in Political Polarization

A Way Out

Political leaders have the choice between two options when confronted with a divided society: they can either take these divisions as given and try to counteract through cooperation and compromise, or they can work to overcome polarization by focussing on the underlying drivers. In the last article of the series, we will focus on the latter. This discussion on ‘the way out’ of political polarization covers the need to address economic inequalities, realign political identities, rethink the design of the current media landscape and finally, implement new forms of political decision-making.

Tackling Economic Distortions

First of all, policymakers need to confront the economic inequalities that have intensified in many countries throughout the past decades. As previously mentioned (here), the recent trends of globalization and digitalization have significantly contributed to the stark contrast between urban knowledge centers and rural industrial clusters, resulting in disproportionate gains for the different communities. The ‘losers’ of these developments are faced with economic uncertainty, status loss and a bleak outlook on the future, increasingly driving them into the arms of populist parties.

As a consequence, addressing these inequalities is the first step in mending the damaging rifts within society. 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. Following the Nordic model, such an economy aims to integrate egalitarian wages, strong productivity and high rates of workforce participation. Here, a combination of adequate demand growth, an efficient financial system and flexibility in capital and labor markets would contribute to the equitable functioning of the economy. In order to move towards this paradigm, Sandbu proposes progressive policies such as the implementation of a wealth tax, minimum wage floors and government investment in R&D to boost productivity along with the liberal demand for free trade and open markets.

Re-aligning Identity 

Secondly, the partisan mega-identities that have emerged and played a significant role in the rise of tribal politics must be severed. The current focus on appealing to ever-narrower voter segments undermines social cohesion and impedes the democratic processes of deliberation and consensus. Instead, political identity should be based on the values we have in common and a shared vision to strive towards.

According to Cass Sunstein, identity arises from shared experiences between members of a group. This creates what he calls ‘social glue’, a necessity for mutual trust and understanding within communities. Especially in the face of rivalling ideologies and diverging viewpoints, we need to ensure that such experiences can occur on a societal scale. This requires possibilities of encounter and interaction among citizens of different walks of life. In the past, public spaces and institutions such as market squares or downtown areas have enabled such encounters. However, the importance of these places in the public eye has drastically diminished. Following the rise of E-commerce (and uncompetitive practices by some of its biggest players), along with the restrictions imposed in the fight against Covid-19, the retail hearts of many town centres have eroded. What is left are the dull remains of previously thriving commercial quarters.

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 mercantile origins and establish creative and cultural hubs that can be used for events and communal gatherings. Downtown areas would no longer be solely designated for shopping purposes but serve as platforms that enable citizens to pursue their social and intellectual interests. In addition, there is a growing trend to explore possibilities that combine urban development and sustainability. Initiatives such as C40, a global alliance of cities, seek to rethink urban design and investigate how it can assist in the fight against climate change and the promotion of public health and wellbeing. Living spaces have a profound impact on our lives and the way we experience the world around us. Accordingly, they should be structured in a manner that connects, rather than divides society.

Transforming Social Media

The third set of solutions addresses a deeply related problem. This time, however, 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. We have previously encountered that 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 biased towards advertising and manipulation instead of deliberation and serendipitous interaction.

One suggestion to address this issue comes from Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and president of the Center of Humane Technology. He suggests transforming these platforms towards an exchange-based business model, where revenue is earned through transaction fees instead of the accumulation of private data. This would realign the incentives of social media giants away from the need to capture attention and maximise the time spent on their websites towards a focus on their service offering. Examples of this idea include initiatives such as Libra, a blockchain-based payment system proposed by Facebook, which would ensure to diversify the company’s revenue streams and make it less dependent on advertising.

A second idea targets the design of the algorithms that provide us with the content in our newsfeeds. Here, Cass Sunstein proposes to create systems that deliberately confront us with diverging viewpoints. This would prevent the establishment of echo chambers and force us to engage with ideas we may not agree with, challenging our inherent tendency to confirm our pre-existing viewpoints. In an ideal world, scrolling through our newsfeeds should expose us to ideas and content we might not have chosen in advance rather than present us with messages that reinforce our confirmation biases. For one thing, this would prevent like-minded people to exclusively exchange ideas amongst themselves. In addition, the public discourse would become much more fertile. Enlarged cognitive diversity, i.e. the combination of different ways of thinking and varying perspectives, would significantly increase the quality of deliberated outcomes and provide the substance to more effective policy decisions.

Rethinking Political Decision-Making

Finally, we should view the current democratic crisis as an 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? Admittedly, the data on voter turnout and interest in current policy debates does not suggest that most people today 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, combine it with the slow-moving decision-making processes of democracy and what you get is an agitated electorate that feels increasingly distant from their political representatives.

In response, our current system could integrate more bottom-up decision-making and consequently, introduce new voices to the political process. This approach is based on the concept of deliberative democracy, which positions debate and discussion between citizens at the heart of the democratic process. For instance, citizen assemblies are currently introduced in various polities, where a randomly selected sample of voters congregates to discuss pressing issues. As a result, citizens are given the opportunity to experience what the political process feels like and to actively contribute to current debates. Moreover, the randomized selection of participants would ensure interaction between people of different backgrounds and perspectives, thus contributing to greater inter-group understanding. To drive the point home, we can already refer to the first success stories brought about by citizen’s assemblies. In Ireland, the establishment of such a body has led to a public referendum and the subsequent removal of a constitutional amendment that prohibited abortion. Of course, all this is easier said than done. There need to be trials and careful evaluations of what works and what doesn’t. However, integrating new players in the political process and conferring people the sense to actively shape policy decisions could play a crucial role in overcoming elite antipathy.

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. 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)