Polarization in Democracies Podcast #35

Thomas CarothersAndrew O'Donohue
Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue explain the challenges of polarization in many different contexts around the world. Tom is the Senior Vice President for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Andrew is a nonresident assistant at Carnegie and in the PhD program in Harvard’s Department of Government. Together they are the editors of Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization.

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Polarization and its Complexities

My thoughts on polarization have changed over the past few years. On the one hand, polarization can be a danger to democracy. Milan Svolik among others have shown how strong ideological positions lead some voters to support leaders they know are undemocratic. Moreover, democracy depends on the willingness of both parties to make compromises to govern effectively. 

But on the other hand, there are issues where compromise itself is undemocratic. How do you compromise on the right to vote? Is it polarizing to refuse to waiver on issues of human rights? What about the rule of law? Sometimes compromise does not protect democracy, but endangers it.

A lot of intelligent people have strong opinions about polarization. But few of them have thought deeply about the subject or read much of the literature. It’s a complicated subject. Last year Ezra Klein published a surprising book called Why We’re Polarized. It’s actually an impressive work of scholarship from someone who does not consider himself a scholar. But when he says “we’re polarized” he refers to an American experience. He largely ignores the polarization around the world in places like Venezuela, Poland, and India. 

Introducing Tom Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue

So I reached out to Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue because I wanted to better understand polarization not just in the United States but as a wider global phenomenon. Tom and Andrew are the editors of s remarkable volume called Democracies Divided from 2019. Last year they published a supplement called Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangers. Tom is the Senior Vice President for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a legendary scholar in the field of democracy promotion. Andrew is a nonresident assistant at Carnegie as well. He is also in the PhD program in Harvard’s Department of Government. 

Together they offer reflections on polarization in different contexts. They help explain how each is different and where they commonalities. Most of all this broader examination helps us think about polarization in very different ways. So this is my conversation with Tom Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue… 


Andrew O’Donohue and Tom Carothers, welcome to the Democracy Paradox. 


It’s good to be with you, Justin.  .


I want to get out in the open that I’m a huge fan of your work, because a lot of the discussion about polarization. In the American media focuses on the United States, a sense of American exceptionalism, if you will. And you’re not alone in bringing up the idea of polarization around the world, there’s a lot of comparative scholars that do this work, but I love how your work was able to help bring to light many of these examples. 

Now, both of the pieces that I read from you, both Democracies Divided and the one on Southeastern and South Asia, they both use a lot of case studies to be able to show how polarization exists in different parts around the world. For me, this shows how polarization is oftentimes unique in each individual country, but you also draw a lot of similarities between them.

So I’ve got a two-part question, first off, Tom, can you help explain how each country has its own unique form of polarization? And then after that I’d like to hear from Andrew about what commonalities across these different countries did you find? 


You’re absolutely right in that there is usually a profound difference if one looks deeply into a polarized society in the drivers on the forms of it compared to others, because every country is its own universe in a sense. So take India, for example, the story of polarization in India is a deeply Indian story. A country founded with conflicting visions of what India should be. A Hindu nationalist vision that said that India should be a Hindu state and it should be a Hindu nationalist state versus a vision that said no, India is secular pluralistic, a myriad of ethnicities and religions. 

So two very different visions of India and then after achieving independence, living primarily with the latter vision, but the other vision, not just a vision, a movement, an ideology in a sense, working its way through the society, gaining force in the 1980s and 1990s come to the surface. That’s a very particular story. It’s very particular to India. It’s not like the story in the United States. We don’t have the kind of religious nationalism  it’s different than say Thailand, where you have a kind of a royalist part of the society that’s very heavy in political life versus a surging populous movement from below in social class terms. It was anti royalist in some ways, completely different than India. 

So what constitutes the visions within society that conflict with each other are usually very particular even though there are, as we’ve seen, similar drivers, and then similar sort of outcomes.


Tom, I hear a lot about what Modi has done as prime minister to exacerbate polarization, things that he has done to create conflict within Indian society. Is this a two way street? Are there things that the Congress Party has done to exacerbate polarization as well? Or is this truly something that’s driven by a populist leader on one side? 


There’s certainly political failings on various sides in India and probably political strategies , and actions taken by the Congress Party and others who have been opposed to Modi that have probably not been ideal. But in the last 20 years, you have seen, in the sense, a powerful, sociopolitical movement in India, trying to push against the old consensus in India and create a different vision, and push hard, and use the differentiation of its approach as a core part of its strategy. And so we do have to say that Modi and the movement that he represents has been a polarizing force in India.

Even if we could say that the Congress party has made some mistakes in how it’s responded to it in certain ways, and that opposition strategies and tactics are important usually as a. part of a polarizing dynamic, but there are times in a country where there is a polarizing figure and a polarizing movement linked to that figure and drives the country into conflict. And I would say India is, is one of those. 


