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Do we have too much or too little polarisation? A Democracy Debate

In the last several years, new challenger parties have gained ground across Europe and the tone of political debate has sharpened. This has raised fears of polarisation as an unsettling force pulling at the seams of democracy in Europe. Many politicians and analysts now see it as the most serious problem affecting European politics. But is this really the case? Is European democracy really too polarised or is it too narrow in the options it presents to citizens? Could a more serious problem stem from rigid technocratic consensus? To help answer this, the Open Governance Network for Europe, Carnegie Europe, and European Partnership for Democracy convened a Democracy Debate to hear from experts on both sides. Here’s what they said:

According to Hans Kundnani, senior fellow at Chatham House, Europe suffers from too little polarisation. His argument is that polarisation is not inherently bad, and that, contrary to popular belief, political centrism is not always good. Such binary thinking, he adds, can lead Europe to favor technocracy, which is a more prominent threat to European democracy than polarisation.  The kind of polarisation that is so pernicious in the United States and other severely divided democracies is not present in Europe, with Germany’s recent history of grand coalitions as a paradigmatic case. Instead, Kundnani identifies a variation of problematic convergences between left and right across Europe, which in many cases has resulted in the centre left and centre right becoming indistinguishable.

In such cases, economic policies of parties on either side have moved to the centre, forcing the focus of political contestation from economic policy to cultural policies. In effect, cultural polarisation creates identity-driven politics, which can greatly benefit the extremes of the political spectrum – particularly the far right. Economic polarisation, on the one hand, prevents cultural issues from becoming salient, while cultural polarisation can be very toxic for a society. In order to shift political debates away from cultural polarisation, Kundnani proposes that Europe  needs more polarisation, particularly around economic issues, to focus more political contestation on economic issues and to foster a more balanced discourse between left and right.

Jennifer McCoy, professor of political science at Georgia State University, in contrast, argues that Europe suffers from too much polarisation. She warned of the very real threat of pernicious polarisation, which she identifies most severely in the United States, Venezuela, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand. To McCoy, polarisation is the process that simplifies politics by dividing it into two mutually distrusting sides, over a single axis of contestation. Such polarisation happens when a polarising strategy is used by political actors for creating new or exploiting existing cleavages as a means to gain and keep a hold on power. In McCoy’s view, this is particularly worrying because it changes the logic of political contestation, drowns out bridge builders, amplifies extreme voices, paralyses governments and decision-making processes, destroys social cohesion, and undermines trust in authorities.

In contrast to Kundnani, McCoy sees polarisation as the result of populist political forces’ use of polarising strategies, in an attempt to cling on to power. The danger is that people will see the other side as such an existential threat that they’ll agree to sacrifice democratic principles in order to safeguard themselves from that threat. While McCoy sides with Kundnani in thinking that polarisation can be useful for European democracies, as a part of normal competitive politics and as a disruptor to challenge non-democratic norms like social or racial injustices, she calls on governments and officials to recognise the risk and negative consequences of more pernicious polarisation. The key, she argues, is to actively manage beneficial forms of polarisation to prevent it from deepening to more dangerous form.

What is clear through th is debate is that political actors play a major role in creating and overcoming political polarisation, in Europe and abroad. From Kundnani’s perspective, political actors need to become more polarised on economic issues, whereas from McCoy’s point of view, they need to better manage transformative polarisation. Another recurring theme is that polarisation is complex and differs from one country to another. Many Europeans look at their own politics through the prism of American politics, and therefore view polarisation as inherently bad. This can lead to a misinterpretation of polarising trends in Europe, and miss the variety and complexity of polarisation as it appears in countries like Great Britain, France, and Germany – and, more severely, in Turkey, Egypt, and Venezuela. Finally, considering the complexity of polarisation, one’s definition of the phenomenon will greatly impact their assessment of the level of threat it poses to democracy.

For more takeaways from the Democracy Debate series, see ‘Should the EU Stop Funding Autocrats? A Democracy Debate’.