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Maria Sobuniewska  12 sierpnia 2020

Democracy may not survive the war of polarised tribes

Maria Sobuniewska  12 sierpnia 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 11 min
Democracy may not survive the war of polarised tribes Thomas Hawk - flickr.com

The foundation of democracy is dialogue. Whether we are thinking of a citizens’ dispute to discover the truth or a debate that aims at equality of interests – without discussion it is impossible to think of a political system that involves the active participation of citizens in the governance. Today, however, political polarisation is becoming increasingly profound, making any meaningful discussion impossible. Everywhere one can see the increasing intensity of wars undertaken by radical political tribes and one can have fears if modern democratic systems, will be able to survive them.

Increasingly fragmented democracy

In the late twentieth century, many political observers predicted that the coming decades would be a time of undeniable triumph for democracy. This, however, has not been the case. The socio-political changes of the last two decades have generated so many different systemic issues that today there is a lot of talk about a global crisis of democracy. Recent events in democratic systems clearly show that the worldwide spread of political polarisation, which manifests itself in increasingly sharper divisions between opposing political forces and a shrinking political common ground, is a major cause of the instability of the modern form of the rule of the people.

Not only in Poland, but also in many Western democracies, the differentiation of views and the shrinking centre are becoming more and more visible. The number of people with moderate or mixed views is dwindling, while the number of radicals who are firmly on one side of the conflict is growing. The polarisation of social attitudes overlaps the progressive radicalisation of the views held by the political parties themselves.

From young democracies, such as Poland, to those that have always been modeled on it, such as the United States and Great Britain, the gap between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, is growing everywhere. Divisions are part of everyday political reality. Strong polarisation destroys the institutions necessary for democracy, reduces social cohesion, and often leads to an increase in crime caused by political hatred.

It is worth noting that disagreements are absolutely normal, in fact, even desirable in a democratic system. They express a vibrant culture of democratic debate where different perspectives and different interests clash. As a result of this process, the most effective way is to formulate solutions that constitute a compromise between substantive content and social acceptance. Political diversity is particularly valuable in young democracies that are starting to build their party systems. Pluralism understood in such way allows politicians from various political options to be selected and mobilises voters to participate in public life, thus giving parties a deeper rooting in the social fabric. The more mature a democracy is, the wider scope of dispute it can allow for, as it has managed to create mechanisms that inhibit the risk of destabilisation. Young democracies are more prone to increasing tensions and are therefore easier to overthrow. One example of this may be the authoritarian tendencies in democratic countries before World War II.

The problem begins when political rivalry becomes so intense that competing political forces adopt a polarising strategy that reduces common ground and room for compromise. Party loyalty among voters can help stabilise the party system, but when these loyalties are based on emotion and fear, and not on a rational evaluation of postulates and electoral obligations, then the very stability of democracy becomes questionable.

The winner takes it all

When does polarisation become destructive to democracy? This usually happens when opposing camps are formed that divide voters as well as politicians. Voters then build their political identity primarily on loyalty to one party, and not only on their views, because it is difficult to find people who agree with the entire platform of a party. As a result, it is almost impossible to make a distinction between supporting a given political group as such and supporting the views it is supposed to implement. Thus, a specific set of identities, culture, and politics is formulated in opposition to a political opponent who does not share our views and the loyalties that result from them. The friend/enemy opposition, purely political at first, thus carries over to the level of private sympathies and animosities, with individuals treating those on the other side as a threat and believing they cannot interact with them in personal relationships.

Strong polarisation, where two opposing groups are not prepared to compromise on their stance, poses a challenge to democracy for at least three reasons. Firstly, viewing the other side’s supporter as a personal enemy and their victory as a threat to one’s person may lead to an escalation of violence. Examples of such cases would be the murder of PiS (Law and Justice political party) MP Marek Rosiak (on 19 October 2010 in Łódź) or the murder of Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk. Secondly, under conditions of strong polarisation, both sides use rhetoric meant to delegitimise their political opponents. Under normal circumstances, admissible allegations of incompetence or a disastrous electoral platform are replaced with accusations of insanity (such as the statement ‘fools’) or even of betrayal. Third, polarisation may lead to a refusal to recognise the procedures and institutions that a political opponent had legally established while in power. Unfortunately, this third instance was particularly painfully visible in Polish public life.

