When you started researching your new book on political polarization, Democracies Divided, what did you want to find out?

A lot of research shows how populist and illiberal leaders are putting democracy in danger. But it rarely addresses what we feel is a more fundamental, underlying problem: severe political polarization.

Polarization is tearing at the seams of democracies around the world, from Brazil and India to Poland and Turkey. It isn’t just an American illness; it’s a global one.

We wanted to know: Why has polarization come to a boil in so many places in recent years? Are there any telling similarities in the patterns of polarization across different countries? And perhaps most importantly, once societies have become deeply polarized, what can they do to start healing their divisions?

How did you get a handle on the global scope of these questions?

We focused on nine diverse countries grappling with the problem: Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Turkey, and the United States. We assembled a group of scholars with deep local expertise on these countries, and they produced in-depth case studies.

From these, we extracted cross-cutting findings. And the sheer diversity of our cases—in terms of societal makeup, political institutions, and economic development—opened our eyes to discoveries that we might have missed if we had looked only at the United States and Europe.

Did you see a similar pattern in polarized democracies around the world?

The degree of similarity we found across countries was startling. Even in democracies as different as Colombia, Kenya, and Poland, many of the roots, patterns, and drivers of polarization were the same.

Thomas Carothers
Carothers is a leading authority on international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society.
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Particularly striking was just how decisive polarizing leaders often are. Figures like Narendra Modi in India, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey have relentlessly inflamed basic divisions and entrenched them throughout society (often with resounding electoral success). They’ve aggravated tensions not only by demonizing opponents and curtailing democratic processes but also by pushing for radical changes—like a total ban on abortion in Poland.

Amplifying the effect of these divisive figures is the technologically fueled disruption of the media industry, especially the rise of social media. Opposition leaders often fan the flames as well by responding with antidemocratic and confrontational tactics of their own. In Turkey, for instance, the head of the main opposition party stoked tensions by calling on the military to oppose Erdoğan’s potential bid for the presidency in 2007.

Many other drivers of polarization struck us as surprising, even counterintuitive. You might expect, for instance, that a growing economy would ease polarization. Yet we found that in some places, such as India, it actually made things worse. Indeed, the growth of India’s middle class has led to rising support for polarizing Hindu nationalist narratives.

We also found that patronage and corruption—two decidedly antidemocratic practices—can temporarily reduce polarization by helping politicians build very big tents. In the long term, however, the political rot that this causes frequently leaves voters disgusted with the traditional parties and fuels the rise of divisive populist figures, like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

What happens to democracies when polarization intensifies?

Severe polarization damages all institutions essential to democracy.

It routinely undermines the independence of the judiciary, as politicians attack the courts as biased or pack them with loyalists. It reduces legislatures either to gridlock or to a rubberstamp function. In presidential systems, it frequently leads to the abuse of executive powers and promotes the toxic view that the president represents only his or her supporters, rather than the country as a whole.

Perhaps most fundamentally, polarization shatters informal but crucial norms of tolerance and moderation—like conceding peacefully after an electoral defeat—that keep political competition within bounds.

These consequences generate a vicious cycle of rising polarization. Attacks on the judiciary, for example, only diminish its capacity to arbitrate conflict and heighten distrust between the opposing sides.

Polarization also reverberates throughout the society as whole, poisoning everyday interactions and relationships. Turkey is a particularly jarring example: almost eight out of ten people there would not want their daughter to marry someone who votes for the party they most dislike. Nearly three-quarters would not even want to do business with such a person.

Partisan conflict takes a heavy toll on civil society as well, often leading to the demonization of activists and human rights defenders. More seriously still, divisions can contribute to a spike in hate crimes and political violence: India, Poland, and the United States have all seen such increases in recent years.

What about polarization in the United States? Is it similar to polarization in other countries?

The more we looked at the experiences of other divided democracies, the more we realized that U.S. polarization stands out as unusual. It has several distinctive features, and unfortunately, all of them spell trouble for U.S. democracy.

