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Perniciously polarized democracies – where

Jennifer McCoy & Benjamin Press, What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 18 January 2022

The United States’ democracy is being threatened by increasingly polarized politics. Other countries’ histories offer warnings and suggest possible solutions.

The rise of political polarization in the United States has pushed analysts to ask a fundamental question: what long-term effects will polarized politics have on the United States’ democracy?1 Existing evidence provides ample reason for concern. At the elite level, deep political divides in Washington have crippled efforts at legislative compromise, eroded institutional and behavioral norms, and incentivized politicians to pursue their aims outside of gridlocked institutions, including through the courts. Yet these divides extend far beyond the corridors of power, as polarization at the mass level is pushing Americans across the country to divide themselves into distinct and mutually exclusive political camps. The rise of an “us versus them” mindset and political identity in American sociopolitical life is evident in everything from the rise of highly partisan media to the decline in Americans’ willingness to marry someone from the opposing political party.2 Even more concerningly, these dynamics are contributing directly to a steep rise in political violence.3 Polarization has already brought on serious problems—what more lies ahead? Are insights on this critical question available from the experience of other polarized democracies?

Many other democracies around the world have grappled or are grappling with the difficulties posed by the onset of pernicious polarization, which McCoy and Somer have defined elsewhere as the division of society into mutually distrustful political camps in which political identity becomes a social identity.4 The experiences of these other countries can provide useful insights into the United States’ own struggles—and may help to predict what may be to come. Comparative studies have already shown that pernicious polarization is directly linked with democratic erosion and that the United States is far from the only democracy to confront severe polarization.5 Yet broader context for understanding how democracies fare when facing pernicious polarization is lacking.

To rectify this gap, we used the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) data set to take a close look at episodes of pernicious polarization around the world since 1950 and trace their relationships with levels of democracy.6 The findings are not encouraging. Severe polarization correlates with serious democratic decline: of the fifty-two instances where democracies reached pernicious levels of polarization, twenty-six—fully half of the cases—experienced a downgrading of their democratic rating.7 Only sixteen episodes were able to reduce polarization to below-pernicious levels, and the decline in polarization was only sustained in nine of those cases. Quite strikingly, the United States is the only advanced Western democracy to have faced such intense polarization for such an extended period. The United States is in uncharted and very dangerous territory.

POLITICAL OUTCOMES OF PERNICIOUS POLARIZATION

To situate the United States’ experience within the broader universe of polarized democracies, we compiled a comprehensive list of episodes since 1950 when a democracy reached pernicious levels of polarization for at least two years.8 We then compared the trajectories of their democratic ratings with their levels of political polarization.9

Four basic outcomes were possible from this comparison, as reflected in table 1:

  • The country manages to depolarize and keep its democracy intact.
  • The country manages to depolarize but suffers democratically.
  • The country’s democracy is able to live with the chronically high levels of polarization without undergoing any democratic downgrading (to date).
  • The country experiences pernicious polarization and a downgrading of its democracy score.
TABLE 1: OUTCOMES OF EPISODES OF PERNICIOUS POLARIZATION
DEMOCRATIC REGIME CATEGORY
Stable Downgraded
POLARIZATION LEVEL Depolarized 16 0
Remains Pernicious 10 26

DEPOLARIZATION

The data show that it is possible for democracies to depolarize. In these cases, listed in table 2, the public and the political elite were able to find ways to reduce the tensions that have divided them. The diversity of these cases shows that there are many ways of doing this: in some instances, divides over the future of the country were able to be resolved through democratic processes, while the rule of law checked polarizing leaders who were concentrating power elsewhere. For example, Brazil’s newly restored democracy allowed for the successful impeachment and removal of its president following a corruption scandal in 1992, and a decade later managed the smooth transition to a government led for the first time by the leftist Workers Party. In Colombia between 2009 and 2010, an independent Constitutional Court restrained a president attempting to push through a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for a third term.

Other cases benefited from international intervention, such as in Timor-Leste in 2006, when the threat of a military rebellion immediately polarized the country’s politics and only depolarized after foreign military forces helped stabilize the country and the prime minister resigned. Finally, political agreements between elites may depolarize a country’s politics. In Bolivia, for example, highly charged disputes in 2008 over autonomy for the country’s southern regions were resolved through negotiations and a political settlement that provided for a constitutional referendum.

These cases illustrate that depolarization—though very difficult—is possible. However, it is often quite fragile; as table 2 shows, a significant number of instances later repolarized to pernicious levels. The progress toward depolarization in seven of sixteen episodes was later undone, underscoring that the threat of pernicious polarization never fully disappears.

