The extent of polarisation under democratic governments across the world seems extreme. Look at the US, Brazil, many parts of Europe and Asia and the same holds true. In fact, authoritarian regimes can justifiably claim to house less internal polarisation than democracies. Why is this so? Is there something in the nature of democracies that leads to a polarisation of the populace? Have the recent developments in technology and social media accentuated such tendencies?
If we go back in time, thinkers and politicians alike asserted the complexities in making a democracy work. Winston Churchill had famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all others tried from time to time”. He went on to add, though, “that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. Much before him, Aristotle, had averred that “democracies degenerate into despotism”. Many politicians and thinkers, including John Kennedy, said that a well-functioning democracy puts high expectations on the average voter to engage and participate.
Plato had his own concerns with democracy. He believed “good decisions were based on knowledge and not numbers” and perceptively opined that “rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men”. If one were to add another allied term, “narrative”, then what Plato said becomes even more powerful. “Rhetoric” is best defined as the art of using speech to persuade, influence or please, but also as speech or discourse that pretends to have significance but lacks true meaning, as when we assert that all the politician says is mere rhetoric. “Narrative” is best understood as a story or a description of a series of events or, more pertinently, a particular way of explaining or understanding events. The rhetoric that best positions a political narrative is at the core of most current political debates. But how does this lead to such bitter polarisation in a democracy?
Political leaders have a short period of time during an election to provide an uplifting narrative to the voters. Voters engage at a superficial level. So, the rhetoric on offer has to be both simple and instantly appealing — like Trump’s “jobs vs mobs”. Given the diversity of the electorate, the politician has no choice but to appeal to as many segments as he or she can. Typically, they do this by over-promising what they can deliver in a term in office. There is no credible non-partisan manner for the general population to monitor and evaluate the performance of the politician once elected. When time comes for the next election, opposition parties highlight all the areas that the incumbent failed to deliver and the incumbent tries to highlight, with hyperbole, all the things that have been achieved. The voter is not in a position to really get to the bottom of this. As a result, the rhetoric becomes all important. “Hope” as a theme is easily appropriated by the challenger. The incumbent is typically on the defensive and has to fall back on a strident narrative around primordial themes — demonising opponents, social groups or exaggerating external threats to create an appeal that can overcome the scrutiny of undelivered promises.
Social media today allows individual customisation of news and much greater amplification as it gets delivered to the mailbox or hand-held device of the individual. People consume what they agree with, all opposing views are filtered out, and so there no access to any objective reality. The uncivil rhetoric on social media was not possible in the heyday of print media. The electronic media has adjusted to this and finds strident shows get higher viewership. Channels get identified with a particular partisan perspective and obtain a loyal viewership from those that agree with that narrative. (In the US, Fox news, Republican leaning, has roughly equal viewership to MSNBC and CNN combined, which are Democrat leaning). Thus, channels get type cast and can only present their side with partiality. There is no reasoned debate and people do not listen to alternative viewpoints. This, over time, polarises the society and beliefs are stoked in an era of alternative facts and fake news. Compromise and bipartisanship on national causes becomes much harder. At its extreme, the partisanship can lead, as Aristotle worried, towards despotism, as is evident in Philippines with Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey with Recep Erdogan and now in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro.
Authoritarian regimes led by strong men appear less polarised. Such regimes tightly control the press, courts and political opposition. They brutally suppress critics and dissidents. But the mass of people seem unaffected if their lot improves. The rhetoric on offer is consistent with the leader’s narrative (often of jingoism, global prestige and economic progress). It is true that in the long run, the absence of internal challenge and leadership change prevents self-correcting mechanisms and can lead to the economic collapse of many such regimes. But in the short-run, they can move faster. And so, if we view Russia, China and even the brutal Saudi Arabia, one has to admit that they are much less polarised than the US, Brazil, Western Europe and Asia.
Periodic peaceful transfer of power by popular vote, by uninformed voters accompanied with growing inequality, a strident partisan rhetoric combined with under delivery (on impossible but required to win promises), a sensationalist media, all lead to polarisation. Democracies expect great sagacity from their leaders; to rise above and lead. Across the world, leaders are increasingly failing to do so. Democracies are built on the premise of serious voter engagement and objective news. Their absence is leading to a great challenge in governance and global stability. Great introspection is required to revitalise the democratic experiment.