cristiano Ronaldo (ask Barcelona’s accountants about that). Or that John Lennon, who passed his prime years in the stockbroker belt, was edgier than Paul McCartney, who was going to atonal recitals. Or that Tony Blair, that intense believer in things, was a PR man, while Gordon Brown, the most media-obsessed head of government I had covered until Boris Johnson, was deep.

Twenty years in and around politics have left me sure of one thing. Most people’s ideological commitments are extraordinarily soft. What they think of as a belief is often a post-hoc rationalisation of a group loyalty. Crucially, this is more true, not less, of degree-holding, “high-information” voters. What education can do is estrange people from parents and home town. It leaves them casting around for an alternative identity. Political tribe is as good as any.

Why should someone who is pro-Net Zero also be pro-European Convention on Human Rights, well-disposed to Meghan Markle and squeamish about Dave Chappelle’s standup gigs? A clever progressive could find a philosophic thread that links those positions. But an honest one would admit to being carried along in the herd.

I am alive to this habit because I possess it. Why do I side with Sunak over Truss? Or with Emmanuel Macron, a protectionist with a weird thing for Russia going back several years? There are reasons of substance to cite. But in all candour, it is also a matter of vibes and tribes. At a base, atavistic level, these are my people. They dress and act like the average of my 10 best friends. If there are some awkward policies in the way, I will reinterpret them. I can hardly complain if Tories look at Sunak, run the same heuristic and vote Truss.

For a sense of how little I believe in belief, here is an experiment that I have been running in my head for two years. Imagine, at the start of the pandemic, that Donald Trump had shut his country down and Angela Merkel had kept hers open. He justified his action as a protector of the homeland while she stressed liberal ideals. (“As a girl in East Germany, I saw the human cost of draconian . . . ”)

I bet the pandemic culture war we have seen since 2020 would have been exactly inverted. It would have been a badge of rightwing pride the world over to mask up or stay in. It would have been a progressive statement to bare your face and party. People don’t work out what they think and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer from it what they think. Sunak is intellectually Tory but tribally not. Such is the team sport of politics today. It is fiercer and fiercer, about less and less.

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