Authors: Attila Szabó and Anna Dzunic | Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

Polarization used to be considered as natural in democracies. Elections were thought to resemble ‘civil wars’ but in a civilized environment. That is, there are adversaries fighting against each other whilst the elections henceforth should imply a new ‘peace treaty’ for the next four or five years to come. However, what recently interests political scientists, as well as policymakers, is whether polarization can become unhealthy. Could polarization even lead to autocratization? What are the problems of polarization in a democracy, and where is its breaking point? These were the main questions that panelists of Budapest Forum which convened in September 2022.

Is polarization normal in a democracy? 

In the past seven years, polarization became one of the most important research fields within political science. This could indicate the resonance that the problem has gained during this period in effect to politics considering increasingly unleashed autocracy. According to Andreas Schedler, a Senior Research Fellow at the Central European University’s Democracy Institute, comparative political science has long established a link between polarization and autocratization with studies focusing on how polarization damages democracies and affects democratic attitudes. The issues that were noteworthy in this regard are as follows. 

  • Confrontation supersedes cooperation, moderation and compromise, which should be the basis of liberal democracies; 
  • Performance failures occur due to radical policy swings, through the entrenchment of policy positions, statements and problems of coalition formation;
  • Trust in government, public institutions, and among citizens decreases;
  • Democratic satisfaction that is the legitimacy for elections becomes hindered;
  • In return, support and tolerance towards anti-democratic behavior increases. 

These ultimately can lead to the surge of contentious politics, democratic transgressions, political violence, and even to the destruction of democracy. As opposed to “normal” polarization that can be described as programmatic differences, in a “deeply” polarized democracy conflicts go out of hand. In classical political science literature, polarization is about policy conflict over material interests, ideas, social values etc. However, we now see that polarization has gained a moral dimension, which ultimately leads to the division of “good people” and “bad people”. According to Schedler, a third dimension has been overlooked: the democratic dimension, which consists of mutual perceptions of adversaries as enemies of democracy. With these notions in mind, a clear connection can be made to the damage that polarization can pose to democracies. The tragedy of democracies may occur once the mutual perception of different party voters is so distorted that each group believes they are the real and only defenders of democracy. Deep polarization thus undermines the reciprocal cooperation that forms the very heart of democracies.

Captital City Office, Budapest

Polarization in which topic?

An option that voters always have had is that they can punish a politician acting undemocratically at the ballot box. However, in the past few years such cases seem to be decreasing. Johanna Lutz, Head of the Vienna Office of the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung and her team studied seven EU countries and found that voters were willing to give up on democracy and trade it for policies that fall in the realm of identity politics. However, in the seven selected countries they found variations across the issues that polarize voters the most: 

  • in East-European countries, issues around same-sex couples can boost polarization; 
  • in Sweden, migration and integration fill the same role;
  • environmental questions polarize the society in Germany; 
  • and acceptance of minority languages does the job in Spain.

Overall, undemocratic behavior on behalf of politicians has been found to be the most forgiven when it relates to same-sex policies. Filip Milacic, a co-author of the study presented at this workshop, also stressed that citizens have become obsessed with questions related to identity politics, similar to fans, implying a zero-sum game in their essence. Interestingly, Milancic added, voters can even become obsessed with questions that may not seem to be polarizing at first sight such as policies that fall in the remit of socio-economic measures. In their paper Milancic and Lutz explained that for example, citizens that want to see their income tax decrease together with the education budget are significantly more forgiving of a candidate’s undemocratic behaviour than their country’s average. To explore the causes of ‘obsessive politics’ more research needs to be done while tackling group identity as an instrument instrumentalising politicians as political entrepreneurs.

Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian Member of the European Parliament (Renew Europe), reflected on one of her campaign activities, where she met an old lady from one of the poorest regions in Hungary. The constituent complained about prices, corruption, local problems and also her children leaving for Western-Europe. But when Cseh asked whether she planned to participate in the coming election, the old lady said replied, “oh yes, I will support the ruling Fidesz party since they defend us from migration and transgender surgeries of young children what the EU wants to force upon us”. While the old lady understood much of the problems surrounding her, she became obsessed with an imaginary enemy and irrational issues that were used by politicians to polarize the Hungarian society with. Cseh concluded that the most important question now is whether democracy is still an attractive offer for voters. She referred to recent European studies that examined whether voters would prefer a well-functioning democracy over a more effective one-man rule. Cseh stressed that in the case of Hungary, a majority of people would choose the latter. Therefore, political actors in these societies can exploit polarizing issues to sacrifice democratic functions and institutions with impunity. It is easy to understand how this contradicts the ideal of a democratic society.

Deep polarization in moral questions

Panelists have agreed that the specific issues including the rights of same-sex couples, migration, etc. were  to enhance      polarisation increasingly more as opposed to the impact of abstract questions around politics and policy. However, there was no agreement whether each and every fear or difference between people could have polarizing effects. The audience concluded that only issues with serious moral gravity can deeply divide societies. For example, migration, same sex marriage, abortion, etc. are always connected to inherent moral judgements. Subsequently, there are politicians who know these considerations very well and are more than willing to exploit them to grab power. 

Johnathan Haidt’s popular book, ‘The Righteous Mind’ was recommended for better understanding these notions: people are inherently good but their instincts frequently lead the society to the wrong way.

Balázs Pivarnyik, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

So what can we do?

Panelists had the opportunity to discuss a few antidotes, which resembled the notions  explained in Arthur C. Brooks’ ‘Love your enemies’. The subtitle of the book is ‘How decent people can save America from the culture of contempt’. He sets out five rules for us that wish to fight to achieve a less polarized and therefore less authoritarian society:

  • One: Stand up to the Man and refuse to be used by the powerful. Brooks says that we have to be cautious with TV shows, columnists and opinion leaders. We always have to strive for forming our own opinions. Furthermore, Brooks also says that we have to stand up to people on our own side who trash (as Brooks puts it) people on the other side. 
  • Two: Escape the bubble and go where we are not invited, and say things people don’t expect. Brooks says we must get personal experiences and share these with others. 
  • Three: Say no to contempt and treat others with love and respect, even when it is difficult. Surely, this is difficult but only this attitude can help build bridges between people in a polarized society.  
  • Four: Be part of a healthy competition of ideas and do not be afraid to disagree. Only wide and integrative discussions can help to solve the challenges in front of us.
  • Five: Disconnect more from the unproductive debates. We have limited time and resources, try to be there where the debates truly build bonding, says Brooks. 

Brooks talks about his approach in the Freakonomics podcast. His inspiration came from the Gospel of Matthew but the message has some currency even without a religious context: only mutual respect can help avoid deep polarization and only we can begin to show how it works. Then, hopefully, it will be a new social norm.   

Cover photo: Anna Rubi and Balázs Pivarnyik, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.