The Polarization Paradox

Issue Date April 2020
Volume 31
Issue 2
Page Numbers 182-185
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Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Edited by Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2019. 280 pp.

Thomas Carothers, Andrew O’Donohue, and their collaborators have produced a volume of depth and erudition on the global challenges posed by political polarization. Essays on nine countries analyze the roots, historical trajectories, and consequences of polarization around the world. The coeditors draw on rich and nuanced case studies to identify common cross-national patterns and attempt to isolate the key drivers straining a diverse set of democracies. The volume succeeds in its central mission of deepening our knowledge about political polarization. But it raises questions about the fruitfulness of the polarization framework for understanding and combat-ting the illiberal onslaught.

Polarization, it turns out, is not of a single stripe. The chapters by Senem Aydin-Düzgit on Turkey and Gilbert Khadiagala on Kenya illustrate how severe polarization contributed to democratic breakdown. Essays by Carothers on the United States, Niranjan Sahoo on India, and Joanna Fomina on Poland show how severe polarization has placed democracy under stress but not yet knocked it out. Andreas Feldman’s chapter on Colombia and Naomi Hossain’s chapter on Bangladesh depict elite-centric polarization that has not penetrated society deeply. The chapters by Eve Warburton on Indonesia and by Umberto Mignozzetti and Matias Spektor on Brazil showcase countries where democracy-endangering polarization has largely been avoided. Taken together, the contributions paint a panoramic portrait [End Page 182] of polarization and its potentially devastating implications for democracy around the world. While polarization can vary in intensity, the authors conclude that “severe polarization,” meaning the division of society into clashing “us” versus “them” identities, imperils democracy.

About the Authors

M. Steven Fish

M. Steven Fish is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

View all work by M. Steven Fish

Neil A. Abrams

Neil A. Abrams received his Ph.D. in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and works as a futures trader in the San Francisco Bay Area.

View all work by Neil A. Abrams

In contrast to some other accounts, Democracies Divided highlights culture and not economic insecurity as the main source of polarization and democratic backsliding. As the contributors point out, Poles, Turks, Indians, Kenyans, and Bangladeshis actually realized dramatic economic gains in the decades preceding their growing rifts. Nor is polarization rooted in flawed formal institutions. While some contributors identify aspects of their countries’ electoral rules and constitutional systems as aggravating factors, the broader take-away is that polarization is happening under every sort of constitutional system and electoral regime.

The exception seems to be Brazil’s much-maligned combination of presidentialism and open-list proportional-representation voting for the legislature. Mignozzetti and Spektor argue that this setup checks polarization, but only by fostering other ills such as patronage politics, corruption, and a general lack of partisan accountability to the governed. Indeed, as the authors suggest, a system based on elite cartels designed to fatten politicians’ wallets and campaign coffers only abets democratic dysfunction. Nor is it necessarily a reliable barrier to polarization. Public dissatisfaction with elite collaboration and rot led to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist president. In the view of Mignozzetti and Spektor, Brazil has not yet succumbed to severe polarization, but Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and policies threaten to bring it about.

So what does cause polarization? The drivers are numerous, complex, and multifaceted. Among them are waning elite control over politics and rising popular involvement in political parties. In the United States, Carothers argues that the push for inclusion by marginalized groups during the 1960s and 1970s pulled the Democratic Party to the left. This, together with the conservative backlash it sparked, set the country on the path toward polarization. The authors also point to social media, which extend the reach of extremists, sort citizens into opinion silos, and allow populist leaders to communicate directly with their followers. These insights present a paradox: A richer, more engaged and influential citizenry often makes for a more polarized one, putting democracy at risk.

What can be done to stop polarization? While the contributors catalogue the various remedies that have been tried in their countries, none of these solutions are actually working. In the final chapter the editors offer their own suggestions, including reforming the media, political parties, and electoral systems. But they admit that such measures are extraordinarily difficult to achieve. The volume reports that corruption can limit polarization, while rapid economic development and the rise of social media can accelerate it. But nobody wants to encourage rot or slow economic advancement, and social media are here to stay. Carothers and O’Donohue also recommend [End Page 183] reinforcing guardrail institutions and especially the “rule of law and independent, impartial election administrations” (p. 268). Yet such measures are scarcely possible while illiberal leaders are commandeering the courts and electoral commissions to consolidate their own power.

