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A Way Out

Confronted with extreme polarization, political leaders can choose between two options: they can take societal divisions as given and try to counteract through cooperation and compromise, or they can overcome that polarization by focussing on its underlying drivers. In this last article of the series, we are going to focus on the latter. This discussion on ‘the way out’ of political polarization covers addressing economic inequalities, realigning political identities, rethinking the design of the current media landscape and finally, implementing new forms of political decision-making.

Tackling Economic Distortions

First, there is a need to attend to the divergence and distortions of value creation that have accompanied the changes in our economic system throughout the past decades. As mentioned before, the recent trends of globalization and digitalization have resulted in a growing divide between urban knowledge centers and rural industrial cemeteries as well as disproportionate gains among different societal segments. Economic uncertainty and the sense of control loss over one’s situation significantly contribute to supporting a strongman leader and becoming more protective of one’s in-group. Thus, addressing the aforementioned inequalities is the first step in mending the damaging rifts that have separated our societies. In his book of the same title, the economist and FT columnist Martin Sandbu proposes a response in the form of an ‘Economy of Belonging’, in which egalitarian wages and strong productivity are combined with high rates of workforce participation and low unemployment. This follows the Nordic Model, in which adequate demand growth, a functional financial system and flexibility in capital and labor markets all contribute to the equitable functioning of the economy. According to Sandbu, the move towards this paradigm demands sound economic policies such as the implementation of a net wealth tax, minimum wage floors, openness to trade and the investment in research and development to boost productivity. 

Re-aligning Identity 

Secondly, we must separate the partisan mega-identities that have emerged and played a significant role in the rise of tribal politics. This requires centering our political identities on the things that we have in common rather than those that separate us. Currently, both sides of the political spectrum place too much emphasis on protecting ever-narrower group identities. This impedes the democratic processes of deliberation and consensus to achieve common goals by undermining societal cohesion. Instead, we need to form larger and more integrative identities that do not compete with each other. But how? 

According to Cass Sunstein (whom we have previously introduced in this article), these identities arise from shared experiences, which produce the ‘social glue’ to society. Even in the face of rival ideologies and diverging viewpoints, this contributes to mutual trust between citizens from different backgrounds, who would otherwise have a much harder time connecting to and understanding each other. Enabling these experiences to occur means to increase the possibilities of encounter and interaction among members of different groups. Traditionally, this has taken place in public spaces and institutions such as the market square in town centers. However, the retail core of many downtown areas has eroded following the rise of E-commerce (and uncompetitive practices by some of its biggest players). This trend has only accelerated with the restrictions imposed in the fight against  Covid-19. In order to restore these areas as places of encounter and interaction, there is a need to reinvent city centers. One frequently-proposed solution is to move away from their commercial origins and establish creative and cultural hubs that serve as platforms for events and communal gatherings. Moreover, initiatives such as C40, an alliance of global cities, seek to explore possibilities that combine urban development and sustainability, aiming to promote health, wellbeing and economic opportunities of citizens whilst also addressing the risks imposed by climate change.

Transforming Social Media

The third set of solutions addresses a deeply-connected problem, though this time societal division is confronted in the digital arena. Here, a spiral of polarizing media innovations and the prevalence of ideological echo chambers result in increased segregation and the radicalization of opinions. As previously discussed, these platforms are actively designed to amplify the opinions of like-minded people, which leaves mutual understanding and shared experiences confined to the authority of algorithms. A central source of this calamity is the business model of the social media giants, where incentives are positioned towards advertising and manipulation instead of deliberation and serendipitous interaction. In response, Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and president of the Center of Humane Technology, suggests a switch of these platforms towards an exchange-based business model, where revenue is earned with transaction fees instead of the accumulation of private data. Initiatives such as Libra, a blockchain-based payment system proposed by Facebook, constitute a first step in this direction. 

A second idea targets the fragmentation and reduction of information across groups that originates from the rise of echo chambers in social media. Here, Cass Sunstein proposes to create systems that deliberately confront us with diverging viewpoints on social media platforms. Scrolling through our news feeds should expose us to ideas and content we might not have chosen in advance rather than present us with messages that solely reinforce our confirmation biases. For one thing, this would prevent like-minded people to exclusively exchange ideas amongst themselves. But also, the resulting encounters and discussions would benefit from greater cognitive diversity, as different ways of thinking and varying perspectives are considered to significantly increase the quality of deliberated outcomes. 

Rethinking Political Decision-Making

Finally, we are presented with a moment of opportunity to test out novel forms of political decision-making. Having discussed how a growing distance between many citizens and elected representatives has led to resentment with the political establishment, why not come up with ways that enable people to have a larger stake in the political process? Sure, solely based on voter turnout and interest in current policy debates, most people today do not necessarily seem to want more political involvement. However, as the political scientist Yasha Mounk argues, citizens’ engagement on Twitter, Facebook, and other online platforms have projected a sense of what it feels like to have a direct and real impact. Take that away from them, combine it with the slow-moving decision-making processes of democracy and the result is an agitated electorate and growing elite antipathy. 

In response, the design of our political system could integrate elements that combine inter-group deliberation and the sense of being able to contribute to political decisions. This approach is based on the concept of Deliberative Democracy, which emphasizes the process of discussion, rather than the decision itself, as central to any democratic system. This could take the form of citizen assemblies, where a randomly selected sample of voters would come together and discuss pressing issues. The result would give citizens the opportunity to experience what the political process feels like and to actively contribute to relevant discussions in public policy. In Ireland, the decision made by a citizen’s assembly has led to a public referendum and the subsequent removal of a constitutional amendment that prohibited abortion. Moreover, the randomized selection of participants would ensure interaction between people of different backgrounds and perspectives, thus contributing to greater inter-group understanding. 

Conclusion

Overcoming political polarization requires actions to be taken in multiple arenas. The origins and solutions discussed in this article series provide but a glimpse into the complexity of the issue. Moreover, the proposed changes will certainly not defeat polarization and populism in their entirety. Millions of people have voted for Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Jair Bolsonaro. However, they might contribute to a process of rapprochement between different ideological and socio-economic groups. This is necessary. In the face of looming crises, be it Covid-19, climate change or nuclear proliferation, we need to realize that our personal interests are fundamentally connected to those of our fellow citizens. This is the foundation to a fair and liberal society and it has rarely been more urgently needed than today.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

  • Cass Sunstein – #Republic
  • Yascha Mounk – The People vs. Democracy
  • Martin Sandbu – The Economics of Belonging
  • Video: Yuval Noah Harari and Tristan Harris interviewed by Wire (Link)