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In Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and many other countries, including the United States, a growing percentage of people find it incredible that others vote for the party or president – frequently a relative newcomer to the political system – that they themselves find unacceptable.
Often, they attribute these political choices to apathy, ignorance, benighted self-interest, or, worse, treason. Meanwhile, the supporters of the actors in question feel upset, labeling their critics as arrogant, self-righteous, corrupt, and pro-status-quo.
Polarization grows when people begin to fear being excluded from social and political power. They feel the pressure to conform with one bloc or the other as their political preferences increasingly shape their social relations. At that point, the normal differences in a society become pernicious, and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of “us” versus “them.”
As the middle and neutral ground collapses in a context of partisan polarization, it becomes increasingly difficult to confront one’s own group interests without being labelled a “traitor” or “sell-out,” which may result in social and political isolation. How does this happen? When politicians try to capitalize on the already-existing rifts in their societies by deepening these fractures, in order to make them the basis of a successful political mobilization
Severe forms of polarization may undermine free and fair elections, a reasonably independent judiciary, and some forms of checks and balances in government. They also entail a loss of informal norms that sustain democracies, such as mutual tolerance.
Polarization can produce different outcomes in a democracy: in Bangladesh, Greece and the United States at present, it has resulted in gridlock, with an eventual outcome that remains unclear. In Hungary, Poland and Turkey, on the other hand, it has had the effect of bringing to power new dominant groups.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, Viktor Orban and the Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) in Hungary, and the Kaczyński brothers and the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland have achieved power by uniting and mobilizing the disenchanted segments of society.
Turkey since 2002 has become one of the most polarized countries in the world and has undergone a significant democratic breakdown. What began as a potentially reformist politics of transformative polarization morphed into an autocratic one.
In Hungary, the left and right blocs oppose each other in a struggle where the loser is completely denied any influence on policymaking. The two blocs have opposing views on socio-cultural policies.
The lack of strong underlying cleavages in Poland, a very homogenous nation with strong economic growth since 1989, moderate inequality, and rising wages, indicates that polarization was not bottom up but was driven from the top down.
A segment of the political class used the rhetoric of populist anti-establishmentarianism to gain popular support. As for the U.S., Republicans and Democrats are now divided along ideological lines, and partisan antipathy is deep and extensive. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre.
The U.S. electorate, commentator Andrew Sullivan observed in the Sept. 28, 2017 issue of New York Magazine, has devolved into “two tribes whose mutual incomprehension and loathing can drown out their love of country.”
In the Oct. 12, 2018 New Yorker, George Packer argued that politics today “requires a word as primal as ‘tribe’ to get at the blind allegiances and huge passions of partisan affiliation.” The dynamics of polarization varies in each country and its emergence is not caused by any specific underlying social or political cleavage nor any particular institutional make-up.
Why this is happening in so many otherwise dissimilar countries is an issue that those who study politics are grappling with.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.