Mastering Polarization: Become A Champion Today
A study carried out among 28 countries from different regions located Argentine society as the one crossed by the deepest and most difficult crack to close. But a more careful analysis suggests that things are not as bad as they seem, at first glance, and that this gap is not a mass phenomenon, but rather “intense minorities.”
The recently published, by the consulting firm Edelman, Trust Barometer 2023 places Argentina at the top of 28 countries in a social polarization index. The index is based on two indicators derived from public opinion surveys in which respondents were asked how divided they perceived their respective countries and whether they believed that these divisions could be overcome. The combination of both responses yields a score.
Argentina, whose value in the index is the highest, is part of a group of countries that the consultant describes as “severely polarized.” Within this category are, apart from our country, Colombia, the United States, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. In turn, Edelman points out that a second group of states are at risk of transitioning towards severe polarization: Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan and Germany.
Edelman’s report identifies 6 reasons that explain the levels of polarization, although with different weights. Distrust in government and the lack of a shared identity are the most relevant variables when it comes to explaining the degree of polarization, followed by the perception of a systemic lack of equity, economic pessimism, fears in society, and mistrust. in the media.
Is the severe polarization highlighted in the Edelman report a problem? To understand this, it is necessary to begin by defining what we understand by polarization. A common problem with political categories lies in the fact that the same word can have multiple meanings. On some occasions the category of polarization is used to refer to an electoral process and on other occasions the same word alludes to the intensity of the differences in ideological matters between the main political forces of the system.
Electoral polarization is not necessarily a problem for the political system, although obviously it is for third parties. The concentration of the vote in two political parties or in two party coalitions is not in itself something problematic if the distance between their ideological positions is relatively small. Until the irruption of Donald Trump, the United States had high electoral polarization, but low ideological polarization. In Chile, from the return of democracy –and especially from 1998, when the right was able to free itself from the tutelage of General Pinochet– until the 2014 election, two coalitions concentrated the preferences of the electorate, but beyond the obvious differences that existed Among them, this did not prevent important agreements from being reached on a wide number of issues, including a set of significant modifications to the 1980 constitution.
Ideological Gap. Electoral polarization is not, then, a problem that puts the functioning of democracy at risk. Ideological polarization yes. When the distance between the positions of the main political forces is considerable, this makes consensus difficult. In his classic analysis of party systems, the Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori classifies them based on two criteria: the number of parties and the degree of ideological polarization.
The combination of a system of between three and five relevant parties and high ideological polarization gave rise to what Sartori called “polarized pluralism”, a type of party system under which the proper functioning of democracy is practically impossible. Not coincidentally, this type of configuration was the one that Germany had in the final years of the Weimar Republic, the second Spanish Republic and Chile in the years prior to Augusto Pinochet’s coup, three emblematic cases of processes of democratic collapse.
Severe ideological polarization not only entails the impossibility of reaching partisan agreements, forging compromises or maintaining consensus around the rules of the game that the proper functioning of democracy demands. It also involves the conversion of the other from a rival or competitor into an enemy.
The difference is not less. The international relations theorist Alexander Wendt points out in The Social Theory of International Politics that the degree of conflict and the way in which it is processed in the international system is a function of the mutual perception of the actors. If an actor considers that the other is someone who denies him his right to exist, he will adapt his behavior to this perception and act accordingly. When the actors of the international system perceive each other as enemies, they deny the right to exist and this entails that international politics adopt the form of a state of Hobbesian nature.
Wendt’s analysis cannot be perfectly extrapolated to domestic politics for the simple reason that while in the international system there is no authority above states, at the internal level the state exists –among other reasons– to avoid a Hobbesian situation. .
However, the existence of state authority does not exclude the possibility that different social actors perceive themselves as enemies. When this happens, any method is valid. Alternation, which is an essential component of representative democracy, is impossible when the competition is between enemies and not between rivals. This means that any method is valid to prevent “the other” from coming to power or, if he is in charge of the government, to evict him from it, regardless of whether it is necessary to resort to an illegal mechanism. It is clear from all of this that severe polarization is incompatible with the proper functioning of the democratic system.
Now, is Argentina a paradigmatic case of severe polarization as the Edelman report maintains? A good part of the local elites seem convinced of this. A little over ten years ago, Jorge Lanata coined the term “the crack” to describe the degree of division that Argentina exhibits in theory. The term caught on to the extent that since then it has been used almost daily by journalists, political analysts and leaders. Edelman’s report seems to agree with Lanata. A review of the discussions that are recorded daily on the social network Twitter as well.
Even so, compared to some of the other countries that appear in the report carried out by Edelman, it does not seem that Argentina is going through a situation of severe polarization today. This year marks forty years of uninterrupted democratic government. Beyond the fact that democracy has unfortunately not lived up to what it promised back in 1983, completing four decades without institutional interruptions and without political violence is no small feat, given the history of our country in the half century preceding the last democratic restoration.
Is our society really crossed by insurmountable ideological differences? Is the rift a phenomenon that permeates the entire society or rather a phenomenon of intense minorities? In the opinion of whoever writes this, the much talked about crack is a phenomenon of politicized minorities. If the rift and severe polarization were really so widespread in society, we would probably register higher levels of political violence, as occurred since 1930. Additionally, the growing polarization should be accompanied by higher levels of politicization on the part of the citizenry. However, the policy does not seem to arouse much interest in the population. If a button is left over for sample, it is enough to check daily the most read news on the portals. It is rarely about news linked to politics. If there is severe polarization, it is not a mass phenomenon, as it was for example during the 1950s, but rather a phenomenon of intense minorities.
The fact that Argentina ranks above Brazil or the United States in the Edelman index is quite striking if we take into account the episodes that occurred last month in Brasilia or the attempted assault on the Capitol in January 2021.
Questioning the result of the Edelman index does not mean denying that our democracy is going through growing and serious problems. In recent months, events of the utmost institutional gravity have occurred that call into question the commitment to the rules of the game of the democratic system on the part of relevant political actors. At the same time, the discontent and hopelessness that reign among the citizens, fed by the heat of more than a decade of economic stagnation, make the electorate permeable to the siren songs of the sellers of colored mirrors. Argentina is probably not the “most polarized country in the world,” as the report prepared by Edelman suggests, but its democracy undoubtedly faces serious and growing challenges that, if not adequately resolved, could lead us to situations such as those observed in other countries in the region.
This article is originally published on perfil.com