So Andrew, what similarities, what commonalities did you find between all of these different examples around the world? 


In several respects, Tom and I were struck that sort of looking at cases as diverse as Brazil, India, Poland, Turkey and, of course the United States, there were very deep commonalities, especially in terms of the drivers, but also the consequences of polarization. So the drivers, as Thomas would have alluded to, are very varied and complex. They depend sometimes on regional or country specific factors, but there are several commonalities, whether it’s the transformation of the media landscape, certain political institutions like two party rule or weak judiciaries or guardrail institutions that drive polarization. But one especially striking factor was that polarization is often identifiable or crystallized within the personage of just a single political leader. So if you look,  like someone like Modi, but also further afield to Chávez in Venezuela Erdoğan in Turkey.

There is a common playbook of relentlessly intensifying these divisions. It’s almost sort of like a shark needing to swim, some of these leaders, it’s almost in their blood. They’re just relentlessly pouring fuel on the fire and, in particular, a huge part of their governance strategy is polarization. They focus on symbolic identity issues, whether it’s a temple in the Ayodhya, India case that has been a really a core Issue for the BJP for decades. This strategy is really rooted in the sort of intensification of polarization across diverse cases. That said, I think that sort of our analysis of the drivers also pointed to important complexities. 

For example, the relationship between populism and polarization, we found Isn’t as clear cut as many people might think. So, for example, in some cases, like Poland, a populist leader or party has explicitly fueled polarization and public opinion data show that the campaigns of that party have precipitated pretty significant changes in public attitudes, in particular, anti-refugee attitudes. But in the United States polarization proceeded and in many ways, abetted the rise of a divisive populous leader. And then in our most recent work on South and Southeast Asia, we look at the case of the Philippines, which is an interesting case where you have a highly divisive populist president, Rodrigo Duterte, but the country has not become divided into two sort of equally opposed, and uniform bipolar blocks. So, there are commonalities in terms of the division, but also important differences as well. 

So just a final note is on the consequences of polarization, what we tracked across these different cases is that polarization has a  common set of consequences, not only for democracy, but for the society itself. So in particular polarization, almost uniformly places tremendous pressure on the judiciary and state institutions. It erodes the idea that any institution should be above partisan squabbling or partisan warfare. But also in some countries like Turkey over three quarters of survey respondents will say they wouldn’t want their daughter to marry someone who votes for the opposing party. So there’s a real deep harm to the society and societal trust in many cases.


So  when we talk about polarization, we often assume that there’s a balance between two different sides, like in the United States where both sides can,  win in any given election. And things can kind of flip from one side to the other, but we also have examples in your book where some political parties literally dominate the political scene, yet there is still severe polarization. Within the political environment in India, the BJP recently had just a dominating election victory. And in Venezuela, Chavez’s party was just dominating the political scene yet exacerbating polarization at the same time. Is it necessary to have some balance between the two different sides? What is the degree of balance that’s necessary to perpetuate polarization?


Well, It’s really surprising in a way in the United States that the two sides are so close electorally. I mean, it’s been stunning in recent elections in the United States how they seem to come down to 117 votes in a state with five or 10 million people. That’s not the pattern in many polarized countries. In many polarized countries, one side or the other seeks a complete advantage, and gains it, and then begins to suppress the other side and crush it over time. That’s the case, for example, in Bangladesh where for more than 10 years, you had sort of a trading of power back and forth between two parties. But over time, one of those parties got the upper hand. It began to squeeze the life out of the other party by shutting down its access to finance, shutting down its electoral possibilities in different ways and so forth. 

And unfortunately, that’s a common pattern, in severe polarization, one side begins to crush the other, because severe polarization is marked by the idea that the other side is not legitimate. That it’s not just simply a political opponent, it’s an enemy. And once you define your opponent that way, then you begin to justify to yourself and try to justify to others that you, you shouldn’t tolerate opposition from the enemy.

Enemies need to be vanquished. And so really the core danger of severe polarization is turning political, oppositionalism into political warfare. And that’s the trouble. And that’s what troubles many Americans as they watch American politics. They feel that we’ve gone from normal, feisty, competitive politics towards the kind of primal warfare, that’s sort of ‘take no prisoners’ and it’s something much more dangerous.


How do you distinguish between severe polarization and your run of the mill partisan competition? 


I think that there are two sort of core points. One that Tom mentioned is the denial of legitimacy to the other side. That polarization involves not just two opposing blocks, but two blocks that fundamentally are opposed not only in their vision of society, but in their core values and the sense that the other side is an existential threat to their way of life. A second sort of related feature we argue is that in severely polarized cases, these divisions aren’t just a matter of elites trying to take power, competing for access to resources, or competing over policies. It’s really become rooted in the society. 

