Is this an age of division? Our research reveals a more complicated reality

Joel Rogers de Waal and Stephan Shakespeare
·4-min read

Some analysts fear the pandemic will spur a new kind of backlash against the very basis of global society, from migration to cooperation and interdependence. As our in-depth polling shows, however, there is little sign of such motivation from the general public.

This is the second year of the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, a tracking study of international attitudes across 25 of the world’s largest countries, produced by YouGov in partnership with researchers from the Guardian, Cambridge University and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Considering how the interconnectedness of modern life played such a role in spreading coronavirus, our findings show a striking level of stability in public commitment to globalism.

In Britain, for example, the percentage who describe globalism as good for the national economy remains unchanged from last year at 41%. Other countries show limited fluctuations respectively, such as a drop from 50% to 43% in Poland, compared with a rise in Sweden from 36% to 44%. But these are hardly indicators of a nationalist revolt against the outside world. Views on the larger merits of immigration, trade and international cooperation follow a similar pattern: for example, 59% of Americans and 64% of Canadians support qualified professionals coming to their country to search for work – exactly the same figures as in 2019.

In fact, attitudes to global engagement are typically nuanced across the political spectrum, rather than polarised. Majorities tend to reflect a mix of neutral to positive sentiment, rather than outright negativity, towards the perceived impact of globalisation on issues such as the economy, living standards and cultural life.

In the same research, however, we also find considerable levels of concern around immigration, almost across the board. At least a quarter of people in all western countries surveyed think immigration is generally undermining the cultural identity of their local community, rising to over 40% in France, Italy and Hungary, and over half of all Greeks.

Taken together, these results challenge stereotypes about public opinion in the populist age. Many countries are significantly divided between two broad camps on the issue, which might be described as generally “restrictive” and “permissive”. The former thinks overall levels of immigration to their country should be reduced; the latter is happy for current levels to continue or even increase.

Some publics are predominantly restrictive, such as Greece (79% restrictive, 15% permissive), Sweden (65%-26%) and Turkey (71%-22%). A couple are heavily permissive, namely Brazil (22%-71%) and Thailand (7%-80%). Most are somewhere in the middle, including France (51%-36%), Germany (51%-39%), Britain (54%-34%), the US (34%-48%) and Australia (45%-47%).

Yet detailed comparison of these groups offers a lesson on the limits of generalisation: “restrictive” on immigration does not mean illiberal, nor does “permissive” guarantee liberal attitudes. They also look notably similar on wider, liberal metrics: 66% of US permissives think democracy is generally the best form of political system, compared with 69% of restrictives; 71% of Italian permissives say men and women are equally suited to doing all or most jobs, next to 68% of restrictives.

Doubtless there are key differences. While restrictive segments defy the reactionary caricature, they clearly hold more reverence for traditional conceptions of national identity and homogeneity, and fear the impact of unskilled and uncontrolled migration. Despite sharing similar views with permissives on basic principles of equality, they are often fearful of political correctness and more reluctant to identify with implied labels such as “feminist”, suggesting verbal markers can be distinct from the substance of people’s attitudes.

In other words, large parts of the democratic world are divided over the specifics of immigration more than globalisation in principle, and over conceptions of identity more than underlying western values.

These distinctions point to a deeper challenge of interpretation. Some political scientists have begun to question conventional portrayals of public opinion as simply an aggregate sum of discernible views and issue-positions on the part of individuals. Perhaps more accurately, many of us hold certain fixed opinions but also derive much of our belief system from a looser sense of social identity and group alignment.

Psychological context here is key. Beyond the base motivations of survival and comfort, our general behaviour is profoundly focused on the need for a positive self-concept, commonly via validation. In evolutionary terms, this is logical: we are wired to need others to think well of us, in ways that helped to spur primordial cooperation and leadership.

Digital society has vastly expanded the scope of social identity in daily life, and duly maximised the innate, human appetite to identify as part of an in-group. In the process, a new level of reactivity has developed between the behavioural characteristics of mass opinion and the individual ego.

This might help to explain an apparent contradiction of our times, at least in the democratic world, where electorates seem increasingly divided while society continues to move in a broadly progressive direction. In short, the new technology of communication is driving stated opinions and the psychology of our identities, but not the desire for an illiberal world.

Joel Rogers de Waal is academic director at YouGov. Stephan Shakespeare is CEO and co-founder of YouGov