Last week, I met a woman who is as far left on the political spectrum, without being fanatical, as one can imagine: a yoga teacher, animal rights activist and vegan. She is well educated and expressed a strong desire to promote peace, love and understanding. Most would call her a hippy, which is why I was extremely surprised to hear her say: “The world needs Covid-19. It’s a good thing”. This is a stance usually adopted by the extreme right, who, if they give credence to it at all, see the virus as some kind of divine leveller and population controller.

I politely listened to her rationale, which thankfully was more nuanced than the above and was rooted in the premise that the pandemic was some kind of reset button that would narrow class and income divides, offer great respite for the environment, and force us to restructure our social and financial norms.

I started offering my opinion in response, but my mind drifted to just how fascinating it is that one subject can offer such wildly differing views, even within sub-cultures where you would expect to see commonality of thought. The world, in my opinion, and what I would have expected to be the opinion of my sub-culture, absolutely does not need Covid-19, and don’t see it as the great harbinger of revolution that she is hoping for. Opinions, it seems, are essential these days.

Regardless of this, it was clear that although we may disagree on this one point, we both yearned for social restructuring centred on equality, freedom, non-partisanship and inclusiveness — an ideal that before Covid-19 I thought was still attainable, despite the worrying trend in the increase of partisanship and totalitarianism (a fact beautifully highlighted by Vladimir Putin’s new mandate to be the top dog in the Kremlin for another 26 years).

Commonality on the big issues allows us to tolerate differences in the small, and keeps us in the same club. Of course, this becomes increasingly more difficult as the circle expands and contemporary politics is now at its most incendiary, as polarisation is threatening to rip apart democracies around the world, from Brazil and India to Poland and Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. The common goal of a free, peaceful society has been all but abandoned as hard-line positions on everything from race and gender, to termination of pregnancy, cancel culture, the environment, language, humour, and, yes, even wearing a mask, pushes us further apart before yanking us together in a state of conflict.

We used to see polarisation only in the fringes, and maybe that is still the case, it is just that they are now so large, that they are no longer on the edges — the real fringes now being only the bomb-jacket-wearing and gun-toting radicals. Political leaders were never part of fringes, certainly not publicly, and our politics was therefore mostly acceptably mainstream, regardless of what side of the fence you sat.

Now, however, leaders across the world are placing their feet firmly in extremely raw ideological camps and are expressing the views of these camps with ever-increasing vitriol and hatred. And it is not just in the US where we witness this, with figures such as Narendra Modi in India, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey adopting very Trumpian tactics by consistently incensing basic divisions and normalising them throughout society.

This involves attempting to discredit opponents through the schoolyard antics of demonisation, the inhibition of democratic processes and pushing for radical changes in certain instances (such as a total ban on abortion in Poland), or doggedly refusing to change, like Trump’s opinions on the removal of confederate statues. Political parties across the world are failing to embrace co-operation across diversity.

Social media, being what it is, provides leaders with an army of diligent agitators who go forth and spread the lies like thousands of Joseph Goebbels following the will of their leader, which, in the words of Adolf Hitler, is to “take an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favours the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly”. This absolutely is Trump’s truth.

But having two parties with extreme views that differ from each other, or a leadership that preys on opponents, is not what we really mean by polarisation.

Polarisation isn’t about partisanship of the media or how politicians are divided — it’s about how an individual’s political identity is wrapped up with almost everything they do. You can tell a person’s voting pattern by asking them to respond to a few key issues such as abortion, gun control or mask wearing.

According to Pew research, for example, the majority of Republicans believe that the nation has turned a corner in its struggle with the coronavirus. Sixty-one per cent say that when thinking about the problems facing the country from the coronavirus, “the worst is behind us” whereas 38% say the “worst is still to come”. By contrast, just 23% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say that the worst is behind us when it comes to problems from the coronavirus; more than three times as many Democrats (76%) say the worst is still to come.