In the first place, polarization in the United States isn’t primarily the result of polarizing politicians stoking divisions, as in most other countries. It has deep societal roots and is the outcome of a profound sociocultural struggle between contending conservative and progressive visions of the country. Consequently, U.S. polarization is not something that political leaders can easily reverse, even if they want to.

Intense partisanship has gripped the United States for an unusually long time and thus become ingrained in social and political life. Today’s divisions date back at least to the 1960s and have been steadily intensifying for over fifty years. Most other current cases of polarization are more recent in origin.

Andrew O’Donohue
Andrew O'Donohue is a nonresident research assistant in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program.

A final distinctive and perhaps even unique feature of U.S. polarization is the powerful alignment of ethnicity, ideology, and religion on each side of the divide—what we call the “iron triangle” of U.S. polarization. In most other countries, just one or two of those three identity divisions is at the root of polarization; in the United States, all three are. As a result, America’s polarization is unusually encompassing and sharp.

While partisan warfare hasn’t eroded democracy in the United States to the same extent that it has in, say, Bangladesh or Turkey, it is testing our democratic guardrails in serious ways.

What can be done to defeat polarization and bring a country together?

Once a society becomes deeply divided, it is very difficult to heal. Before talking about remedial actions, it’s crucial to understand why this problem is so thorny and difficult to overcome.

Polarization tends to escalate at a dizzyingly fast pace, often in the span of just a few years. Just look at how rapidly the 2016 Brexit referendum has ripped the United Kingdom apart.

Polarization then entrenches itself and becomes self-perpetuating. Polarizing actions and reactions feed on each other, dragging countries into a downward spiral of anger and division.

And while the consequences of polarization are punishing, they don’t necessarily galvanize a government to respond, because the politicians who play the most significant role in exacerbating polarization mostly benefit from it and bear little of the cost.

Yet despite these challenges, our research shows that a wide range of actors have tried inventive ways of addressing the problem—and sometimes achieved encouraging results.

What are some ways to counter polarization?

Our work identifies and analyzes eight different types of remedial actions, ranging from dialogue efforts and media reforms to international action. We’ll highlight just three examples here.

For one, several promising efforts to limit polarization have focused on institutional reforms, such as decentralizing political power or changing electoral rules. Kenya, for instance, adopted a new constitution in 2010 that sought to ease ferocious competition for national office by giving regional officials greater autonomy and control over state resources. But important reforms don’t always require changing a country’s constitution: in the United States, for example, Maine passed legislation in 2016 to enact ranked-choice voting, a system that favors centrist candidates and discourages negative campaigning.

Other efforts have involved legal or judicial action to limit polarization and majoritarianism—the idea that the feelings and rights of the minority should not constrain leaders with majority support. In India, for example, the Supreme Court has spoken out in defense of democratic institutions and demanded greater accountability for hate crimes and political violence.

Political leadership can also play a crucial role in de-escalating partisan divides. In Ecuador, President Lenín Moreno has rejected the polarizing tactics of his predecessor, even though the two come from the same political party. And in Turkey, opposition parties have achieved modest success by uniting to form a coalition: their candidate for mayor of Istanbul won a resounding victory in 2019 with a campaign that emphasized overcoming divisions.

Still, these initiatives are small compared to the larger forces driving polarization. Democracies will need to rise to this challenge in new and determined ways if they are to swim successfully against the swelling global current of polarization.

When you were researching the book, did you find out anything you didn’t expect?

When we looked at the fierce polarization in many countries, we expected to find deep-seated differences between the opposing sides. So we were taken aback to discover that sometimes those differences seem slight.

Take the example of Bangladesh: acrimonious political competition there has led to violence, election fraud, and a complete breakdown of democracy. But polarization isn’t rooted in any fundamental ethnic, ideological, or religious division among voters. It is almost entirely the result of power struggles within a political elite that plays up and manufactures divisions.

That finding gave us pause: it showed us that the potential for destructive divisions exists in almost all societies, even ones that seem relatively homogeneous. Our research underscores just how vulnerable democracies are to polarization—and how powerful the factors fueling divisions are.

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