So this is something that we see and feel very deeply in American politics. There was research prior to the election showing I think that maybe a fifth of U.S. voters thought the country would be better off if large numbers of supporters of the other side just dropped dead. And this pattern we see also in, for example, questions about marriage across party lines. The number of Americans who say that they would feel uncomfortable if their child married someone who votes for the other party has similarly increased very significantly. So what’s significant about severe polarization is not only that denial of legitimacy and that division of values at the elite level, but also how rooted it becomes in the societal level.

And that makes it very likely that the polarization isn’t going to go away with the change in political leaders. It’s not something that political leaders often can immediately tone down. It’s something that tends to be lasting and sustained.


What’s notable Justin, is that there isn’t a bright line. You know, if you described to me or I visit a society that’s very polarized, and say, ‘Severe or not.’ It isn’t as though I can just stick my thermometer into it and say, ‘You’ve gone above 190 degrees. I’m afraid you’re severely polarized.’ And so that’s in a way been the distressing experience that Americans have had with our political life in the last 30 years. We’re clearly on a bad road, but what was the point on that road when you’d say we’re now severely polarized, as opposed to just polarized? And people will disagree, they’ll say, ‘Oh, it was 1994 when Newt Gingrich did this. No, let’s go on to Clinton’s impeachment. No, it was, , the 2000 election that was disputed in the Supreme court resolution,’ and so forth. They’ll find their moment to say that was it. That was it. 

But it’s important to note that competition can be very intense in a country. And the difference between the two sides can be really marked yet the society doesn’t fall into severe polarization. A good example of that is Great Britain in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher was a very polarizing leader. Ask any British person who was alive and kicking in those years politically and they will have very strong feelings about Margaret Thatcher. I can tell you almost immediately in a conversation. You can say to yourself, lover or hater, it’s one or the other. 

Yet, British society and British politics did not fall into severe polarization. Institutions were not trampled. The rule of law was not overridden. Denial of legitimacy of the opposition did not become rooted in the society. It was a society, a political society, I mean, with institutional capacity, as well as, in a sense, the societal resources to stay away from severe polarization. And it’s a notable example. That doesn’t mean you can’t have really wide ideological divides in a democracy and really intense competition. That’s okay if you have certain other features that allow you to keep politics on a certain path, or within certain boundaries, and like I say, Great Britain is a good example. 


So are autocracies immune from polarization or is polarization a feature of democratic governance?


I think any political society is vulnerable to polarization because any political society can have profoundly different views about what the vision is, for what that society should be, and what that political system should be. But autocracies don’t deal well with dissenting visions. They suppress them. They crush them in many cases, and they rarely live with them out in the open. And so, in most cases, autocracies have suppressed the kind of divisions that would lead to the sort of dualistic, regularized polarization that Andrew and I have written about. It’s occurring in a number of democracies.

So look at Russia today, in the midst of a protest movement which reflects a certain amount of anger among citizens about what’s happening in the country, and probably, underneath it a different vision of how politics could work and involving change, involving reforms. And if that movement were allowed to flourish, you might have two different views in Russia. You might have a statist party, you might have a reform party and they might disagree fundamentally, but the system can’t really handle that kind of open conflict. So as a result, one side crushes the other. 


And to add to Tom’s point, our concern is specifically with how polarization threatens and imperils democracy in numerous core ways, but polarization of the kind that Tom is talking about in autocracies can also have an important impact in imperiling a subsequent democratic transition. So if you think of, for example, a case like Egypt, the repression in particular, of the Muslim brotherhood under Mubarak really aggravated the deep polarization in Egyptian society between secularists and Islamists, because Islamists felt that they were being uniquely repressed because it widened the Gulf. And Islamists felt that maybe secularists were complicit in their suppression under the Mubarak regime. 

So I think that the polarization Tom points out that can emerge through suppression under autocracy is important in itself precisely because it can then produce and derail democratic transition in the future. 


So Andrew, regarding Egypt, was polarization simply slumbering or did the process of democratization bring about polarization?


I think to Tom’s point, we would say that polarization was slumbering in the Egyptian case. And then it became more expressed as it became more imperative for the two sides to work together. For example, on the process of writing a democratic constitution, navigating a transition away from authoritarian rule, those divisions were not expressed because of the restrictions on political mobilization, but the societal fissures were deep. And in fact, exacerbated by authoritarian rule. 


Yeah, I think what’s important is that often democratization gets the blame for conflict and people say, ‘Oh, you know, you tried to democratize and look, the whole place fell apart. It’s democracy’s fault.’ But the fault is that the society had within it conflicting visions of Egypt for decades, but it was unable to let those conflicting visions come to the surface and learn to live with each other and develop some tolerance for each other. That’s the seed of conflict.

