Tuesday 11 February 2014

Why political polarisation is nothing to worry about

The polarisation of political views is exercising observers in the US at the moment. There is a flurry of publications from journalists and scientists at present about why democracy is bound to disintegrated under the onslaught of centrifugal forces. The lack of political consensus and the unwillingness of compromise in the House of Representatives in the US are often cited as examples of increased polarisation. And psychologists like Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards (Democracy despite itself, MIT Press 2012) provide empirical material to support the claim of a doomed democratic politics.

While there can be little argument over the rise of the 'fringe or anti-politics' politician, and the popularity of Tea Party Movement in the US, the numbers are not really bearing out a significant flight of the moderates into the extremes of the political spectrum. If anything, the opposite is the case. Wherever important electoral battles are waged, moderates such as Obama win with comparatively large majorities with mainstream political programmes. So what is going on?

In a sense, it is the location of politics that is changing, not the balance between mainstream and the fringe. Politics is increasingly played out in the media at the expense of a wider public domain and the preferences for political confrontation over political consensus in the media are well documented.

Yet, there is another aspect to it. The rise of the politician who holds immoderately questionable views is not just a problem of how politics is portrayed. It is above all an issue of mobilisation.

This is where the gulf between electoral victories of fringe politicians and their relative lack of success in important electoral competitions comes into view. UKIP and the National Front in France struggle to win any important electoral battles but often succeed in local or by-elections. Why?

Mainly, because the broader moderate electorate does not assign much significance to these battles and stays away. They only feel sufficiently motivated to vote as and when important issues are at stake. So, in effect, it is a question of how to mobilise whom and when. This is where political parties increasingly struggle and come under what often looks like the polarisation drag. To campaign for a political party you have to have at least two sorts of resources at your disposal: a lot of time and deeply held views on particular issues. Moderates rarely possess either. Hence they stay away from party politics and are seldom found to stuff letter boxes with campaign literature on a rainy day.

This is often interpreted as political apathy. But I think to do so is a misunderstanding. What leaves political moderates actually disengaged is an acute sense of when and where really important issues are (or aren't) at stake. In a way, moderates trust the political system to bear some extreme weather in the turbulent to and fro of daily politics. They bank on the belief that the inertia of the democratic system wears extreme views thin in the long run. This may be an error but as long as the electoral map still shows not a single member of UKIP in Westminster, I think their calculation is right.

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