It’s Time for Polarization!

March 2021

Much of the recent discussion about democratic dysfunction has focused on polarization. In Europe, however, it is rather party convergence that has led to democratic decay and the rise of populism. What European politics needs is more polarization especially over economic issues.

By Hans Kundnani

Polarization Polarisation Kundnani
Joe Brusky / Flickr

In the last few years, there has been much discussion about the crisis of liberal democracy. But although there is a widespread agreement that there is a crisis, there has been little agreement about how to understand it. Much of the debate has focused on the rise of “populism” and on “polarization” as a threat to democracy – though there has been much disagreement about whether to understand these phenomena as the causes of the crisis or as symptoms of a crisis, that has different, deeper causes. But in all of this, we have tended to think about democracy in Europe through the prism of the US-American experience. In reality, the situation in Europe is very different than in the United States – and in some ways actually the opposite.

In Europe, populism and democratic decay is caused by party convergence

Polarization is certainly a problem in the United States. Since the 1960s, US-Americans have gradually divided into two different tribes: liberals and conservatives. These two tribes have increasingly also mapped onto the two main political parties in the United States – Democrats and Republicans – which now represent what Lilliana Mason has called “mega-identities”. Hyper-partisan politics has made political compromise impossible and paralyzed independent institutions like the Supreme Court.

Many analysts of the crisis of liberal democracy in Europe imagine that something similar is happening in Europe. But it is not. The situation in Europe is actually quite different, as Sheri Berman and I show in an essay for the Journal of Democracy. Actually, in Europe, it is not so much polarization and partisanship that have led to democratic decay and the rise of populism, but party convergence and diminishing partisanship – in other words, the opposite of the situation in the United States.

During the same period that US-American politics has become more polarized, European politics has actually become less polarized. Center-left parties and center-right parties have converged ideologically and become increasingly difficult to differentiate from each other. A good example of this dynamic is Germany, where in the last two decades the Social Democrats have moved to the right on economic issues and the Christian Democrats moved to the left on cultural issues. On the basis of this centrist consensus, they have governed together in a grand coalition in three of the last four electoral periods, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Convergence led to an emerging representation gap

At a first glance, this convergence may seem like a good thing in democratic terms – especially if one has the United States’ dysfunctional hyper-partisan politics in mind. But convergence can also threaten democracy – in particular, if parties move away from voter preferences and a “representation gap” emerges and creates a context in which extremist parties can thrive. This is exactly what has happened in Europe. Such parties, which see the mainstream parties as a bloc or cartel, have surged in the last decade or so. This in turn forces center-left and center-right parties to close ranks even further – and so the problem gets worse. In particular, it is far-right parties that have benefited.

Shifting voting patterns in Europe illustrate the way that partisanship is not entrenched in the way it is in the United States – far from it. Party identities have weakened, not strengthened. In particular, as social democratic parties have abandoned left-wing economic policies and embraced neoliberalism, working class voters have abandoned them, particularly for far-right parties like the Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) in France or the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. This is not the polarized politics of America but rather something much more fluid and dynamic.

Thus, if one looks carefully at developments in Europe and puts them in historical context, it becomes clear that the story is very different from that in the United States. In fact, US-America’s hyper-partisan politics looks less like Europe today than Europe in the earlier era of “milieu parties” until the 1960s, which is sometimes seen as the heyday of democracy in Europe. But, to complicate things even more, there are important differences. In particular, polarization at that time was focused much more on economic questions (although cultural questions also mattered).

Europe needs more polarization on economic policies

This illustrates that even extreme polarization does not necessarily threaten democracy. In fact, it depends on whether polarization revolves around cultural or economic issues. As Claus Offe has shown, polarization on economic issues is less threatening because they are easier to compromise with or bargain over than cultural issues. Whether polarization threatens democracy also depends on whether voters accept the legitimacy of other parties. For example, British politics was very polarized in the era of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, but the outcome of elections was never questioned as it is in the United States today.

This analysis of democracy in Europe, understood on its own terms rather than through the prism of the United States, leads to two conclusions. The first is about polarization. Centrists want to further reduce polarization, but this would make the crisis of liberal democracy worse. It would be better if center-left parties moved back to the left, especially on economic policy, and center-right parties need moved back to the right – in other words, more polarization. This would once again create real alternatives in the center ground of politics in Europe. Indeed, having real alternatives on economic policy would reduce the salience of cultural issues.

Centrism is as much a part of the crisis as populism

The second conclusion is that centrism is as much a part of the crisis of liberal democracy in Europe as “populism”. It is necessary to recognize that there is also another, almost opposite threat to democracy – technocracy or “post-democracy” – to which much populism is a reaction. Technocracy is a particular problem in Europe because the EU is the ultimate form of technocratic governance and produces Eurosceptic populism. Although there is much heterogeneity in populism in Europe, as Philip Manow has shown, nearly all populists are Eurosceptic – albeit in different ways.

In other words, it is impossible to talk about the crisis of liberal democracy in Europe without talking about the EU. Many centrists see the EU in rather simplistic terms – in particular, as a “community of democracies” that is under threat and therefore needs to be defended. This overlooks the fact that the EU was always about constraining democracy through a system of rules. In that sense, the EU (as opposed to its member states) is liberal rather than democratic. Centrists who are serious about the quality of democracy in Europe – as opposed to just winning the fight against “populism” – need to engage with these difficult questions.

Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani is Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House. Chatham House and the Robert Bosch Stiftung collaborate within the framework of a strategic partnership.

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