In any case, the polarisation in question is an ongoing process of destabilising the state and standard democratic practices. After all, a polarised world is ruled by the fear that the winner will take it all. Even if the actual differences in ideas for reforms are minute, the fear of one’s opponent winning is still stronger than thinking in terms of solutions which would be favourable to the common good.

As Jonathan Rauch argues on the pages of National Affairs, the point of polarisation is not to make people believe more in the ideals and values of their party, but rather to increase the aversion, or even hatred, of the opposing group. Such a phenomenon is already happening in Polish own backyard, as shown by the results of a survey conducted by the Centre for Research on Prejudice. Supporters of both ruling party, PiS, and the opposition parties have a negative attitude towards their political opponents. This view enters the area of private contacts. Both declare rather negative feelings towards their opponents or less trust in them. Noticeably, however, there is a trend of dehumanisation against one’s political opponents. While opposition voters would dehumanise Law and Justice voters more than Jews, Muslims, refugees, and homosexuals, PiS voters have would equally dehumanise opposition supporters and other the groups taken together.

This mechanism of creating a dehumanised image of one’s political opponent can generate the relevant rhetoric. This is the principle of feedback at work. A group that becomes convinced of the dehumanised perception of their opponents becomes even more convinced of this when they hear similar rhetoric about themselves from the other side of the political divide. Although there are many reasons for the growing polarisation, contemporary social engineering and the old rules of political rhetoric play a significant part in dividing society into two camps.

Political polarisation is not about the truth

With regard to the recent campaign, it is hardly difficult to notice that building support is largely based not on convincing others to share one’s views or solutions, but on attacking one’s rival. The fact that support for president Andrzej Duda almost entirely coincides with support for his political party (PiS) may be an example of the fact that the candidates (and their platforms in particular) constitute a secondary issue, whilst the voters are often guided by party affiliation.

Under such conditions, the way election campaigns are conducted changes. Politicians know very well if they want to build political support, they must arouse the appropriate emotions, especially negative ones towards their opponents. They skilfully use the fact that voters are not guided by rational factors in their decisions. The public debate increasingly shows the use of fear or anger towards political opponents, and the rhetoric constructed in this way is accompanied by exaggerated excitement over the successes of one’s own party.

Of course, proving an asymmetry between one’s party and one’s opponent is nothing new. If you want to gain power, you must prove that you have better ideas and are more credible than the alternative. On the other hand, the use of the element of fear based on the socio-political identities of voters is a complete novelty. That is why the campaign was dominated by the rhetoric of the victory of one option over the other and by repeated accusations that the other side has brought a destructive ideology with them or that the supporters of one of the candidates themselves were destroying Poland.

This way, the mere criticism of an opponent, aiming to show the weakness of their ideas and their lack of credibility, turns into a description of the opponent in terms of an existential threat. The usual fear that the enemy will be worse at ruling is replaced by the fear that when they come to power, they will hurt us. This is what breeds anger and fear.

As research shows, it is this emotion that is the most effective tool for building political support. Unlike joy, anger is lasting and is much more easily used to stir up a fight. As a result, our choices are based not on loving our chosen party, but on hating the opposing one and everything associated with it. That is why the political narrative does not shy away from making up enemies we should be afraid of or demonising opponents. From the standpoint of politicians, a more effective strategy is simply to rely on negative emotions. Therefore, contemporary rhetoric is designed in such a way as to arouse outrage. Today, the reach of anger-based communication is even more effective, and it is supported by social media. Considering how much of politics is conducted via Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, it can be concluded that the Internet, with its echo chambers, will guarantee that the already angry voters will receive appropriate content. Rage and fear of the enemy will only ever grow.

Technology doesn’t help

The Internet brings with it unlimited access to information. While this may arouse dreams of a thoroughly informed and educated society, it is a double-edged sword. It’s easy to get the impression that if we receive so much information, it means we can reliably and independently formulate opinions on every topic. This is not true.

