The recent focus of a politics essay I am writing concerns the relationship between ecological crisis and global structures such as capitalism. In my research, (which inevitably entertains a number of less relevant tangents), I was shocked to discover that whilst in 2007, 71% of Americans believed that burning fossil fuels would ultimately result in climate change, by 2011 this statistic had decreased to just 44%. This shift was described as "among the largest shifts over a short period of time seen in recent public opinion history," a change that occurred almost entirely along party lines, solidifying the general tendencies for the democrats to believe in and seek to avert/ redirect the climate disaster and republicans to minimise the significance of the issue or even its existence. Not only does this statistic paint a scary picture of a lack of recognition of the need for environmental sensitivity in policy and business, the importance of the party line on each side of the argument dividing opinion is indicative of a polarisation within politics. As a Brit, living through the coverage and political turmoil of Brexit, this polarisation is very evident to me in the handling of conversation between 'Brexiteers' and 'Remainers'. At times the debate on social media and other forum platforms feels like there is no middle ground, and certainly little room for nuance for fear of appearing lenient or receptive of the other perspective.
A Pew Research Centre graphic, illustrated below, illuminates this move towards polarising politics particularly vividly, underlining the increasingly definitive nature of partisanship, particularly in American politics. Accompanying this trend is analysis confirming that those who express ideologically consistent views have disproportionate influence on the political process as they are more likely to participate in both public and private ways. It pays to be unwaveringly partisan.
The image below this graphic represents the polarisation persisting on the policy issue of Brexit, highlighting the consistently polarised and even split between the two.
Why does this phenomenon matter?
The existence of a politics increasingly defined by polarisation may seem irrelevant and detached from significant ramification however a number of structural and secondary implications can arise in a political environment plagued by persistent conflict. Below I will list just three examples of why we should be talking more about polarisation.
The Overton Window is a concept first described by Joseph Overton, highlighting that the political viability of a suggested policy was dependent upon whether it fell within the boundaries of a range of political options and ideas deemed acceptable. This window of toleration can expand and shift in accordance with a particular society's evolution of political perspective. Those outside of the domain of acceptability seek to shift public perception of their idea, encouraging a shift in this window whilst those within seek to portray external perspectives as unrealistic and unattractive. Polarisation tends to push people further left or right, squeezing the centre perspective into something more trivial and comparatively quiet. This can open up susceptibility to extremity, playing upon existing ideological debates with the introduction of more radical elements. Examples of this phenomenon include shifts in several European countries to the support of 'right wing' parties based on the popularity of fears on immigration and the European Union. The ground gained by such parties can lead to the inclusion of members in legislative and executive bodies, entrenching polarisation further and introducing extreme perspectives onto the policy agenda.
Crowding out voices
A more structural point of interest with a politics defined by polarisation relates back to the entrenchment of gendered norms within political institutions. Within parliamentary two party systems such as the UK, feminist institutionalist scholars have pointed to the exclusionary nature of adversarial politics. Appealing to traditionally (whether socialised or otherwise) masculine traits of strength, confidence and aggression in depictions of successful politicians is reiterated in the nature of parliamentary debate which can often feel like more of an attack than a conversation and critique. This adversarial nature is further deepened with the rise of polarisation, with less room for the collaborative spaces that encourage diverse perspectives and make historically marginalised groups feel welcome to contribute to parliamentary political debate.
Loss of Collaborative Politics
A final point of concern with the rise of polarisation is the reduced capacity to cooperate politically in the pursuit of a broader goal. This is typified well in the first statistic given in this article. Global issues such as ecological crisis and poverty lose out on the cross party cohesion needed to produce a plan of action for change inaccessible to an individual party in an individual state in a single electoral term. To have a hope at addressing these deeper issues collaboration is a necessity not an embellishment. Polarisation puts this at risk, holding ramifications beyond state politics and domestic disagreement.