TABLE 2: CASES OF DEPOLARIZATION FROM PERNICIOUS LEVELS
  1. Bolivia, 2003–2005 [repolarizes in 2007]
  2. Bolivia, 2007–2012 [repolarizes in 2016]
  3. Brazil, 1989–1993 [repolarizes in 2012]
  4. Colombia, 2009–2011 [repolarizes in 2014]
  5. Cyprus, 1974–1989
  6. El Salvador, 1999–2010
  7. Georgia, 2007–2015 [repolarizes in 2017]
  8. Guyana, 1998–2020
  9. Indonesia, 2000–2020
  10. Malta, 1963–1990 [repolarizes in 2014]
  11. Mauritius, 2019–2020
  12. Nepal, 2014–2020
  13. Senegal, 1988–1991 [repolarizes in 1993]
  14. Senegal, 1993–1995
  15. Suriname, 1992–1997
  16. Timor-Leste, 2006–2008
Note: The start of each episode represents the first year in which the country attained both pernicious levels of polarization (3.0 on V-Dem’s political polarization metric) and a democratic Regimes of the World score (either liberal or electoral democracy). The end year of each episode denotes the year in which V-Dem’s polarization metric declines below pernicious levels. The year in which a country repolarizes is the year in which the polarization score returned to pernicious levels.

PERSISTENT POLARIZATION WITHOUT DEMOCRATIC DEGRADATION

This survey also yielded a group (see table 3) of countries that have experienced chronically pernicious levels of polarization for some time without undergoing democratic downgrading. Some countries, like Bosnia and Ecuador, have managed to juggle pernicious polarization and at least somewhat functional democracy for many years. While it is beyond the scope of this article to speculate as to why this might be, institutional factors like Bosnia’s ethnoreligious power-sharing agreement backed by international institutions and neighboring countries may play a key role. However, for other countries, like Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, the onset of pernicious polarization is a much more recent phenomenon, and it is far from clear that their institutions will successfully manage the pressures of pernicious polarization. Indeed, a more sensitive metric—V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index—shows that many members of this group, including Brazil, Colombia, Georgia, Mexico, and the United States, have seen their democratic health suffer since becoming perniciously polarized, albeit not to the point where their score on the Regimes of the World (RoW) index was downgraded. Especially for more recently polarized countries, their membership on this list may be more transitory as they either find a way to depolarize or their democracies degrade. All of the countries on this list, with the exception of the United States, are electoral democracies that lack the full protections of a liberal democracy.

TABLE 3: CASES OF CHRONIC PERNICIOUS POLARIZATION AND SUSTAINED DEMOCRACY
  • Argentina, 2013–present
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1999–present
  • Brazil, 2013–present
  • Colombia, 2014–present
  • Ecuador, 2007–present
  • Georgia, 2017–present
  • Malta, 2014–present
  • Mexico, 2019–present
  • North Macedonia, 2017–present
  • United States, 2015–present
Note: The beginning year of the episode represents the first year the country became perniciously polarized (defined as above 3.0 on V-Dem’s political polarization metric).

POLARIZATION AND DEMOCRATIC DECLINE

The most common outcome of episodes where democracies reached pernicious levels of polarization was some form of major democratic decline. In total, twenty-six out of the fifty-two observed episodes (or 50 percent of cases) saw their country’s RoW score downgraded, with the vast majority of those—twenty-three of twenty-six—descending into some form of authoritarianism. The other three cases underwent backsliding within democracy, falling from liberal democracy status to be reclassified as an electoral democracy. The full list of such cases is shown in table 4.

TABLE 4: OUTCOMES OF EPISODES OF PERNICIOUS POLARIZATION
Backsliding Within Democracy [From Liberal Democracy to Electoral Democracy] Erosion From Democracy to Electoral Autocracy [From Liberal or Electoral Democracy to Electoral Autocracy] Democratic Collapse [From Liberal or Electoral Democracy to Closed Autocracy]
  • Mauritius, 1968–2019
  • Bangladesh, 1992–2002
  • Argentina, 1964–1966
  • Poland, 2011–2016
  • Comoros, 2010–2015
  • Argentina, 1974–1976
  • Slovenia, 2018–2020
  • Dominican Republic, 1982–1990
  • Chile, 1970–1973
  • Hungary, 2010–2018
  • Fiji, 1993–2000
  • India, 2014–2019
  • Fiji, 2002–2006
  • Indonesia, 1956–1958
  • Malta, 1950–1957
  • Kosovo, 2002–2005
  • Thailand, 2004–2006
  • Lebanon, 2010–2018
  • Turkey, 1966–1980
  • Maldives, 2009–2013
  • Uruguay, 1966–1973
  • Montenegro, 2004–2006
  • Nepal, 2010–2012
  • North Macedonia, 2008–2012
  • Suriname, 1988–1991
  • Turkey, 2002–2013
Note: Episode years are determined as follows: the first year of the episode is the year that the country first reached pernicious levels of polarization, and the end year is the year in which the country’s RoW score was downgraded.

This list illustrates clearly that extraordinary levels of polarization have been an important feature of the ongoing wave of democratic decline. Indeed, fourteen of the twenty-six countries in table 4 saw their democracies downgraded since 2005, the year widely observed to have been the beginning of a new global wave of autocratization.10 Some of the world’s most prominent backsliders, including Hungary, India, Poland, and Turkey, register on the list.

This wide assortment of countries illustrates how polarization can contribute to democratic downgrading in multiple ways. In some cases, as in Bangladesh in 2002 or Thailand in 2006, polarization—and government dysfunction—became so intense that security forces stepped in and attempted to realign the country’s politics. In other cases, like Turkey and Poland, leaders relied on explicitly polarizing populist strategies to gain and retain power, sowing division to energize their supporters while claiming that it is necessary to curtail democracy in order to overcome opponents’ resistance and enact their agenda.

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