Kate Bush, Theresa May and the trouble with political partisanship

Red shoes, blue soul? Marion Roper, CC BY-NC

Kate Bush has created a stir with remarks she made to the Canadian magazine Maclean’s. Bush explained that she “really liked” Theresa May, who she described as “wonderful” and the “best thing that’s happened to us in a long time”.

It wasn’t long before people were tweeting their horror at the apparent evidence that “Kate Bush is a Tory”. Fans appeared outraged that the singer they had followed with devotion was praising a right-wing government. There seemed to be an assumption that an artist like Kate Bush is, by definition, left-wing.

Of course artists do not owe their political affiliation to any one ideology. But the notion of artists as necessarily left-wing has endured. It is one Stewart Lee grappled with in 2013 when he pondered “where are all the right wing stand-ups?”. Lee ultimately concluded that comedy is about punching up and the right, by definition, can only punch down.

Perhaps this is where the outcry stems from. Kate Bush can’t be a Tory, she’s one of “us”. If her fans are as invested in the artist as the art, maybe this feels like a betrayal. Or if you’ve always hated her anyway, vindication. But why does politics produce such a visceral response?

Political intolerance

The reaction is indicative of wider political research showing that although left-wingers are more socially tolerant, they tend to be more politically intolerant. One can’t imagine such an outcry from Conservatives if Bush expressed admiration for Jeremy Corbyn.

Political scientist Rob Ford has written about just this.

A 2012 survey found that a quarter of Labour voters would be upset if their child married a Conservative supporter. Conservatives, on the other hand, were relatively more relaxed about the prospect of a left-winger in the family.

The liberal left were more tolerant of ethnic minorities and those on benefits joining the clan but apparently couldn’t find space round the dinner table for a right winger.

Similarly, those on the left would be far more upset if a potential in-law was a Sun or Daily Mail reader than those on the right would be about readers of The Guardian or Mirror.

The reasons forwarded for this are that social groups exist as stereotypes – and, societally, the right is viewed more negatively.

This political intolerance shows that politics is embedded in wider society. Voting isn’t just something that you do at election time. As Ford suggests, political affiliation “is a social act which for many affirms or reaffirms who they are (and, equally, who they are not)”.

But if you assume the other side is evil it becomes relatively hard to win around their voters, let alone understand their feelings and concerns. Hyper-partisanship can be dangerous. It can, to an extent, explain why Donald Trump won 90% of the registered Republican vote earlier this month. This despite his ambiguous ideological positioning and controversial comments about (amongst others) women, Mexicans – and the Republican establishment.

Hyper-partisanship also explains why voters explain away any potential positives in their opponents and see negatives where there may be none. In the US, for example, measuring perceptions of whether the economy is improving provides telling results.

Immediately before the presidential election, 16% of Republicans thought that the economy was getting better, compared to 61% of Democrats. Post-election, the Republicans who thought the economy was improving had tripled to 49%, whereas the Democrat figure had fallen to 46%.

Returning to Kate Bush, it’s worth noting that praise does not mean political endorsement. Politics is more than just putting a cross in a box. It is unsurprising, but perhaps unfair, that fans project their politics – their own view of the world – onto someone who they consider to have had an integral part in shaping it. However, having a different opinion (and a relatively benign one at that) does not disqualify a body of work.

The problem with hyper-partisan politics is that it deepens distrust on both sides of the debate. This threatens political institutions. At a time when anti-establishment politics is on the march and a president elect is actively questioning the legitimacy of an election that he won, the threat to fundamental institutions is stark.

Contemporary understandings of politics and democracy have been challenged in 2016. There are no easy solutions. However, one might suggest that a bit of understanding and respect – on both sides – may go a long way.