Focusing on shared values protects democracies from dangerous polarization. It also wins elections.

Last modified February 6, 2021. Published February 5, 2021.

Focusing on ideas, rather than identity, pays political benefits. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Long periods of severe political polarization threaten democratic integrity even more than rapid spikes in societal division, new research suggests, but candidates can fight incumbents who exploit polarization by focusing on ideas and values rather than clashing identity groups.

In an article published Jan. 12 in Democratization, co-authors Murat Somer, Jennifer L. McCoy and Russell E. Luke found empirical evidence that “pernicious polarization” — defined as “the division of society into mutually distrustful us versus them camps in which political identity becomes a social identity” — can be a potent tool for incumbent politicians seeking a tighter grip on power by undermining trust and elevating political identity above other social ties.

Political actors from the opposition can mount effective challenges that don’t play into the dangerous dynamics of polarization, the researchers said. By rejecting the us-versus-them rhetoric that allows pernicious polarization to thrive, these leaders can build winning electoral coalitions while bolstering the foundations of their democracy.

To better understand the threat posed by pernicious polarization, Somer, McCoy and Luke analyzed the relationships between the level and rate of polarization and the quality of liberal democracy in a state. Through this, they could determine whether divisions which have had time to permeate a democratic society — a key facet of pernicious polarization — were particularly damaging to its health.

The researchers used data on political polarization and democratic quality collected by the Varieties of Democracy Institute, which conducts country-by-country expert surveys on a range of democratic indicators. They then ran a series of regression analyses on the 119 countries from the V-Dem dataset, focused on how polarization affected democratic quality in each nation between 1900 and 2019.

While that analysis revealed a link between heightened polarization and the erosion of democracy, the researchers said, there wasn’t evidence that periods of rapid polarization — defined as stretches where polarization increased by 10% on V-Dem’s scale in 5 years or fewer — was any more damaging than other periods when polarization was high.

But there was evidence that sustained polarization over time was particularly damaging to democratic quality, according to the article. Among periods coded as “severe” — where experts said political polarization had reached the highest level on a 4-point scale — that lasted for at least five years, the researchers found democratic quality suffered more as compared to other levels of polarization.

That finding gave Somer, McCoy and Luke “suggestive evidence that periods of sustained severe polarization ... pose a distinct threat to democratic quality … above the baseline threat of polarization.”

According to McCoy, long stretches of simmering distrust between rival political groups is dangerous because it encourages people to dehumanize rivals they see as bad-faith actors, and to keep them out of government by any means necessary.

“This creating of an enemy just exacerbates the [mutual] dislike and distrust … and both sides usually end up seeing each other as existential threats,” she told The Academic Times. “And that’s when people are incentivized to actually back non-democratic behavior — because they need to do whatever it takes to keep ‘those guys’ out of power and [their party] in power.”

This kind of thinking can be a powerful tool for politicians already in government, the researchers wrote, both because it allows them to consolidate a fervent supporter base and because some opposition rhetoric can unintentionally strengthen their hand.

To fight would-be autocrats leveraging pernicious polarization to their advantage, McCoy said, opposition politicians need to be careful with the language and tactics they use to push back. 

Recent partisan battles in the U.S. have shown what not to do in the fight against damaging divisions, she added. One dangerous dynamic involved fights between Democrats and Republicans over the filibuster of judicial nominees, a back-and-forth during which both sides gave up on cooperation and became increasingly hostile to one another.

She said the parties have been locked in “reciprocal polarization,” a “tit-for-tat” rhetorical contest that thrives on mutual vilification of the other side. 

According to McCoy, the strategy wasn’t successful for Democrats under the Trump administration for the same reasons it won’t work in any democratic system: It does nothing to heal a democracy’s faltering foundations because it doubles down on the divisions which generated the distrust to begin with.

Rather than fan the flames of polarization, McCoy said, opposition politicians should consider pursuing a different strategy — one that shifts public discussion from a focus on in-groups and out-groups and toward “values and principles, ideas and not … identity groups.”

The researchers termed this approach “transformative repolarization,” a rhetorical approach which seeks to overcome polarization by substituting a less divisive “axis of polarization” for one which seeks to bring people together behind a pro-democratic agenda.

A transformative repolarization tries to “shift the axis … [by] saying that we’re not arguing about that old line. What we’re arguing about is democracy, which is under threat,” McCoy said. That tactic, which she said was embodied in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, could help guide President Joe Biden’s administration as it seeks to unify a divided society.

Biden, who McCoy said shows signs of favoring a depolarizing message, could nevertheless come around to a transformative vision focused on racial justice, for example — advancing a new axis of polarization which Somer, McCoy and Luke proposed could halt and even reverse pernicious polarization if executed properly.

However Biden navigates the challenges posed by pernicious polarization in the U.S., McCoy said she hopes the research itself will prompt people to reflect on the rhetoric they hear their leaders use, and on the costs involved in stoking division and mistrust.

“If we fall into [that] trap, our democracy really is at risk,” she continued.

The article “Pernicious polarization, autocratization and opposition strategies,” published online on Jan. 12 in Democratization, was co-authored by professor Murat Somer, Koç University; professor Jennifer McCoy, Georgia State University; and doctoral candidate Russell Luke, Georgia State University.

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