Democratization is simply lifting the lid on a suppressed conflict that then ravages the country in the way that it did in Egypt. But I get, I must confess, a bit annoyed sometimes, when democracy pessimists will say, ‘Look at how democracy causes these conflicts.’ Democracy allows conflicts that have been caused by others to come to the surface and often to worse.


So Tom we’ve mentioned populism and there’s a lot of very intelligent thinkers who’ve described the current zeitgeist if you will, as a populist moment. I get the impression from hearing you talk and reading your work that you feel like we’re in somewhat of a polarized moment as well around the world where many different countries are experiencing severe polarization. I look over the work that you just produced, the edited volume on South Asia and Southeast Asia, and it feels as if almost every single country in the region, with the exception of the Philippines, is experiencing some level of severe polarization. Are we in an environment where polarization between different countries is feeding off of each other? Or is this just a series of isolated circumstances that are producing polarization?


I think that although each polarized country is its own story, there are some common drivers that are causing in a sense this global surge of polarization. One of the most fundamental is the inability of many countries to provide the kind of socioeconomic security and inclusion that citizens really want. So when you look at European politics and the anger that’s arisen in European politics and created polarizing forces in a number of them. It has to do in many ways with the stagnation of Europe over the last 20 years, socioeconomically and the anger that’s produced in a number of countries. You look back to the 2015, 2016 presidential campaign in the United States and the theme of American carnage that Donald Trump put forward, speaking to the concerns about security and inclusiveness and of many Americans about their socioeconomic life. 

You look at Chile. A country, which we thought of as an economic success, yet in 2019 big protests burst out. And now the country is very divided between sort of haves and have-nots so really the establishment versus antiestablishment forces. And so when democracies are unable to provide the kind of inclusive security and growth and prosperity that citizens want, that can cause severe pressures. We’re not saying the polarization is always caused by economic stress because we can point to some interesting examples like India and Turkey, where rising economies have also produced polarizing studies. But that’s one thing, when we look around democracies, that we can see there’s something deeper which is, and this is a bit more difficult to pin down, why it’s occurring. 

But we’ve moved from a 20th century of ideologies in which ideology was often left, right, ideology was the dividing line in societies, to a 21st century in which citizens are often attaching to identities rather than ideologies. Even though identity can become a kind of ideology. But they’re attaching themselves in a kind of post-material politics at the same time where they want a kind of meaning and a sense of belonging in societies where they feel they’ve somehow lost that, and therefore there is also a tendency to define politics and identity terms that become clashing identities that are mutually not reconcilable. So that’s also a phenomenon that we see.  . 


Andrew, do you think the polarization in one country can create polarization in another or are they completely just acting on their own?


I think that there is a certain dimension in which the strategies of particular leaders are diffusing. And as Tom was pointing to there is sort of a diffusion of particular styles of politics across borders. But I think that one thing that was interesting to us as we looked at the book, is that in many ways, the current wave of polarization globally started at different historical points across different cases. So for example, if you look at a case like the United States, polarization is distinctive, perhaps even almost unique in the way that it has been building since the 1960s and 1970s and the really deep societal transformations that took place then. 

In other cases, like Kenya and Argentina polarization is similarly a sort of a longstanding phenomenon. In other cases, though, like Poland it’s really been much more the results of the past one to two decades, the rise of a populist party. And a similar story could be told about the Erdoğan government in Turkey. So there is sort of a current contemporary convergence of these waves of polarization. Many of them have long standing antecedents.

That said there are global factors as well that have been fueling the rise of polarization simultaneously across different countries. And the clearest example of this is the transformation of the traditional media landscape, the sort of commercialization of news channels, the proliferation of partisan media outlets. And of course the rise of social media, which has been an important amplifier, allowing divisive leaders like Modi or Erdoğan to spread it, a polarizing message. 


So, Andrew, do you feel though that severe polarization is a consequence of elite decisions, or do you feel like elites are hamstrung by polarization within their environments?


One thing that was striking to us is that often there is an asymmetry that elites can have a very significant role in aggravating divisions, but then often have a very difficult time trying to walk them back, that these divisions take on an inertia or life of their own. So a great example of this Is the sort of rhetoric of prime minister, Narendra Modi, in India during the pandemic, and specifically, his effort to counter these sort of Islamophobic lies that sort of referred to the spread of coronavirus as a form of jihad that was being deliberately spread by the Muslim community in India. But the prime minister’s words, sort of trying to strike a conciliatory tone saying that the virus doesn’t see race or religion was in many ways, unable to prevent the kind of societal forces that have been unleashed in the Indian case. And of course, the violence that then ravaged the country. So there’s an important way in which elites do have agency often by identifying and intensifying particular identities. But it doesn’t mean that it’s a simple process then for elites to walk back those divisions.


