The growing divide in politics and society - Is social media really to blame? Or would George Eliot say it's always been this way?

September 26, 2020
The growing divide in politics and society - Is social media really to blame?  Or would George Eliot say it's always been this way?
Green TeaThis must be the place - Talking Heads

Dear Erica,

In a world where everyone seems so far to the left and so far to the right, both here in the US, and abroad in Europe too, what do you think the classics can tell us about our growing political divide? How much has social media contributed to this problem?


Divided in Denver

Dear Divided in Denver,

You pose an excellent question. It seems like things are more divided than ever, whether it’s liberals and conservatives in America, or Brexiteers and Remainers in the UK. A Republican despises the New York Times in the same way a Remainer despises Nigel Farage. This growing political and ideological divide seems like a contemporary problem, born of social media, and the internet. But is it contemporary?

I have always thought that even if social media has exacerbated these differences, we humans have always used a filter to read, or hear the things we want to hear. And George Eliot’s hero, Will Ladislaw, implies the very same thing in the novel, Middlemarch. Eliot places the story smack in the middle of the Reform period of 1829-1831, a period of great political upheaval. And in this period, liberals, whigs, and reformists all debated and fought for and against change. Will Ladislaw is placed as the head of the “Trumpet”, a liberal leading paper, but when Dr. Lydgate argues that he will never get his opponents to read his newspaper, his response resonates with us today,

"No matter; those who read the 'Pioneer' don't read the 'Trumpet,'" said Will, swallowing his tea and walking about. "Do you suppose the public reads with a view to its own conversion? “

More than two hundred years ago, people understood that we read what we want to read. We don’t want to change our minds, and we don’t want to think we were wrong, and someone else was right.

With a looming election in the US, uncertainty surrounding Brexit and a pandemic causing upheaval all over the world, I think we must consider Will's pragmatic attitude towards politics: an attitude which is still applicable today. In troubled times, like today, and the reform period of the 1800s, we search for heroes, intelligent, incorruptible, morally perfect men and women to rescue the government, to improve society. But as Will argues, we can not wait “for immaculate men to work with.” In a line that is almost straight out of House of Cards, he even argues that when we try to enact reform, we should not ask who “had the better motives or even the better brains,” but simply support the candidate who can get anything done. We can not look for heroes or saviours. We must work with what we’ve got, and even if the candidate is in many ways inadequate, it is better to vote and make a difference, than to sit back and wait for a perfect candidate. Because perfection in politics is as unnatural as a person who reads with a view to its own conversion. We are human and even two hundred years later, we make the same mistakes that we did in George Eliot's time.