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The Problem of Polarisation in Modern Politics


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Go to the TV, and turn on any piece of UK news, maybe BBC, maybe even PMQs. The atmosphere of the Commons is hectic; divided neatly by a bi-partisan line, with politicians engaging in meaningless insults and identity-based slander as policies slide farther into the background. This movement from issue-based politics to identity-based politics is a symptom of polarisation, which is becoming the political norm throughout the Western world. Political Attitude Polarisation is the process in which individuals or groups of differing political attitudes become more divided and extreme over time. The classic case is that of the US, with the growing tensions between Democrats and Republicans seemingly less issue-based and more identity-based, with hatred for the "other" side increasing regardless of standpoints in policy. Polarisation also involves a deepening of ideological differences, and a reduction in the middle ground or moderate positions, leading to severe consequences for effective policy-making and creating an even more divided world. If polarisation continues, it may mean disaster for our world status - causing a breakdown in both effective democracy and in the functioning societal order, which will affect everyone. For the future world, it is crucial to know what polarisation is, and what you can do about it.


How has Polarisation come about? 

Many political scientists have debated on how exactly polarisation should be studied and categorised. There seems to have been a change in society from being more focused on issues to now seemingly only focused on "personality politic;" ie) the leaders themselves rather than the party ideology. Think of the leaders at the forefront of politics: Trump, Boris Johnson, Putin - all politicians who have crafted a certain image for themselves that is based in a negative, identity-based rhetoric. Supporting this rhetoric, however, is a deeper societal change that has basis in Social Identity Theory - the movement of politics becoming part of identity. Political parties and ideologies have become more than just a democratic means to an end; for many it is now a social category, and people have started to categorise themselves into a certain political group. This is called "sorting," and this has wider implications for politics, as this can lead to limited exposure to different perspectives and thus an increase in extreme views, as people ingrain themselves in their political "group." This societal change has led to a shift from policy-based politics to identity-based politics, as political affiliations have now become intertwined with personal identity. 


Now the political world is split into two societal camps and the dynamics of typical social groups apply here too - the need to belong, the need to defend themselves, and a growing hatred of the "other side," leading to "us vs them" behaviours. Social Identity Theory explains this further - being part of a specific group leads us to make distinctions between us (the "ingroup") and them (the "outgroup") and we tend to see our group as favourable, with a continual social comparison which emphasises differences between the "ingroup" and the "outgroup." This growing perception of differences lends directly to the process of deepening polarisation, and in recent years has filtered to the top, with politicians now directly ignoring policy and using only identity-based negative rhetoric, fuelling the "us vs them" divide as a mechanism of popular politics. Take Labour’s plan for the 2025 UK election as an example. The basis for their standpoint is to "get the Conservatives out," which blends "Conservatives" together as a social group - which it has become. Politics now has identity-based mechanisms and this change has created a separate definition for a specific type of polarisation: "Affective Polarisation." 


What is Affective Polarisation?

There are two main types of polarisation discussed frequently by political scientists - Political Attitude Polarisation and Affective Polarisation. Political Attitude Polarisation is a broader concept of polarisation, as it is the process of deepening divides between separate political groups to extreme levels. However, Affective Polarisation deals with the polarisation on the individual level and why emotional reactions have become intertwined with political thinking. This is the extent to which individuals of a particular group develop positive feelings toward their ideological group and negative feelings towards the opposition. Political scientists have seen that perceptions in politics have changed - society used to be neutral to opposing political ideologies, but now there is a clear escalation in the intensity of emotions towards outgroups, with many refusing to talk or marry people from the ideology opposed to their own (Druckman and Levendusky, 2019). The hate of the other group now exceeds ingroup love (Iyengar and Krupekin, 2018), and ideological identities govern the way people categorise others. For example, "Democrats" have a particular racial, religious, and geographic identity in the perceptions of "Republicans" being less open-minded and intelligent, and vice versa, creating a mega-identity enshrined in each group. The real question here, however, is: how has this happened and what we can do to change it?


