New democracies and long-established ones alike are being rocked by polarisation. Is there anything policymakers in other countries can learn from our own country’s experience in dealing with growing political divisions around the world?
WHAT WAS YOUR GOAL WHEN YOU STARTED RESEARCHING YOUR NEXT BOOK ABOUT POLITICAL POLARIZATION, DEMOCRACIES DIVIDED?
According to numerous studies, a rise in populist and anti-liberal leaders is jeopardizing democracy. Nonetheless, we believe that it does not adequately address the underlying issue of extreme political polarisation.
In democracies from Brazil to Poland to Turkey, polarisation is tearing the fabric apart. It’s not just a problem in the United States; it affects people all over the world.
For what reason has there been such an upsurge in polarisation over the past few years? Is there a pattern of polarization that is consistent across countries? And perhaps most importantly, what can societies do to begin healing their divisions once they have become deeply polarised?
These questions are broad in scope, but how did you get your bearings?
We looked at Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Turkey, and the United States to see how they were dealing with the issue. These countries were studied by a team of scholars who had a deep understanding of the local context.
We drew conclusions based on these findings. As a result, we were able to see things that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen if we had focused only on the United States and Europe.
POLARIZED DEMOCRATIC SYSTEMS AROUND THE WORLD SHOW A SIMILAR PATTERN?
We were astonished by the level of similarity we found between countries. Roots, patterns, and drivers of polarisation were similar even in democracies as diverse as Kenya and Poland.
Among the most striking aspects of polarising leaders was their ability to take decisive action. Leaders like Narendra Modi in India, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey have stoked racial tensions and deepened social divisions (often with resounding electoral success). As well as demonizing their opponents and restricting democratic processes, they’ve also pushed for radical changes, such as a total ban on abortion in Poland, which has exacerbated tensions.
The rise of social media has exacerbated the impact of divisive figures like Trump and Occupy Wall Street. Anti-democratic and confrontational tactics from opposition leaders can also stoke the flames. To heighten tensions in 2007, the leader of the main opposition party called on Turkish soldiers to oppose Erdogan’s possible presidential bid.
It was surprising to discover so many other sources of division that seemed counterintuitive at first glance. As the economy improves, you might expect that it would reduce polarisation. We found, however, that in some countries, such as India, it made things worse. India’s middle class has fueled a rise in support for Hindu nationalist narratives.
We also discovered that corruption and patronage, two anti-democratic practices, can reduce polarisation for a short period of time. Voters are often dissatisfied with traditional parties as a result of the political decay this causes, which in turn fuels populist leaders like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
POLARIZATION INTENSIFIES, WHAT HAPPENS TO DEMOCRACIES??
Democracy’s foundations are undermined by extreme polarization.
Politicians routinely attack the courts as biassed or overburden them with loyalists, which serves to weaken the independence of the judiciary. It leads to gridlock or rubber-stamping in the legislatures. Having a president who only represents his or her own supporters rather than all of America often leads to abuses of executive power in presidential systems.
Polarization, perhaps most fundamentally, shatters informal but crucial norms of tolerance and moderation—like peacefully conceding defeat in an election—that keep political competition within bounds.
As a result of these events, polarisation is intensifying, creating a vicious cycle. Judiciary attacks only weaken its ability to mediate conflict and increase distrust between the parties.
In addition, polarisation has a ripple effect throughout society, making it difficult to engage in normal social interactions. Most parents in Turkey would not want their daughter to marry someone who votes for the party they despise, which is a particularly shocking statistic. Almost three-quarters of those polled said they would never do business with someone like that.
Civil society suffers as a result of partisan conflict, with activists and human rights defenders frequently demonized. Even more seriously, divisions can lead to an increase in hate crimes and political violence. This has happened recently in India, Poland, and the United States.
WHAT ABOUT THE UNITED STATES POLARIZATION? IS IT LIKE OTHER COUNTRIES’ POLARIZATION?
