An Antidote to the Polarization Poison

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Автор: Ngaire Woods
is Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

In a year when some of the world’s largest democracies are holding elections, all too many are riven by deep political divisions

The headline of a 2020 study of “political sectarianism” in the United States warns that a “poisonous cocktail of othering, aversion, and moralization” is corroding collective and civic engagement and causing government dysfunction. And the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer documents similar trends in severely polarized countries such as Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and the US.

The US study found that where people once felt fondly toward fellow party members and merely neutral toward those in the opposing camp, they now fear and hate their opponents. Moreover, Americans today are more opposed to dating, marrying, and even living near someone with different political views, and are more likely to discriminate on the basis of politics in the workplace. Similarly in Turkey, almost eight out of ten people would not want their daughter to marry someone who votes for the party they most dislike. Astonishingly, the US study suggests that political orientation has become so important that people will change their self-identified religion, class, and sexual orientation to align with it.

The results of the Edelman survey are especially worrying. A mere 20% of 32,000 respondents in 28 countries said they would be willing to work with or live in the same neighborhood as a person who strongly disagrees with them or their point of view, while only 30% said they would help such a person if they were in need.

Rampant political sectarianism, focused on demonizing supporters of opposing parties, is incompatible with democracy, which requires a modicum of shared identity, interest in collaboration, and person-to-person contact. Otherwise, people will be unable to find common ground with those who vote differently.

In order to reverse this trend, a starting point is to allow people to vote in a more meaningful way. “Ranked choice” voting, for example, takes into account people’s backup preferences and incentivizes politicians to reach out to a broader swath of the electorate. By contrast, the system of “primaries” in the US does the opposite, sometimes attracting less than 20% of registered voters and rewarding more extreme positions.

Increasing economic opportunities for those losing ground is vital, such as through social security, tax, and health policies. In too many countries, the number of people who think their families will be better off in five years has fallen to record lows. A declining economy can make this worse because people become more risk-averse, more focused on their “in-group,” and less willing to work with “out-groups.” But economic growth on its own will not necessarily reduce polarization. In India, for example, the growth of the middle class has led to rising support for exclusionary Hindu nationalist narratives. The key is to expand the number of people who believe that the economic system is fair and not rigged against them.

Equally important is maintaining shared public spaces, funding for which is often cut in times of austerity. Venues such as public housing, schools, sports clubs, universities, parks, libraries, town squares, and transport give citizens opportunities to interact, break down barriers, and correct false impressions (for example, in the US, Democrats estimate that 38% of Republicans earn more than $250,000 annually; in reality, only 2% do). As the European Commission has documented, political participation is improved by shared, affordable cultural activities.

Schools are particularly vital for socialization and community building. But since the pandemic, absenteeism has increased significantly around the world, from refugee camps and the world’s poorest countries to the US and the United Kingdom. The UK is now trialing “attendance hubs,” through which schools with excellent attendance rates share ideas with others to reduce truancy.

Overcoming the effects of information silos can also decrease polarization. In a recent paper in the journal Science, 17 scholars from 12 universities analyzed the data of all Facebook users in the US and found a high level of ideological segregation. People tend to engage only with political-news posts that reinforce their beliefs – conservatives more so than liberals. The study also found that tweaking algorithms to provide users with a more varied diet of political news is not a magic cure, and may even aggravate sectarianism. More promising are interventions that force people to slow down and evaluate what they are reading. Furthermore, many people would likely benefit from spending less time on social media: evidence from the US study of sectarianism indicates that Americans who deactivate their Facebook account become less politically polarized.

Lastly, the same study shows that political leadership matters. Politicians who brand their adversaries (and their adversaries’ supporters) as enemies of the people fuel polarization and, in turn, erode the foundation of democratic legitimacy – the consent of the governed. By contrast, people become less divided after observing politicians treat members of the opposing party warmly, while nonpartisan statements from political leaders can reduce violence.

Fostering a shared sense of humanity, even toward adversaries you seek to beat, is a crucial antidote to the political polarization afflicting so many democracies. An inspiring example comes from the war in Ukraine. In a recent speech at the University of Oxford, Oleksandra Matviichuk, whose human-rights organization, the Center for Civil Liberties, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, quoted a Ukrainian general on the frontlines. The general was asked, “Do you hate the Russian soldiers in front of you?” “No,” he replied, “I fight because I love those behind me.”

© Project Syndicate 1995-2024

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