How has Affective Polarisation happened?

Think about the way society has changed. You wake up, scroll on TikTok, and the algorithm gives you content that it thinks you will like. It has adapted to suit you, and the atmosphere that you prefer to be in; much like the way society has changed to adapt to new social norms. Society has changed dramatically since the days that voting rights were extended; with class divides moving out of the political and sociological focus. One reason for polarisation may be due to the lack of collective identity found in society now - we are not as divided by class or race, and people feel the need to fit into a role and a group that will protect them on a societal level. Another idea could be the growing superficiality of society and time constraints. Millions of different pieces of media are vying for our attention every day, so it is easier for our brains to ignore policy and focus directly on what we see first - the identity of politicians and their attitudes. Adding to this is the fact that the way politics works now is like advertising. Politicians will do anything to get the crowd to follow and ‘buy’ their product (in this case their position and party). Emotional outrage is an easy way to mobilise and motivate voters, and insulting language is more likely to be noticed or become viral - think about all the tabloid media headlines, and then compare this to some of Trump's rhetoric. Emotions and negatives are an easy way to make people feel involved, but now it is not on an issue-based level but an identity-based level instead. Politics has become an identity battleground, with politicians using negative rhetoric on a personal level, making extreme reactions more likely, much like football matches. For people who follow a certain party or ideology, they feel like they have chosen this on an emotional level, and now pride is involved. They begin creating more animosity towards the other "side" and becoming more defensive of their own values with polarisation becoming a feedback loop that never stops expanding.


What can you do?

Polarisation is a political problem. The less we feel we can relate to each other and work together on an individual basis, the less effective democracy becomes. There are certain areas around polarisation that anyone can improve, starting from the mindset we have. It is very easy to make generalisations abou people who have different political opinions than you and fall into the trap of creating a negative worldview around the "other political side." If you find yourself thinking this way, focus on the policies themselves, and spread awareness of those. Instead of using emotional language or feeding into the political emotional rhetoric, discuss policy and core ideology often with your peers - you may find that you all share common ideas around what you all want changed in society, even if your groups are diametrically opposite. Share social media posts that are not emotionally charged around political parties and engage in respectful conversations about policy and consequences to help others make a more balanced decision on who to vote for. Starting from the individual, we can start to make some changes to reverse this process, from the bottom up. As the world becomes increasingly polarised and overflows with stereotypes and generalisations, it is what we do as individuals that matters the most in changing this - and we can start now. 


 

Sources:


Druckman, James N, and Matthew S Levendusky. “What Do We Measure When We Measure Affective Polarization? Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 83, no. 1, 2019, pp. 114–122, https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfz003.


‌Druckman, James N., et al. “How Elite Partisan Polarization Affects Public Opinion Formation.” American Political Science Review, vol. 107, no. 01, 25 Jan. 2013, pp. 57–79, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-political-science-review/article/how-elite-partisan-polarization-affects-public-opinion-formation/6CB23BCCFBFBB4EA3879D91232CEEA59, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003055412000500.


‌Hobolt, Sara B., et al. “Divided by the Vote: Affective Polarization in the Wake of the Brexit Referendum.” British Journal of Political Science, vol. 51, no. 4, 7 July 2020, pp. 1–18, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science/article/divided-by-the-vote-affective-polarization-in-the-wake-of-the-brexit-referendum/2393143858C3FA161AF795269A65B900, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007123420000125.


Druckman, J. N., & Levy, J. (2022). Affective polarization in the American public. In T. Rudolph (Ed.). Handbook on Politics and Public Opinion (pp. 257-270). Edward Elgar Publishing. (DRUCKMANN)


Abramowitz, Alan I., and Kyle L. Saunders. “Is Polarization a Myth?” The Journal of Politics, vol. 70, no. 2, Apr. 2008, pp. 542–555, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0022381608080493.

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