This is where the U.S. case is so interesting because it’s different than most in that, at least in my view, the United States, the current wave of polarization, which we trace back to the 1960s. The United States has of course experienced successive waves of polarization across its history, but in the 1960s and 70s, polarization was not being driven from the top down. Something larger was happening in American society. If you went to an anti-Vietnam War protest in the mid 1960s, you would see a society that had divided profoundly over a major policy issue in the country. 

Or you look at the Civil Rights movement which was a bottom up phenomenon that produced tremendously divisive reactions within the society among people. Some people got on the train, others stood on the tracks and tried to stop it. Those weren’t really driven by politicians from the top down. Now, some politicians, George Wallace and others took advantage of it and tried to capitalize on it. But United States was experiencing a profound wave of sociocultural change, which then worked its way up into the political class and into the political parties. And there’s really good work that’s been done showing how the U S political parties were actually moderating influences for a time.

In the  1960s and 70s, think of Richard Nixon as the Republican candidate in 1968, trying to play to the center as a Republican, because the Barry Goldwater phenomenon of the early sixties had failed in the Republican party. And the Republican party tried to stay in the center as did the Democratic Party by going with Hubert Humphrey as its candidate, rather than somebody further to the left. And so the parties were in those days actually somewhat mixed kind of groupings politically that tried to play more to the center. But then as these social pressures turned into coherent social movements. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, as well as anti-abortion movement and movements on the right in the 1970s, these movements captured the parties and turned the parties into more ideologically, distinct vehicles that began to fight each other.

So the United States is unusual in this regard, because in many of the other cases we’ve been mentioning here, you really can point to a leader who sort of drives it from the top. We think of Hugo Chávez riding Venezuelan politics hard in the 1990s and 2000s, pushing the country in a particular direction. Although of course it had social roots, but he was really driving a political movement that was polarized. So the United States in that sense is somewhat unusual. 


Have you had a chance to read four threats yet by Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman? 


Yes, I have. I haven’t read it all, but it’s funny, you mentioned it because a friend just mentioned it to me the other day. And so I looked it up, got the Kindle edition and I’ve been, I have been reading that. In the four sort of the episodes across U.S. history that they point to which I liked the historical sweep of their narrative and showing that these patterns have recurred in American politics over time. So I think it’s a very good analysis. 


It definitely is very well done. One of the best books of 2020 on democracy. One of the things that they refer to, successive waves of polarization, like you just did. And oftentimes they’re stirred up by issues of race within American history. We look at preceding the civil war, we have abolitionism, and we have slaveholding classes that are in severe polarization in the 1850s, culminating in the civil war. In the 1890s, we have severe polarization between the Republicans and the Democrats culminating in 1898 in essentially, an insurrection in Wilmington, North Carolina. Those who were looking to compromise and depolarize the situation were oftentimes taking a step away from justice or making compromises that perpetuated injustice.

In those cases, you think of Stephen Douglas, who was finding ways to accommodate slave holding interests and try to find a middle ground between the two. Even Henry Clay was looking for ways to give those who wanted the free States and balance those interests against the slave States. They weren’t looking to resolve deeper issues of justice. When we look to resolve issues of polarization, does it sometimes require us  to allow the perpetuation of injustice sometimes? Or is there a way around that to kind of square the circle if we will?


One of the interesting reactions we’ve gotten to our book is from some people who’ve said to us that, ‘Hey, it sounds like you guys don’t like polarization, but in some societies, things are stuck in a very unjust stasis that needs to be changed. Look at the civil rights movement. Wasn’t it a good thing that that was divisive, or at least wasn’t it a good thing that there was a movement that pushed for really fundamental change? And isn’t polarization sometimes necessary?’ And I would say yes. 

It’s not that polarization is necessary, but that a determined movement for change needs to push hard. Needs to challenge the other side and, you know, argue over fundamental values and not accept the legitimacy of the other side If the other side is fundamentally racist or unjust. But what needs to happen is for such movements to stay within certain bounds. You know, I worked in Venezuela in the early 1990s when, what became Chavismo first started going. And there was a very legitimate desire of many Venezuelans who had gotten a terrible deal over the last couple of decades in the bottom half of very unequal society and wanted change.

And they had a right to it. Okay. But what the problem was is that movement translated into a deep illiberal thrust into the society that said the only way to get change is to destroy the opposition. ‘We have to tear down the court system because the court system is oppressive. We have to tear down parliamentary rules of toleration and moderation. We have to tear down this or that sociopolitical institution.’ And so, you know, both the aspiration, but often the tragedy of fundamental change in societies is can you drive fundamental change, yet stays within certain bounds that preserves democratic order. And that’s the crucial balance that needs to be achieved. That’s so difficult. And so often goes off the rails. 


