Condescension toward political polarization begins from a position of privilege. It requires an expectation of inclusion within the political process. Elites assume polarization is a problem with a simple cure. But the reality is it is a symptom of deeper systemic problems without simple solutions. Polarization is a manifestation of the politics of exclusion. It emerges when the inclusion of some is predicated on the exclusion of others. Democracy is fundamentally a politics of inclusion. Polarization wears away at the foundations of democracy because its root cause is a demand for the exclusion of some from the political process. Its root cause is an undemocratic element in society.
Populism exacerbates the problems of polarization. Fundamentally, it is a politics of inclusion based on the exclusion of others. Some theorists have imagined populism to have some basis in majority rule, but this assumption has been proven false time and time again. Populists do not care if they are a minority. Donald Trump has not called for the abolition of the electoral college. And Viktor Orbán has not made the Hungarian Constitution more majoritarian. He has ossified his policies through the expansion of cardinal laws. Populists believe they have been the victims of democratic exclusion. Their solution is to silence others to ensure their opinions are heard. Their antagonism can become directed toward immigrants, racial or religious minorities, or elites. It does not matter whom their opponents are. But there is a fundamental belief their inclusion depends upon the exclusion of someone else.
Polarization is independent of populism. But there is a relationship. The character of polarization in a populist environment brings out its worst elements. It becomes far more intense because the stakes are raised on both sides of the political debate. Populists believe their concerns will remain unmet so long as some groups remain part of the political process. Those targeted become radicalized because their political rights are at stake. It is tempting for those whose rights are not in jeopardy to deescalate tensions through the accommodation or amelioration of their agenda with their opponents. But this means the sacrifice of the political or civil rights of the most vulnerable members of their coalition.
The decades which followed the Civil War demonstrate an extreme example. White southerners saw their political influence threatened so long as African Americans remained part of the body politic. African Americans rightfully felt their political rights were threatened. The Republican Party fought to protect these rights under the Presidency of Grant, but gradually distanced themselves from this position to reconcile with White Southerners. Frederick Douglass remained committed to the Republican Party but notes some former slaves had already begun to depart for the Democrats before the twentieth century because the Republicans had done so little for their cause. Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman give the best account of how the Republicans finally abandoned African Americans in the South after the white supremacist insurrection in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898.
The intense polarization of the nineteenth century was ended through the accommodation of white supremacists and the abandonment of African Americans. Democracy was not reinforced through a reduction of polarization. The decline in polarization was brought about through a decline in democracy itself. Ironically, civil and political rights were regained by African Americans through the exact political strategy Frederick Douglass opposed. It was the growing political base of African Americans through Northern migration which gave them influence in politics. Moreover, it was their allegiance to the Democratic Party rather than the Republicans. Finally, it was the ambitions of a Southern politician who needed the support of Northern liberals who made it a reality.
I view Chantal Mouffe as a defender of polarization. Her concept of agonism is central to her sense of democracy. An opposition is necessary for democratic governance. Politics, for Mouffe, involves winners and losers. It involves moral choices where values and priorities are expressed. She denies the neoliberal premise of win/win opportunities where political consensus is achieved without substantial tradeoffs. She denies the desirability of American hegemonic power. She writes, “The dangers entailed by the current unipolar order can be avoided only by the implementation of a multipolar world, with an equilibrium among several regional poles allowing for a plurality of hegemonic powers. This is the only way to avoid the hegemony of one single hyperpower.” Mouffe makes not so subtle references to Huntington’s concept of a Clash of Civilizations. This reference is somewhat surprising, but significantly less so because Mouffe has established a reputation of using conservative ideas as a foundation for her theory of radical democracy.
There is an implicit assumption in the theory of radical democracy. It assumes the hegemony of liberal democratic values. There is no sense of the vulnerability of democratic governance. Indeed, she recognizes a difference between agonism and antagonism. Agonism recognizes political opponents while antagonism recognizes political enemies. She understands “democratic politics cannot take the form of a friend/enemy confrontation without leading to the destruction of the political association.” But there is no indication of how a democracy must handle those who do view their opponents as enemies. There is an obliviousness of what a multipolar world means. The decline of American Hegemony has given space for the influence of authoritarian nations such as Russia and China. It has not brought about an intensification of democratic ideals.
And yet, I have begun to come around to the need for “the idea of democracy to be radicalized.” There is an elitist interpretation that polarization is simply an intolerance of ideas. This account implies the solution is for both sides to become more tolerant. But this approach allows for a false equivalence. Compromise is not democratic when it requires the political exclusion of others. Compromise with Nazism or White Supremacy can never be declared democratic. Indeed, something more than liberal rights is at stake in these moments. Mouffe says, “The cosmopolitical approach puts more emphasis on the legitimating function of human rights than on their democratic exercise.” People deserve more than inclusive participation. They deserve inclusive governance.
But I fall somewhat short of Mouffe in her idealism of agonism. I do believe compromises are possible. I agree it is necessary to have a pluralism of ideas and interests represented. But I do not believe compromises are impossible. It is possible for people to listen to one another. And policies and laws can reflect concerns and ideas from multiple interests. But this depends on a moral sense of duty and obligation to democratic principles. It depends on a fundamental commitment to inclusive participation and governance. It depends on a willingness to accept the entire political community. Polarization is too often based on a foundation of undemocratic tendencies. The solution is not to accommodate these tendencies through the exclusion of those most vulnerable. It is unconscionable to compromise away democracy itself.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
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