The shortage of workable prescriptions seems to stem from the authors’ choice of polarization as the central lens through which to view the global crisis of democracy. In the concluding chapter, the editors fault polarization for democratic degradation and illiberal one-party dominance. But the book’s evidence suggests that both severe polarization and the erosion of democracy actually result from the rise of illiberal leaders. In most cases of severe polarization, a single demagogue is responsible for activating sociocultural divisions and aligning identities into binary, “us-versus-them” categories. India’s Narendra Modi, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan show “how closely associated the emergence of severe polarization is with one particular figure” (p. 263).

What’s more, the emphasis on polarization too easily lends itself to faulting both sides. Carothers’ chapter on the United States argues that the Democrats, having swung left by embracing civil rights, played their own part in setting polarization in motion. Yet Carothers acknowledges that polarization accelerated even when the Democratic Party was, by his own description, led by moderates. In the United States, as elsewhere, the main driver of declining respect for democratic norms and institutions has been the rise of illiberalism on the right. In their chapters on India and Poland, Sahoo and Fomina respectively show that both twenty-first–century extremism and the growing threat to democracy emanate from the main illiberal party. It follows that democracy’s defenders must defeat illiberals before they can reduce polarization.

The book does not focus on strategies to oust illiberal parties, but its insights provide intriguing clues. The case studies reveal that beyond divisions based on group identity lurks a larger conflict over the nation. Illiberal leaders appear to be succeeding by promoting compelling narratives about national identity and fate. At the heart of polarization and the rise of Erdoğan, Aydin-Düzgit sees a “conflict over the soul of Turkey” that was long repressed by secularizing elites (p. 17). As Sahoo observes, Hindu nationalists began their ascent in the 1980s by reviving the old question of “the idea of India.” He demonstrates how Modi has thrived by stirring up controversy over national identity (p. 95). In Poland, argues Fomina, debate no longer revolves around the contentious market transformation or the [End Page 184] communist past. Politics has become “a struggle to define Poland’s future,” one that pits “patriots” posing as the defenders of religion and “traditional values” against “citizens” who seek to preserve Poland’s place among the democratic societies of the West (p. 136).

In this light, one might argue that the champions of democracy should aggressively propagate their own potent narratives about the nation rather than leaving patriotism to the illiberals. India’s Jawaharlal Nehru brandished the Indian tricolor to blunt the appeal of Hindu nationalists, wrapping his iron commitment to liberal ideals in a stirring vision of India’s global mission. But his successors in the Congress party often failed to uphold his example, instead opting, as Sahoo shows, to play defense against bigots or to pander to them. Poland’s Solidarity movement famously fused liberal and national symbols to tear down the patriotic pretensions of the communist regime. But postcommunist liberals seem to have lost sight of nationalism’s significance. Instead, they became fixated on the economy and preserving the country’s status in Europe, and they have struggled to respond to the exclusionary national vision promoted by Kaczyński and his Law and Justice party.

Indonesia stands out as the democracy that avoided both severe polarization and an illiberal takeover of government. One factor appears to have been the liberals’ command of a vigorous national narrative. In the presidential showdowns of 2014 and 2019, Prabowo Subianto played to Islamic extremism and stoked resentment against ethnic Chinese. The liberal candidate, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), confronted his illiberal opponent’s national narrative head on, never yielding a square centimeter of the flag. Warburton does not endorse the Jokowi camp’s “militant pluralism, which painted any Islamist group affiliated with Prabowo as a threat to Indonesia’s national identity and the state’s pluralist foundations” (p. 211). Nevertheless, it worked. Jokowi beat Prabowo by six points in 2014 and crushed him by eleven in 2019. His victories were crucial to containing polarization and sustaining democracy. Had Prabowo won, he certainly would have deepened polarization and weakened democratic institutions just as populists have done elsewhere.

National identity is the world’s mightiest political force, and Democracies Divided reveals that the capacity of illiberal demagogues to mobilize and manipulate it has been pivotal to their rise. If democrats fail to harness nationalism in the service of overcoming the polarized identity politics that Democracies Divided skillfully analyzes, they may continue to falter at the polls, thereby forfeiting their chance to tame polarization and halt the demolition of democracy. [End Page 185]

Copyright © 2020 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press