Political polarization is not necessarily bad for democracy as differences in positions, attitudes and policy can be positive and drive transformation. However, when it becomes extreme and divides society into two antagonistic groups that see each other as an existential threat, it becomes pernicious, impairs governability and can lead to the erosion of democracy itself.
“When such division becomes entrenched in society, it is very difficult to overcome it. It takes leaders capable of building bridges, which requires great courage,” said American political scientist Jennifer McCoy – expert in democracy and polarization, conflict mediation and prevention, electoral processes, and Latin American politics – in a webinar held by FHC Foundation and RAPS (Network of Political Action for Sustainability).
According to McCoy, a professor at Georgia State University and a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, when a polarizing ruler uses the power of office and state resources to deepen polarization, opposition parties, movements and politicians must unite and employ an “active depolarization” strategy. How? By finding common grounds that transcend the binary division established in society and reviving the concept of politics as a dispute between mutually respectful adversaries, as opposed to a war of “us” against “them”.
“First, we must identify the cross-cutting ties that unite us as a society and a country. Focusing on new ideas and building a more promising alternative for the future. Joe Biden tried to do this in his campaign and it worked. Now, the challenge is to put everything he proposed into practice as the president of the United States,” she said.
“Instead of divisive narratives, such as attacks on immigrants or minorities, the opposition should advocate, for example, for social justice or measures to increase racial equality, diversity, or even democracy itself,” she added. The opposition must also avoid the temptation to propose a return to the previous status quo, as this would not address the reasons for the grievances that led the incumbent group to power.
“It is not enough to remove a polarizing leader from power”
McCoy – a former director of the Carter Center's Americas Program (1998-2015), when she coordinated projects for strengthening democracy, mediation and dialogue in the continent – listed some points to which those wishing to overcome polarization should pay attention:
- It is not enough to remove a polarizing leader from power by means of elections or any other legitimate process; it is necessary to shift the narrative from identities to ideas;
- It is critical to avoid vindictive feelings and attitudes; instead, opponents must be respected as legitimate actors in the political process;
- It is urgent to seek solutions to solve or at least reduce the grievances that led to polarization in the first place; otherwise, it will not disappear;
- It is essential to avoid any “winner-take-all” policies as they exclude part of the population from power and encourage polarization.
“Democratic institutions play a very important role in this process of overcoming polarization. The Judiciary must act in a truly independent, impartial way, because if it is perceived as biased by the population, there is a risk that their decisions will be questioned,” she explained.
The Legislative must also act responsibly, avoiding a paralysis in its activities and fostering dialogue. It must steer clear from recurring impeachment processes, which in general divide society and discredit democracy.
At the end of her presentation, during which she commented on specific cases of countries experiencing polarization, including Brazil (watch the summary video on this page or access the full video in the Related Content section, on the right), Jennifer McCoy said she has great hope that the youth can overcome this serious contemporary phenomenon.
“Here in the United States, young people are much more tolerant of ideological, religious or racial differences and are very concerned about the environment and climate change, which threatens their future. They are very politically active; they protest, organize movements, demand change. I hope they come to power soon and exercise it in a less divisive, more democratic way,” she concluded.
Otávio Dias is a journalist specializing in politics and international affairs. A former correspondent for Folha in London and editor of the estadao.com.br website, he is currently the content editor at Fundação FHC.
Portuguese to English translation by Marília Aranha.