And Justin, just to sort of add one further word on this point, I think one thing that I found interesting about your question was this idea of, I believe you said, resolving, or perhaps overcoming polarization. I think one point that Tom and I concluded from our  global perspective on this issue is that perhaps a more realistic objective is not to eradicate or resolve divisions, but instead just to sort of manage them to achieve some sort of recognition of the legitimacy of the other side, to keep political competition within bounds, while recognizing that a certain amount of policy difference is, in fact, healthy within a society. And that in many ways, change does require, and especially, democratizing change does often involve a pretty significant intensification of the political temperature. 

So if you think, for example, about a case like Tunisia during its democratic transition, after the Arab spring, what was remarkable about the Tunisian case was not that Islamists and secularists were able to sort of create  a political party that spanned that cleavage. But rather to turn down the temperature from an environment where assassinations on either side were being blamed on the other side, and sort of, there was a demonization of the other side, but sort of being able to come together around shared constitutional rules to have created an inclusive, constitutional process to learn to live with the divisions rather than to resolve them.


Was the Tunisian example caused by elite decisions or was it a bottom up movement that allowed them to diffuse the situation of severe polarization so that they could move forward with their process of democratization?


One thing that I think is unique about the Tunisian cases, the important role played by a civil society, and in particular, labor unions in bringing different parties to the table, creating caretaker governments, and pushing these sort of two political parties, especially the Islamist parties to the table. So I think that there is an important role for civil society in playing that kind of bridging or moderating function. But at a certain point, it is also a function of elite decision-making. And this is an argument that Elizabeth Nugent at Yale has made that because there was a shared history of repression in Tunisia under the prior authoritarian regime, there was a sort of basis for cooperation, an ability to establish a shared identity as victims of the prior authoritarian regime that sort of facilitates, or can facilitate cooperation across a pretty bitter partisan or ideological divide.


So some nations have significantly less polarization than others, or at least are able to avoid severe instances of polarization. I think of Germany. I think of Canada as two examples. Are they able to keep polarization at Bay because of institutional factors or is it cultural factors? 


Well, it’s interesting. I wouldn’t point to Canada and Germany as countries that are off my list of concern about severe polarization. Canada went through a period in the first decade of the century of pretty serious polarization. It didn’t reach the destructive levels that it has in the United States, but it began to take on some of the qualities of denial of legitimacy and escalation of political rhetoric and other things that were quite worrying to many Canadians who value, moderation, and  tolerance greatly in political life. Similarly in Germany, the rise of the AFD, although it still hasn’t gone to the point of a binary division in German political life has introduced a significant force of polarization that that is preoccupying many Germans.

I would point instead to, say Japan. Japan’s a democracy that has had very little significant polarization. Now, I think some Japanese, particularly younger Japanese might say, ‘Hey, we could use an injection of a bit of life into our political system’ or greater competition because it’s too stay stasis-oriented, but that’s a country that has had much less fundamental division than the two that you mentioned.

And then there are, of course, democracies like, say Finland, that have stayed in a very consensual place. Until recently, Portugal seemed to be in that category, although there’s   growth of a far right movement in Portugal, somewhat similar to that in Spain that’s worrying.

Why is it that some countries stay clear of it? Well, it’s first, if they’re able to provide a common narrative that everybody can feel part of. Of course, in Japan there’s a tremendous emphasis on the common good that starts in Japanese education where in a primary school class kids take responsibility for the whole class and not just themselves.

And there’s kind of an ethos built into socio-cultural life of believing in the whole rather than just pursuing the individual gain. And so, it can be part of a society’s sort of DNA to say that we try to stay together above all. And unity is really crucial then when they live through the experience of decades of being next to the Soviet union, which forged a fairly common sort of sense of purpose that has helped them get through some difficult times.

And so there can be a tradition in a country, does not just happen by itself, but through political leadership. And that forges a sense of common purpose that keeps the country together. I think Germany used to be like that and, in a sense, the maturation of German politics is that the post-war consensus, that we have to stay within fairly narrow bounds of political behavior, because we’ve seen the danger of extremism in Germany. But Germans were marked in the post-war period by the idea we have to stay fully away from extremism that, or any kind of movement to the sides politically, in a sense, the rise of the AFD, some people might say, ‘Well, Germany, welcome to the modern world of democracies, where that’s just a normal thing where 15 or 20% of people start ascribing to an ideology that’s just way out there.’

So Germany might used to have had that characteristic of that kind of sense of common purpose and the need for unity above all else that it seems to be losing. So I think a central factor is the question of whether there’s a single national vision that overrides the natural differences that occur in political life or within a society of different conflicting interests.


Japan, of course, is in a moment of political transition where it’s moving from a long standing prime minister. I think that he’s the longest serving prime minister in Japan  Has that stability been able to keep polarization at Bay? Is it possible that we might be surprised and find that polarization rises up in Japan in the next few years? 


