Why Are We Blind to the Toxic Polarization Disseminated By Our Popular Representatives?

Toxic Polarization
Bolsonaro supporters invaded capitol buildings on January 8th, 2023. Image from TV BrasilGov via Wikipedia.

By Carina Barbosa Gouvêa and Pedro H. Villas Bôas Castelo Branco

Toxic Polarization Paralyzes Democracy

Toxic polarization is paralyzing our democracy. The “war” declared by far-right aligned politicians on their political enemies is fueling hatred, violence, and diminishing dialogue in democratic systems. These politicians, interested in destroying the adversary, have become “human bots” by immeasurably spreading fake news and misinformation, which ends up making their political practices obscure, denialist and undemocratic, potentiating the crisis of political representation and violence.

It is interesting to note that toxic polarization and autocratization tend to reinforce each other. Extreme levels of polarization have direct and harmful effects on the democratic fundamentals of society. When polarization becomes toxic, the different groups usually begin to question the moral legitimacy of different groups, seeing this opposition as existential threats- enemies to be eliminated.

In this scenario, popular representatives have become characters whose political attribution is to propagate the culture war through unprecedented narratives, supported by the “popular mass”. They are those elected for their verborragia and who maintain their “pseudo popularity” through likes they receive from their irascible followers who are not always human – “virtual robots posing as humans”, making this mass an unknown, homogeneous figure that does not distinguish human from non-human.

And what are its effects? This extreme polarization immobilizes democratic and plural political practices, dialogue, persuasion and the formation of a new consensus in the field of public policies necessary for development. It represents a division of society where the binomial “us against them”, “left against right”, “friends against enemies” is found in the field. When this field aligns with mutually homogeneous, antagonistic and segregationist identities and interests, it undermines social cohesion and political stability. Is that what we really want?

What We Know from the Research

Research shows that citizens in highly polarized contexts are often willing to abandon democratic principles, meaning the polarized mass contributes to electoral victories by anti-pluralist, populist and authoritarian leaders. V-DEM’s research indicates that we can divide toxic polarization into two constitutive elements: the polarization of society and the polarization of politics. Both materialize mainly from extremist hate speech and violence.

For this analysis, two metrics are measured: in the case of the “polarization of society”, we can verify the extent that differences of opinion result in significant clashes of opinions and violence; and in the case of “political polarization”, which measures the extent to which society is polarized in antagonistic political fields and how and where these differences affect social relations and public policies beyond political discussions. Another metric applied by V-DEM is the use of “political party hate speech” to measure how often the major political parties use it as part of their rhetoric. This indicator captures the extent to which the use of this rhetoric by political parties directly affects the level of polarization.

January 8th

Toxic polarization tends to rise systematically to increasingly extreme levels. For example, polarization in Brazil began to rise in 2013 and reached toxic levels with the election victory of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, reaching its peak in the 2022 elections. According to V-Dem, since taking office, Bolsonaro has joined protesters calling for military intervention in Brazilian politics and the closing of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In addition, he has promoted the militarization of politics and the politicization of Armed Forces of its government and led the population to distrust the legitimacy of the voting system, resulting in the very serious invasion to the buildings that represent the three powers, on January 8, 2023, led by the extremist bolsonarista movement. Brazil witnessed attacks perpetrated on democracy and republican institutions, which resulted in the invasion of the Planalto Palace, the National Congress and the Supreme Court, with the depredation of public heritage of these symbols of fundamental democratic principles and Brazilian political force.

These acts were intended to propagate non-compliance and disrespect to the result of the 2022 elections, culminating in the coup attempt and consequent search for the disruption of the Democratic Rule of Law. Although the antagonism was extremely violent, it did not escalate to the point of triggering a civil war.  The extremist polarization in Brazil did not reach an existential antagonism with reciprocal elimination.

These metrics are extremely important for mapping the level of polarization of a democratic system. When polarization develops at the toxic level, the democratic system will certainly suffer setbacks, degradations and be at risk. Toxic polarization serves as a strategic tool to enable institutional reforms and formal and formal movements to undermine democracy, paving the way for autocratization.

About the Authors

Carina Barbosa Gouvêa is a Professor of the Post-Graduate Program in Law Master’s and Doctorate of the Federal University of Pernambuco (PPGD/UFPE); Post Doctorate in Constitutional Law of the Federal University of Pernambuco (PPGD/UFPE); Doctor and Master’s Degree in Law of UNESA; Lawyer. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0659-5036.

Pedro H. Villas Bôas Castelo Branco is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ); Doctor in Political Science of past IUPERJ current IESP-UERJ, Master in Theory of State and Constitutional at the PUC-Rio.Lawyer. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1548-8304

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