Global Challenges to Democracy By Wolfgang Merkel  |  02 August, 2023

Polarisation as a Challenge to Democracy

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It is above all social conflicts that shape politics, its disputes and its effects on democracy. The effects can be positive or negative, depending on the degree of conflict and its substance. Peaceful conflicts, conducted according to accepted norms and procedures, which regard conflicting parties as opponents but not as "enemies," generally increase the democratic pluralism of a society. They promote its openness and willingness to learn and progress. They serve democracy. Conflicts, however, whose nature and severity divide society into "friend and foe" (Carl Schmitt), destroy intra-societal trust, tolerance, and ultimately democracy.

In postwar Western European societies, the successful moderation of socioeconomic divisions have for a long time softened economic, social, regional, and cultural divisions. The formative political disputes and discourses ran along a socioeconomic dividing line between labour and capital, state and market, left and right. At stake was the distribution of income, wealth, and life opportunities. This essential conflict has been hard-fought since industrialisation. It was first the trade unions and the labour movement, and then finally the tax and welfare state and its architects, the programmatically diffuse people's parties, that defused this conflict in the second half of the 20th century in Western Europe. They were unable to resolve the fundamental contradiction between capital and labour, but their policy of institutionalised compromise ensured a certain social cohesion in society at large.

After the epochal break of 1989, however, the cleavages of the West also changed. The Cold War was over. A great future was predicted for economic and political liberalism. In a temporary no man's land of conflict, a new, culturally accentuated line of conflict emerged. It has since cut across the continuing horizontal socioeconomic dividing line. Political competition and discourse have become two-dimensional in Europe as well as North America. Cultural discourse in particular has come to the fore.

On one pole of the cultural fault line are the academized new middle classes endowed with high human and social capital. They live in urban areas, are economically privileged, and follow a cosmopolitan worldview. For them, the nation-state is a relic of the 20th century. They insist on open borders, prefer a liberal migration policy, and emphasise equal rights for all genders and same-sex sexual preferences. They value gender-sensitive language. They give absolute priority to climate policy. Economically, they are among the beneficiaries of our societies.

At the other pole of the conflict axis are the communitarians. They often have a lower level of formal education and are in favour of a strong nation-state from which they expect strict migration control, social protection, and financial support. Gender-equitable language is not important to them, and economy takes precedence over ecology. They tend toward authoritarian rather than libertarian attitudes toward life. They are economically among the less fortunate in our society. Quite a few find their political home with right-wing populists, some with left-wing traditionalists.

Both groups are separated by a deep cultural divide. A mutual speechlessness, contempt or even hostility fortifies their camps. Where does this come from? One important influence is the increasing moralism of politics. Moralism, however, is not morality. Without morality, there can be no just and humane politics. Moralism, on the other hand, is a pejorative form of moral expression. It is a self-righteous stylization of one's own moral position, a variety of egocentrism, a vain assurance of identity that refers to the expression of one's own moral superiority. Such an excess of moralism sometimes characterises the camp of left-liberal cosmopolitans. The other side labours under a surplus of nationalism and traditionalism. The semantic and normative bridges between the camps are hardly passable anymore. The new binary code is truth versus lies, morality versus immorality, science versus denial, nationalism versus universalism. Opponents become political enemies. Dissidence is demoralised by the discourse leaders.

The hardened cultural discourses and the loss of empathy and compromise mark the transition from lively pluralism to polarisation without understanding or compromise. In recent polarisation research, therefore, a distinction is made between democratising polarisation and polarisation that threatens democracy. In the class-based societies of Latin America, for example, extreme economic inequality cannot be overcome without mobilisation based on democratising polarisation. Democracy and compromise in those societies paid into the accounts of the rulers. This was not the case in the democratic societies of Europe. It was the ballots that opened up a certain say to the lower classes. The democracy researcher Adam Przeworski rightly called them the “paperstones” of the working class in the 20th century.

The four most recent major crises of Western democratic societies, while having significant economic and social consequences, are not primarily rooted in economics. The migration crisis, the climate crisis, the Corona crisis, and the positioning on arms deliveries to Ukraine are all moralistically contaminated. In all these crises, camps have formed. Advocates of migration and refugees were opposed to migration sceptics or xenophobes, vaccination advocates to vaccination opponents, climate crisis deniers to those who considered the fight against global warming to be the highest goal of any responsible policy. In politics, society, and analog and especially digital media, the conflicts were not resolved but intensified. Each side promised itself positional gains.

What needs to be done to break the incipient momentum of vicious polarisation? We must end moralism in society, science, and politics and replace it with a morality of critical self-reflection and understanding.  We must recognise that in a pluralistic democratic society, interests and values can and must be fought over. The ‘other’ is not the enemy. Racism, sexism, and xenophobia must be fought with good reason. There are red lines. This is especially true against rampant right-wing populism. But it is not the self-proclaimed cultural avant-gardes who can claim the power of definition over the terms. They have to be discursively drawn again and again and cannot be decreed via the feature pages of leading newspapers or social media. There must be a mutually understanding-oriented discourse. Ultimately, it is about inclusion, not exclusion. Democracy needs tolerance and dissidence. Both can hurt. If we understand this, polarisation and its profiteers will have a hard time.

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Wolfgang Merkel  has been Director of the department “Democracy and Democratisation” at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB) and Professor of Political Science at the Humboldt University Berlin from 2004-2020. Since 2021 he has served as a senior scholar at the Democracy Institute/ CEU in Budapest. His recent books in English include: (jointly edited with Lührmann, Anna) Resilience of Democracies: responses to illiberal and authoritarian challenges, Special Issue of “Democratization”, 2021 (28) 5; Democracy and Crisis. Challenges in Turbulent Times (ed., together with Sascha Kneip and Bernhard Wessels 2020).