It is frequently said that political opinion in today’s democracies has become more polarised than in the past. This blog takes this assertion at face value. It discusses the many possible reasons for it and questions whether it is a transient or more permanent feature of contemporary democracies.
The influence of social media
Probably the most widely blamed force behind polarisation is the social media and their displacement of traditional news media. There is a two way mutually reinforcing dynamic. From the supply side, social media platforms want to maximise the users they host with few limits on the views expressed. From the demand side, audiences want to hear views they agree with and that reinforce their pre-existing views and prejudices. Public opinion becomes divided into narrowly segmented echo chambers for the like-minded.
Even though the influence of the social media applies to all democracies, there is anecdotal evidence that democracies with ‘official’ broadcasters, (BBC, ABC, CBC) have been more resistant to polarisation. This is in part because of ‘equal time’ requirements in the statutory obligations of official broadcasters, monitored also by independent electoral commissions. However, official broadcasters face criticism for not sufficiently representing the contemporary diversity of their societies and the heterogenous viewpoints that accompany this diversity.
The changing role of mass political parties
A related possible influence is that the role of mainstream political parties, that historically have occupied the centre ground of politics, has changed. Their role in mobilising voters remains important but their role in trying to reach out to the centre ground of policy debate has arguably diminished. They have a continuing incentive to appeal to the centre in cases where public opinion is fluid. But where public opinion is fixed, they may turn to rally only their core supporters. There also seems to be a further internal dynamic at work. Traditional parties seem to have greater difficulty than in the past in containing their own internal divisions. Factions within parties can aim to strengthen their position by appealing to their particular supporters outside. Again, the centre loses. In this context, leadership matters. Biden has deliberately chosen to occupy the centre ground and face down his left. In the UK, Starmer has positioned himself in the same way.
The growth in importance of ‘cultural’ issues
A further possible cause is the rise of so-called cultural issues around gender and identify. Such issues raise the temperature of debate in ways that traditional divides around say public investment in health or education do not. Such issues are seen to have a personal relevance to individuals or ‘Someone I Know’. Although part of their traction is heavily normative, cultural issues are emotionally engaging to electors in ways that traditional areas of public policy often are not. Reference to ‘Culture wars’ has become a standard trope. Cultural politics plays into partisan politics. Cultural conservatives animate the right, champions of cultural difference animate the left.
Ethnic and social identities
Today’s societies are more socially diverse, in part because of immigration. People may therefore turn to social groups they feel an identity with to help simplify their dealings with the outside world and to look for reassurance. The downside is that when groupings feel challenged by others, they may be less inclined to cooperate with others and less inclined to look for the common ground that unites them.
Inequalities more pronounced
Insecurity around social identity groupings are possibly aggravated by the growth in economic inequalities. Income and wealth differences are viewed as skewing politics in favour of those who have, against those who are at the bottom of the pile. The growth in inequalities in recent years means there are more people with a sense of resentment against those on top and who feel they have nothing to lose by expressing their resentment in strong terms. In some democracies, election expenses are limited by law and monitored by the independent election commissions. In countries where allowable election expenses are not effectively limited under electoral laws, income and wealth disparities translate into perceptions that elections are swayed by money, creating resentment against an unfair playing field. Money talks and resentment too.
Principles of representation eroded
Attitudes towards perceived unfairness in representation possibly also reflect a sense that
the principles of representation have eroded. There are important age and gender cohorts that are grossly underweighted and under-represented in elected assemblies. If the voice of important social groups is not expressed within assemblies there is a strong incentive to raise that voice in more militant terms outside assemblies.
A particular aspect of representation, mainly but not exclusively relevant to the US, is malapportionment of seats, so that constituency sizes are unequal, or the division of the electorate between urban and rural areas is distorted or, in the case of the US, representation is skewed or denied by gerrymandering and voter registration dodges.
The end of days: apocalypse now
A final possible cause comes from the more militant and ideological end of the environmental movement. If you believe that unless radical measures are taken to ‘stop oil’ our society faces imminent doom, (the last generation) there is no appeal in moderation of expression and no appeal in debating mitigation and adaptation measures that might reduce carbon emissions over the longer term. For environmental ideologues there is no alternative to radical expression.
The norms of political discourse
Traditional democratic norms have included the idea that moderation and restraint are virtues and that debate should be ‘decent’. These virtues are not very evident in today’s world. When attention is in short supply and there are many claims on that limited attention it seems a winning strategy to attract attention with more extreme positions and statements. According to this diagnosis, political discourse has become more heated and fractious because there are no rewards from restraint. You don’t have to be an ideological environmentalist to feel that you have to express your sense of social and economic insecurity and fear of exclusion in more assertive and militant terms.
What is striking about this rollcall of possible causes, each having an intuitive plausibility, is that they come from so many different sources, from changes in the media, in political organisation, in the political agenda, from insecurities around social identities, inequalities in the economy, in political frameworks around representation, in perceptions of the fragility of the human ecology, and in the erosion of political norms of restraint. The question is how far they are amenable to a policy response or whether we have to accept polarisation as a permanent feature of today’s democratic landscape.
Political discourse in democracies today is dominated by a rights-based discourse. On the surface this seems to provide a means to combat many of the sources of social anxiety referred to above. However, rights are open to many different interpretations. Such differences mean that assertions of rights can be as much a source of social and political division as an effective response to division.
Limits on election expenses
Limits on election expenses provide a way of addressing concerns that the playing field is tilted towards money. There is a traditional concern that this limits freedom of expression. However, the US supreme court’s equation of a business with a person is, with notable exceptions such as Elon Musk, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates a misunderstanding of most of the modern corporate world. Corporate managements need to draw on diverse talent pools and have to steer between conflicting interests.
Turnout in elections is embarrassingly low in several democracies such as the UK and US. People may react negatively to the posturing and preening of candidates for office. However, on the evidence of Australia, compulsory voting forces political platforms towards the centre ground and away from activist fringes. The drawback is that compulsory voting is normatively awkward. Voting has traditionally been viewed as the voluntary act of a free citizen not an obligation exercised under the threat of government-imposed fines.
Anti-corruption measures are an internationally recognised antidote and international standards are being promoted, notably by OECD. However, remedies are not straightforward and it is early days in the development of effective international standards and cooperation.
Representation frameworks and ‘selectorates’
Representation standards for elected assemblies require updating in all democracies. Updating rests mainly on actions by members of political parties who actually select candidates. The composition of ‘selectorates’ is not frequently examined and probably lags well behind in reflecting the social diversity around them.
There is therefore no ‘silver bullet’. Polarisation will be with us for some time ahead and requires a combination of measures, none likely to be put in place quickly across all democracies. Limits on election expenses apply particularly to the US and will require reversal of the 2010 Supreme Court decision that gave the green light to PAC and SUPERPAC funding by businesses. Compulsory voting will face resistance for normative reasons.