Well, I think that  Japan has had a long struggle to inject a sense of political dynamism into a system that’s been very consensus oriented, sometimes to a fault, both in terms of economic policy and social life. But I do not see in Japan the kind of formative rifts. This is something that political scientists point to as crucial in polarization. Societies at the time they were built were built on top of rifts that had to be bridged or often sealed over with concrete in a way to try to cover them up. Look at Turkey in the 1920s, when the modern Turkish Republic was being built, there were really deep, conflicting visions of what Turkey should be.

As a country, should it be a basically Islamist polity and society, or should it be a secular one? Rifts that have come back to haunt the country decades, almost a century later, as I mentioned with India, with the two different visions of India. Whereas at least post-war Japan does not have the formative rift. If you look for it, pretty hard to find it. If you asked Japanese, are there two deeply, different visions of Japan emerging from World War II, most Japanese would say, no, there’s actually quite a bit of consensus on a basic economic developmental model and a political consensus model. So not all societies have within them these kinds of formative rifts that tend to come forward. 


Andrew, some nations do have those rifts though. And some have polarization escalate while others do not. What makes the difference in their trajectories? 


One factor that perhaps to add to Tom’s analysis of the Japanese case is political institutions play a huge role in determining whether those formative rifts burst into the open or whether they, in fact, can be managed. One example of this is political centralization. So for example, if you look at the Kenyan case. The case where dating back to independence in the 1960s, there’s been really fierce competition between different ethnic groups. One factor that has really ratcheted up that competition is the centralization of the country, that capturing the presidency, and all of the patronage resources that come with controlling the presidency has created a basically winner takes all competition. And a similar story could be told about the Turkish case, especially since the 2017 constitutional reforms, the creation of the hyper presidential system. 

And in the Japanese case too, we see that electoral institutions matter. They’ve been really essential to the long run success of the LDP in Japan. And of course in the United States, we see that the two party system with first past the post voting has really played an instrumental role in channeling the diverse sort of cleavages within U.S. society, whether they’re racial, ideological, or religious into a very tight binary two-party formation. So in many cases these formative rifts cannot be fully resolved through institutions. Often as Tom pointed out in the Turkish case, they’re sort of covered over in concrete by authoritarianism, but those political institutions do make a difference in terms of how power is allocated and how that form of rift is channeled or actualized by political parties.


Now, a few weeks ago, I had Lee Druttman on and he’s a big believer that the American political system can resolve a lot of problems by moving to a proportional representation system, by creating four or five different political parties within the United States, something closer to what Germany has currently, where it has six active political parties and through most of its history has had just three. But I was struck by a quote within your piece, you have a line that says “In Sri Lanka, first past the post-election set in motion patterns of ethnic political mobilization that persists to this day even though the country switched to a proportional representation system after 1978.” So I’d like to know to what degree can institutional reform diffuse severe polarization or become a solution, if those problems are already unleashed.


It’s a really profound question Justin and it’s a really good one. It isn’t hard to imagine kind of, theoretically in the United States, a four party system in which the Democratic Party breaks into a progressive party and a sort of moderate Democratic Party. And the Republicans break into a kind of pro-business, even pro-immigration center-right party and then a tea party further to the right.

It seems like our country contains within it four political parties. So one thing is if one could somehow get the current set of actors to agree upon an institutional reform that would allow that, which I can’t really see happening even if one might think it were desirable, would that really happen?

That’s really a difficult question because it still might be the case that a Republican party, , seeing itself starting to fragment, people would gravitate towards one pole or the other and, sort of, would want to avoid a binary kind of division on the right. And say, we’re going to be stronger if we stay together.

And there might be a charismatic leader who says,  ‘I’m a leader of the far, right. But I’m going to pull in the pro-business people by giving them what they want.’ In a way, that’s what Donald Trump did. He was a tea party ideologist who offered a tax cut that actually did not serve the interests of the aggrieved white working class that helped fuel him, that helped the Republican sort of oriented business class that got what it wanted. And so he was able to keep together through rather sharp political tactics and that kind of gut instinct for how to build a coalition among diverse actors that kept the party together at a time when it was facing some really deep identity divisions within it.

So we can imagine it splitting, but we can also imagine leaders who would fight to keep things together and would not want to go that direction. So I do believe the United States needs some fundamental institutional reforms, even though I have trouble seeing how the current set of actors are going to agree on them. But I don’t think we can always think that institutional engineering will produce sort of a precise set of results. 


So, Tom, a lot of your work in the past has been about democracy development.  I’ve read one of your past books, I’ve read plenty of your articles about democracy promotion throughout the world. Do you see your current work on polarization around the world as an extension of that? 


