Some nation-states around the world have gone through intense polarization, democracies included. The United States, because of recent events such as the Capitol Insurrection, is an apt example of polarization’s corrosive effects on democracy. Mason examined scientific evidence detailing how much polarized the US is today compared to 70 years ago. In terms of religion and ideology, among others, Democrats and Republicans have wider cleavages now than before. Some, however, argued that polarization has benefits for democracy. Yet, as will be argued herein, the costs of polarization not only outweigh but also eventually erase its benefits because it leads to democratic erosion.
Arguably, the most significant benefit of polarization is that it simplifies the choice for voters. Since the second half of the 19th century, US presidents have been affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican Party. Presidential choices for US voters have simply been between two competing parties only. There is merit in simplifying the choice for voters because some issues are normative.
Scholars argue that pernicious polarization emerges when previously cross-cutting interests align along a single boundary line. Such a phenomenon is not impossible to emerge because the political is moral. It is difficult to separate the two since norms often guide policies and policies affect norms. Because of lack of choices in candidates (due to the two-party system), how could someone who has systematically been subjected to discrimination support a party which forwarded policies that suppress black votes? This is not to essentialize one party who may espouse racist policies. Not all members of that party may support such policies but the failure by most of the party members to resist it is telling.
This shows that the alignment of normative preferences with political interests espoused by parties can occur in a democracy, albeit it does not necessarily happen. But when it does, then in a two-party system, the choice for some voters is simplified – those who suffered discrimination will likely vote for a party that does not tolerate racist policies. As Mason noted, since most voters are not political experts who will analyze pieces of legislation, party loyalty simplifies the voting decision because voters (through a lifetime of learning) know which party suits them best. In search of that party, they will necessarily vote for that which espouses the norms most important to them. Admittedly, increased partisanship is good for democracy because it provides voters with clear choices.
Despite these benefits, the costs of polarization to democracy are overwhelming. McCoy et al. argued that polarization leads to tolerance of undemocratic practices. They stipulated that when a country has been so polarized such that one group sees the projects of the other group as existentially threatening to the nation, the former will consider undemocratic actions.
The Capitol Siege in January 2021 manifests this danger. In 2017, the gap in political values between Democrats and Republicans was at 36 percent. It was in the context of a polarized country that Trump was able to convince his supporters that they need to defend democracy from electoral theft and that they will “never take back… [the] country with weakness.”
Compare that to the 1999 data where the gap was only 15 percent. Hence, it is no surprise that when the same electoral college vote count was conducted in 2001, we saw no insurrection despite a highly contested presidential election, with Gore initially withdrawing his concession. In fact, during that count, when a Democrat said she did not care that the objection was not co-signed by a senator (which the law required for it to be entertained), Gore replied: “The rules do care.” Hence, without polarization, undemocratic practices did not prosper 20 years ago.
Moreover, polarization threatens democracy because it is a fertile ground for populists to deploy weaponized communication. Slater and Arugay noted that polarization today may not be about ideology anymore, it can be highly personalistic. Although they studied Asian cases, their argument is applicable to the US, too. The US today is not in a Left-Right tug of war. It has become a war between Trump and Anti-Trump factions. This explains why even a widow of a late Republican presidentiable campaigned for President Biden in 2020.
The populist Trump, at the center of the polarized country, used what Mercieca calls “weaponized communication” to seek compliance from the people and to evade accountability. This is evident when he incited an insurrection and failed to immediately condemn the siege; he even told the rioters that they are “very special”. Trump’s populist rhetoric convinced his supporters to violate democratic norms. He used the same to lie in order to evade accountability. “If you read my speech… people thought what I said was totally appropriate,” he stated. Hence, since polarization may revolve around populists, the latter can exploit the polarized situation to deploy weaponized communication and wreak havoc on democracy.
Furthermore, polarization leads to democratic erosion because, as Svolik argued, aspiring autocrats seek to turn political differences into opportunities where they can align these differences into other societal cleavages. Per Svolik, this pits democratic principles against partisan interests, and unfortunately, the latter tends to prevail.
This implies that in a highly polarized country, democracy is reduced to a numbers game. The policy proposals will be voted on depending on the proponent’s ability to muster enough votes. In such a case, per Mason, compromise and cooperation are becoming increasingly untenable as the victory of one’s “team” matters more than functional outcomes of governance. No more spirit of bipartisanship, no more principled deliberation, it’s all about numbers.
Didn’t a party install a Supreme Court Justice one month before the presidential elections despite their objections to the same instance in 2016 when the President then was from the other party? This gives credence to the argument that principle and coherent party stance do not matter in a polarized society anymore. This is because partisan interest trumps democratic values such as the respect for the independence of the Judiciary.
To sum up, first, in a polarized democracy, autocrats may arise and impair democratic institutions. The autocrat in that context will have the support of his “group” to defeat the other group, even at the expense of democracy. Secondly, polarization empowers populists who will deploy weaponized communication to evade accountability. Finally, democracy will be reduced to a numbers game in a highly polarized society where bipartisanship is less than possible and where the victory of one’s party matters more than policy outcomes.
Hence, the potential benefit of polarization – simplified choices for voters – is erased. The individual choice of an American would not matter anymore when an autocrat can encroach on democratic institutions or delegitimize democratic processes. This is precisely because the very concept of choice of each American is what these institutions aim to protect. In a backsliding democracy, these institutions and processes can no longer optimally defend people’s choices since these cannot effectively provide a check on the strong Executive who may do as he pleases, regardless of people’s choices. Ergo, the costs of polarization, which leads to democratic erosion, outweigh its perceived benefits because such benefits (e.g., simplified choices for voters) are rendered meaningless in an eroding democracy.
(Photo: “Washington Dc ~ United State Capitol ~ Historic Building” by Onasill ~ Bill – 72.5M is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)