I’m writing this from Visby, a medieval walled city on the island of Gotland, which this week is home to the entire Swedish political establishment, businesses, charities and most of the media for the Almedalen political week. Some say the soul of Almedalen political week has been snatched by big business. And endless seminars on the future of public procurement aren’t exactly the stuff of political viagra.
But actually, what’s most striking about Almedalen is how open and varied it is. For every big business, there are dozens of charities, political parties, pressure groups and ordinary people with bees in their bonnets.
Ordinary tourists might be crowded out of the tiny medieval town for the week, but the gabfest still brings people together.
As I write this, the Sweden Democrats, Sweden’s nationalist party and the country’s third biggest, are preparing for their day in the spotlight. Yet also today the European Commission is holding a debate about the role Europe should play in the refugee crisis, the Salvation Army is discussing human trafficking and a feminist group is talking about porn.
And those are just a few of hundreds of talks, seminars and discussions being held on a single day. All of them open to anyone who wants to drop in. And all of them face-to-face discussions. All of them civilised, reasonable discussions between people who often disagree with each other.
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven talking to journalists at Almedalen. Photo: Linus Sundahl-Djerf/SvD/TT
This is the perfect antidote to Facebook, where it’s becoming clear that the algorithm essentially delivers us arguments that we’re already likely to agree with, meaning it can be very hard for facts and counter-arguments to get through. Put another way, social media will reinforce your prejudices and protect you from alternative views. Discussions, when they happen, often result in people digging their heels in rather than re-examining their views.
This became glaringly apparent during the Brexit referendum in Britain. The success of the Leave campaign’s populism and lies (lies that they cheerfully admitted to hours after the result) and the failure of the sober and factual Remain campaign led to claims that we’re living in a post-factual society. Very often Leave voters and Remain voters say few of their friends held a different opinion from them, and many complained they found it hard to get hold of facts.
Events in America, split between supporters of Trump and opponents distraught that their countrymen can support a populist, racist demagogue, seem to mirror events in the UK.
Equally, both Trump and Brexit reflect deep anxiety from globalisation’s losers. The chasm that separates the elites of our capital cities and the half of the population who reject them is wider than ever.
Leave supporters campaigning in the Brexit referendum. Photo: Sofia Eriksson/TT
And you see it everywhere in our western world. Take a trip to the former industrial areas of Bergslagen in Sweden and you’ll see the same empty shop fronts you’ll see in Britain’s north-east. With asylum centres opening up in closed down hotels across the area, the Sweden Democrats have been prospering by talking up the problems of immigration.
Likewise, in a portrait of the small town of Fougères in Brittany, the French magazine Nouvel Observateur, painted a familiar picture of closed-down factories, run-down public services and struggling farms. Locals speak of Romanians and Poles working in local factories on short-term contracts at wages 30% below what locals would command. The centrist local mayor reckons “Frexit” would be supported by six out of ten locals if they were given a vote.
People are determined to send a message to the smug, urban, cosmopolitan middle class. To the journalists, the university educated, the politicians, the lawyers, the bankers, to those of us who find more in common with people like ourselves in Paris, London, Berlin and New York than with them. To the people who will speak up loudly for immigrants – our big city friends, neighbours (and cleaners) – but work hard to ignore the existence of areas a couple of hours down the road. To the elite.
That message is getting heard loud and clear. But an election or a referendum is a blunt (and in the case of referenda, toxic) instrument for communicating. And the echo chambers of Facebook and Twitter are making things much, much worse. It’s time for us to re-learn the art of talking – face to face – with people we disagree with.