Yes, I do. The democracy agenda. When you look at the community of actors that have tried to promote democracy over the last 30 years, both governmental and non-governmental, not just American, plenty of European and Australian, Canadian, and others, they’ve been evolving in their approaches as the issues and the countries where they’re working evolve in the 1990s and early 2000s. There was very much an institutionalist kind of vision of democracy, the kind of institutional checklist. You get off the plane and said, ‘How’s your parliament? Not bad. Okay. How’s local government doing? Okay. Courts? Let’s get to that. Vibrant civil society, do you have it? Independent media, so forth?’ And that approach seemed to work in the early transitional period, but starting in the mid 2000s that approach stopped working because so many countries started going sideways in unexpected ways.

So it was like people just driving off the road in four wheel drive vehicles, who have attempted democratization, into the hinterlands and ending up in places. People had no idea where they were. And one of those directions was polarization, which wasn’t really on the checklist. You know, there was, are you having free and fair elections? Do you have parties, et cetera? But it wasn’t, ‘Do you have the seeds of divisive visions that are going to tear this democracy apart?’ Whereas by the late 2000s and the early 2010s, people began to confront it. 

Kenya was a big turnaround in the late 2000s. The electoral violence that occurred in the elections in the late 2000s, 2007, 2008, were really a shock to the international democracy promotion community. Kenya was kind of on the list of countries with a certain amount of democratic consensus, even though it had been suppressed in certain ways. And then when this violence erupted in the election, suddenly people were like ‘Oh my, Gosh. Where did that polarization come from? What does this mean? How can we, sort of, embrace an agenda of supporting free and fair elections that doesn’t generate this kind of violence?’ It was one of the first confrontations of the reality of polarization. Bangladesh was another. In the same years, a military coup that stepped in and said, ‘Stop the polarizing madness’ in Bangladesh in the late 2000s.

And so what happens is democracy supporters began encountering the fact that polarization was one of these sideways directions that a number of countries were going and they had to respond to begin to develop some new analytic tools to try to understand what was happening. And then programmatic tools, which would say they’re still only starting to really think through and to develop the proverbial toolkit on how to approach polarized societies.


So, the United States has moved beyond a polarizing figure in the presidency of Donald Trump. They have elected Joe Biden, who among the Democrats running for president is widely considered to be the absolute, most moderate centrist of all the candidates. Can Joe Biden be the figure to be able to help the United States move beyond a period of severe polarization?


I think he has as good as chance as any. I can’t see another democratic candidate who would have had a different approach that might’ve been more effective. He’s tried to turn down the temperature and he’s tried to take a turn the other cheek approach to Donald Trump’s continuous provocation, since early November, since the election. And he’s tried to project a style into the legislative agenda of his administration of seeking some compromise. But he’s facing just a tremendously polarized society and political class that’s going to work against many of the things he’ll try to do. 

So what he regards as so far a fairly compromise oriented approach is not seen that way by many of his Republican opponents who kind of see any democratic agenda item as provocative as though the Democrats didn’t actually win the election and have a right to put forward some of the ideas that they campaigned on. Instead, immediately say, ‘Well, if that’s your agenda, that’s polarizing.’ And that’s sort of basically wrong. And so, unfortunately, he’s still in a system where even normal political competition is treated as enemy versus enemy, legitimate versus illegitimate, and so forth. 


I think that there has been a tremendous amount of optimism, meaning, if you look at works of historians, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham about leadership as sort of something that can bring out the better angels in us all. But I think one thing that our book would underscore is that the menu of options for tackling and reducing polarization goes a lot further than the white house or the executive in any democracy. There are actions that media organizations can take, civil society initiatives aimed at bridging or dialogue, research in the problem by think tanks to create bipartisan analysis or solutions.

These are all important areas of work. And of course, institutional reform is another we’ve discussed. So, looking solely to one person in a highly polarized environment where polarization is, in many ways, the operating system, and not sort of the decision of any individual politician. We sort of think that we need to be looking more deeply at the range of solutions that are possible to this problem.


Well, Tom and Andrew, thank you so much for coming on. Tom, you’ve got a long history of amazing work and Andrew, you are a rising star. Very impressive. 


We’ve enjoyed the conversation, Justin. We could probably talk about polarization all night, but we appreciate you listeners’ interest. And we have another report coming out on polarization in Latin America to match our work on South and Southeast Asia. That’ll be out soon from Carnegie. So watch for that as well. 


Thanks very much for having us, Justin.

Key Links on Polarization

Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization

Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangers

Rejuvenating Democracy Promotion

Related Content on Polarization

Can Democracy Survive the Internet? Nate Persily and Josh Tucker on Social Media and Democracy

Lee Drutman Makes the Case for Multiparty Democracy in America

Thoughts on Chantal Mouffe’s On the Political

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