The formation of groups around ideology may seem harmless, but polarisation has a tremendously negative effect on society and politics. According to Thomas Carothers, co-author of Democracies Divided: “[Polarisation] routinely undermines the independence of the judiciary, as politicians attack the courts as biased or pack them with loyalists. It reduces legislatures either to gridlock or to a rubber-stamp function. In presidential systems, it frequently leads to the abuse of executive powers and promotes the toxic view that the president represents only his or her supporters, rather than the country as a whole.”

Worse than this, however, polarisation promotes factionalism with factions being formed on those highly emotive issues that its members take most to heart. This removes all previous conventions of conflict, obliterates tolerance and pushes emotion-fuelled dogma, instead of facts.

This, of course, is not limited to political life because factions become increasingly social, with individuals preparing to take arms to fight for their brand, which we have recently seen in the US by two comical St Louis residents who probably thought they looked like Mr and Mrs Smith, but instead looked like what they were: badly dressed, obese, middle-aged, gun-toting, bigoted fascists.

Turkey, as Carothers points out, is a particularly jarring example of social polarisation with almost eight out of 10 people there saying they would not want their daughters to marry someone who votes for the party they most dislike. Shockingly, nearly three-quarters would not even want to do business with such a person.

A new study published this year in Political Psychology, pitted people’s moral concerns with their partisan identity. They presented 2 000 participants with examples of different moral violations by different actors. Based on previous research, the authors expected that the nature of the moral violation might be the most significant factor in people’s evaluations, as there are reasons to think that liberals and conservatives are concerned with some moral violations more than others. What they found, however, is that it wasn’t the nature of the moral violation that was most important. Instead, it was the political allegiance of the violator. Democrats in the study were prone to giving Democrats a pass; the same was even more true of Republicans.

This is not the dream that liberal democracies have been fighting for and once this level of polarisation appears, it can be extremely difficult to get rid of as it becomes self-perpetuating, dragging countries into a downward spiral of anger and division.

According to Carothers, this is a spiral that can be stopped, with Democracies Divided listing eight different types of remedial action ranging from dialogue and media reform to international involvement.

“For one, several promising efforts to limit polarisation have focused on institutional reforms, such as decentralising political power or changing electoral rules. Kenya, for instance, adopted a new constitution in 2010 that sought to ease ferocious competition for national office by giving regional officials greater autonomy and control over state resources,” says Carothers. While in the US, Maine passed legislation in 2016 to enact ranked-choice voting, a system that favours centrist candidates and discourages negative campaigning.

Other efforts, according to Carothers, “have involved legal or judicial action to limit polarisation and majoritarianism — the idea that the feelings and rights of the minority should not constrain leaders with majority support. In India, for example, the Supreme Court has spoken out in defence of democratic institutions and demanded greater accountability for hate crimes and political violence”.

Political leadership can also play a crucial role in de-escalating partisan divides. In Ecuador, President Lenín Moreno has rejected the polarising tactics of his predecessor, even though the two come from the same political party. And in Turkey, opposition parties have achieved modest success by uniting to form a coalition: their candidate for mayor of Istanbul won a resounding victory in 2019 with a campaign that emphasised overcoming divisions.

But, it really all starts with the individual. We need to keep our fervent loyalty only for our sports teams and when it comes to politics vote on policies and not on parties or previous associations. Helping us with this would be more referenda to address complex policy topics — but this brings its own problems as we have just seen with Brexit as a woefully ignorant and lied-to populace made the biggest political blunder of all time.

Social psychology does offer some solutions, from reframing issues to tap into a superordinate sense of identity, to promoting forms of contact that encourage perspective taking. While simple proportional representation would make a massive difference.

By learning from what is working on a micro level, within our sub-groups, and applying this in a practical manner to encourage action that nurtures solidarity, we can reframe our political and social landscapes. But, really, all we need to do is to embrace more of those hippy ideals of tolerance, love and freedom.


  • Peter Townshend has been a journalist for the past 25 years, writing critical analysis for many of the country’s leading publications. In addition to writing, he has lectured journalism and media studies, was founding editor of Ethical Living magazine, and launched numerous publications. He currently also runs a training company.


Peter Townshend

Peter Townshend has been a journalist for the past 25 years, writing critical analysis for many of the country’s leading publications. In addition to writing, he has lectured journalism and media studies,...

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