—Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development
[Editors’ Note: This is one of our biweekly ICONnect columns. For more information on our four columnists for 2021, please see here.]
Polarization is what several political scientists and constitutional scholars have pointed out as possibly the most troubling sign of democratic backsliding. Zachary Elkins, for example, says that “[he] might view divided publics as the single most important factor that threatens and undermine democracy at least in modern presidential systems.” Among the various factors leading to democratic crises, Elkins suggests that “the comparative study of polarization may be the key to understanding the health of democracy more generally.” In environments of high social inequality, polarization tends to be more explosive still, as it helps exacerbate the divide among distinct social groups and affect the capacity of institutions to work as coordination devices, which then fail to deliver incentives for empowering individuals to defend their rights. Moreover, it provides a sense of belonging, while, as King and Smith put it, “[fostering] a very real sense that government is in the hands of elites who care only for themselves, not ‘the people.’” The strategies of would-be autocrats of the current times directly target polarization as a fundamental mechanism of coordination. Polarization turns into a psychological weapon for mutual engagement. But is polarization necessarily bad? The devil might be in the details and in how the political system organizes itself under an environment of polarization.
A phenomenon that is well discussed in the literature is how party systems have been weakened in the face of radicalization through polarization. The movements towards consensus and compromises that are expected of political systems are highly disrupted when those parties are pushed to extremes, if not beaten by new parties that assume such a strategy as their platform. This is what Kim Lane Scheppele, in her the provoking and fascinating paper The Party’s Over, diagnoses in the United States and United Kingdom as well as in multiparty systems in Europe: “in the multiparty systems of France, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, which have all gone through elections in 2017 and 2018, the weakness of the party system can be seen in the decline of traditional parties and the rise of extremist parties of both Left and Right.” Other cases where the “party system was in shambles,” like in Venezuela and Hungary, illustrate how polarization may turn out really bad for democracy.Read the rest of this entry…