In fact, social media is constructed in such a way that it reinforces polarisation. Firstly, we are more willing to share information that has angered us. As shown by a study by scientists from the University of New York, it is primarily emotional content which is most often retweeted and which gains the greatest popularity. Meanwhile, the algorithms display to us the information we like the most, whether it is true or not. This way, filter bubbles are created, the specific nature of which makes us reinforce the views of our own party whilst making us resistant to the arguments of the other side.

Filter bubbles are only one way of transmitting information that uses our cognitive mechanisms. In other words, even if it were possible to somehow get rid of them, confirmation bias—which has been widely known since the 1970s—would still be unavoidable. The famous study by Lord, Ross, and Lepper has proven that even having the same set of facts about a given phenomenon, there is a mechanism of uncritical acceptance of information that reinforces a thesis one has already accepted. Simply put, after presenting the facts for and against something, people tend to accept the information that proves the truthfulness of their views, whilst simultaneously showing far-reaching scepticism regarding any content that contradicts the opinions they had previously formed.

The research from the 1970s was repeated in 2018 on social media based on the American political scene. Two groups of subjects were invited. One of them openly sympathised with the Democrats and the other with the Republicans. The aim of the study participants was to follow a bot on Twitter, which displayed information from the opposite party. After a month of research, the Republicans turned out to be much more radical in their views than before it commenced.

The Internet is not only an arena of political struggle, it is also a great tool for those who want to arouse emotions in order to raise political capital.

Polarisation – dispute over everything

Political polarisation is much more dangerous than a simple differentiation of views. Participants in a polarised dispute feel that losing the debate will amount to creating a physical threat to themselves. No-one really knows what this threat would actually be. However, this is how polarisation works: the cognitive distortions that we are subject to on a daily basis are amplified to an incomparably larger scale.

In order to get out of the vicious circle of confirmation bias, the rhetoric of anger, filter bubbles, and real problems, one must first of all put a strong emphasis on ridding language of its ideological connotations. In fact, many issues present in the public debate are technical in nature and constitute an answer to the question of what to do to make our lives better. Hence, it is necessary to avoid elevating specific issues to the rank of an ethical dispute as long as possible, since such discussions usually involve complex schemes of justification. This approach means that the mixture of emotions, fear of the enemy, and cherry-picked facts also requires the use of a complicated methodology. Meanwhile, carrying out a complex reflection in a state where one has a subjective belief regarding the threat from a political opponent cannot be successful.

The system is at fault

It may seem that polarisation is primarily caused by those who contribute to the deepening of divisions and differences through their actions. However, the hypothesis thus presented does not answer many important issues. In fact, the problem runs deeper than that. The challenge we are facing is the product of mass society, mass information transfer, and gaining support en masse.

In a democracy, it is normal to strive to persuade as many people as possible to follow your initiatives and proposals. However, when confronted with the mass nature of modernity, this mechanism made using the lowest persuasion techniques easier, more effective, and therefore more attractive than ever before.

Using fear and building up anger against one’s political opponents is simply profitable from politicians’ perspective. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that such activities are not only widely practiced, but also used to cover up actual social problems. If the goal of politicians in the system is to maintain or seize power, they resort to methods that will help secure this goal most effectively. In a world where politics focuses on up to five years ahead, it should come as no surprise that ad hoc methods are used and that there is no need to turn to more sophisticated ways of building support.

But what does this mean for democracy? It would seem that in combination with the achievements of social engineering and activity on social networks, political polarisation in the current system is simply inevitable. Maintaining such a state of the political debate will most likely result in the increasingly harmful deepening of existing antagonisms.

Solving any problem requires an thorough understanding of it. In this case, the first step undoubtedly involves an examination of what factors play into our election decisions and an appreciation of their importance in the functioning of the entire system. The simplest solution can be helpful – keeping track of who we support and why (or why not). If we see the political scene in only black and white, it is very likely that we are falling victim either to party games or ideological discourses. Every time we notice that we are prone to anger and condemn whatever our opponent does, or we feel fear at the mere thought that ‘our people’ may lose an election, we should be aware that something is wrong. The question is – what is next for democracy? If polarisation continues to intensify, we may have to rethink the legal and institutional environment we are used to be living in.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.