More and more, we found that the extreme polarization in the United States stands out as unusual when compared to other democracies. It has a number of unique characteristics, and all of them bodes ill for the democracy of the United States.
Unlike in most other countries, in the United States, political polarisation is not primarily caused by polarising politicians fanning racial or ethnic tensions within society. It is the result of a long-running sociocultural conflict between competing conservative and progressive visions of the United States of America. Political leaders in the United States cannot, even if they wanted to, undo the polarization that has developed in the country.
For an unusually long period of time, the United States has been gripped by intense partisanship, which has permeated all aspects of society and politics. Since at least the 1960s, the country’s racial and ethnic divisions have been steadily worsening. In contrast, most of the current polarisation cases are of a recent origin.
It’s the “iron triangle” of polarisation in the United States that we refer to as a distinctive and perhaps even unique feature of the country’s polarisation. Most other countries’ polarisation stems from one or two of these three identity divisions; in the United States, all three are at play. As a result, the polarisation in the United States is particularly wide and acute.
This country’s democratic guardrails are being seriously tested by partisan warfare, which may not have eroded democracy to the same degree in other countries like Bangladesh or Turkey.
Is there anything that can be done to stop the spread of polarisation and unite the country?
Bringing a splintered society back together is extremely difficult. In order to devise effective solutions, one must first grasp the complexities of the problem.
There is a tendency for polarisation to rise quickly, often within a few years. Just take a look at how quickly the United Kingdom has split apart after the Brexit referendum of 2016.
After that, polarisation becomes entrenched and self-perpetuating. Countries are thrown into a downward spiral of hostility and division as a result of polarising actions and reactions.
Though polarisation is costly, it doesn’t always prompt a government to act, because the politicians who are most responsible for fueling it reap the benefits while bearing little of the burden.
Our research shows that despite the difficulties, many actors have attempted novel solutions to the problem, with some success.
WHICH METHODS CAN BE USED TO DEFEND POLARIZATION?
Eight different types of corrective actions are identified and analyzed in our research, ranging from dialogue efforts and media reforms to global action. We’ll focus on three examples in this post.
Some promising efforts to reduce polarisation have focused on institutional reforms, such as decentralizing political power or changing electoral rules. By giving regional officials more autonomy and control over state resources, Kenya’s new constitution, adopted in 2010, aimed to reduce the fierce competition for national office. According to a study published last year, ranked-choice voting (RCV) is the most effective method for reducing political polarisation, as demonstrated by Maine’s passage of a law in 2016 to implement RCV.
Legal or judicial action has also been taken to limit polarisation and majoritarianism—the belief that the feelings and rights of the minority should not constrain leaders who have the support of the majority. India’s Supreme Court has spoken out in support of democratic institutions and has called for more accountability for hate crimes and political violence.
Leadership in politics can also play an important role in reducing partisan tensions. Despite being from the same political party, Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno has rejected the polarising tactics of his predecessor. Even though opposition parties have had limited success in Turkey, their candidate for mayor of Istanbul, who ran on a platform emphasizing unity, won a landslide victory in 2019.
In the grand scheme of things, however, these efforts are insignificant. The growing global current of polarisation will force democracies to adapt in new and determined ways if they are to succeed.
Was there anything you didn’t know about the book while you were doing your research?
The stark polarization in many countries led us to expect a wide gap between the opposing viewpoints when we examined it. As a result, we were surprised to learn that these differences can appear insignificant at times.
To put it another way: Bangladesh is an example of how acrimonious political competition can lead to violence and election fraud. However, voter polarization isn’t based on fundamental differences in ethnicity, ideology, or religion. A political elite that plays up and manufactures divisions is almost entirely to blame for this situation.
To our surprise, we discovered that even societies that appear to be homogeneous have the potential for destructive divisions. Democracies are vulnerable to polarization, and the factors that fuel divisions are extremely powerful, as our research shows.