A few notes on political polarisation

It appears we are living in an increasingly polarised world, that is if the drama in the lead up to this year’s US presidential election is to be believed.

Expert commentators deriding candidates, visuals of vibrant protest rallies and opinion polls vividly illustrating contrasts all seem to confirm the condition—not to mention the jabs, impassioned postings and political jokes all over social media.

In fact, within the US context, a recent Pew study showed how far political polarisation now extends by illustrating how the two major parties are even torn internally regarding preferred candidates. It has even been suggested the nation has not been this politically divided in close to 150 years—since just after the civil war.

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But is this so? Has there really been a significant movement away from centre politics toward a focus on more extreme ideologies, and are we moving toward a political climate where compromise will become increasingly difficult?

Polarisation has a number of effects on the parliamentary process. The most obvious is more parliamentary gridlock, which limits the amount of legislation that can be passed.

On the other hand, based on enmity or mistrust towards opposition parties, it can lead to situations where checks and balances of deliberation and cooperation are diminished as a majority party will try to hurry the legislative process in order to pass their own agenda.

Polarisation in parliament contributes to polarisation within the electorate. This can result in decreased interest in politics for many as they struggle to identify with more discriminating policy and the confrontational dynamics displayed in the media.

Alternatively, it has also been shown it can lead to increased political participation. A 2015 study from the University of Colorado showed, somewhat predictably, it encourages those with more partisan attitudes to be drawn into the political debate.

These are the people who are most likely to contribute toward campaigns, to try to persuade others (Facebook… sigh…) and vote.

It is also the part of the electorate that perceives the polarisation strongly, and therefore highlight it (Facebook… sigh… again…).

As more partisan participants are drawn to the political debate, more moderate people lose interest, and the ensuing cycle is perpetuated.

Polarisation, though, is at the heart of modern democracies. The spectrum with which we base most of our politics on is fundamentally partisan. The left-wing/right-wing concept of how we communicate politics is based on a binary opposition—it refers to the seating of supporters of the republic (left) or conservatism (right) stances in the post-Revolution parliament in France.

In other words, despite having the potential for a broad range of opinions forming on the axis of western democratic politics, when push comes to shove, a left or right stance will be chosen.output_PUIcgn

The western style news media is also deeply tied to this. The earliest newspapers where created to reflect the ideologies of early democratic partisan groups, and despite diversifying as a product, they still align themselves according to the spectrum and will provide partisan opinions whether we like it or not.

A recent study on the issue from the University of Athens Georgia illustrated the roots of the current climate of polarisation in the US can in part be found in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

It was at this juncture where the Republicans began to strategically focus on protecting the privileges of the majority white conservative population.

This was particularly important to Whites in the South as this region had a more significant African American population. Southern Whites began voting for Republican candidates as the issues played out, and subsequently the Southern Democratic contingency significantly diminished.

From there we begin to see the parties have gradually moving further apart on the liberal–conservative dimension. More Democrats have staked out consistently liberal positions, and more Republicans supported wholly conservative ones. 

Despite all this, the same study actually showed the levels of polarisation that exist are often overestimated, and have been for the last four decades.

While acknowledging the trend of electors becoming committed to one of the major parties, the study pointed out the difference between the two parties is not as significant as portrayed.

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Interestingly, in the time US politics has been becoming more polarised, European politics has generally become more fragmented.

Major parties and their policy are closer than ever, and the major political opposition has arrived in the form of minor parties with very specific agendas.

It is these parties who carry the burden of representing minor and morality issues which have received so much publicity and proved most divisive in North America.

This can be illustrated through Germany’s 2013 elections, where the two major (typically opposing) parties merged to form a grand coalition, and opposition is provided by a handful of minor parties.

Despite being a system that can cultivate an ‘us against them’ syndrome, if a public is unified, their representation will also tend to be. Polarised politics is simply a representation of culture at a crossroads. Political change is not the responsibility of the government, but the people who they still represent.



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