Political Polarization: Is there an Antidote?

Political polarization, in very general terms, refers to the divergence of political views, attitudes, and beliefs and is often associated with ideological extremes.  More specifically, political polarization involves a situation where individuals differ, without much room for compromise, on a variety of policy issues and where they define themselves in terms of their party, their ideology, or their identity.

Political scientists have identified the two dominant types of political polarization as ‘elite polarization’ and ‘popular polarization’. The former refers to the polarization of elected officials and political parties, while the latter refers to the polarization of the general public. The latter is generally seen to be more concerning, and often leads, or has led, to extreme nationalism or populism. Polarization, in both forms, has been on the rise in recent years. And, while the U.S. case draws a lot of attention, political polarization is a global phenomenon.

The most polarizing issues include, but are not limited to, the following: immigration (most notably refugees); trade and investment (including trade agreements, common markets, etc.); religious differences; and, cultural norms and values.

Interestingly, while advances in technology should work towards reducing political polarization (more knowledge should, in principle, encourage compromise and collaboration) the opposite seems to be the case.

America is a good example; but, again, no nation appears to be immune. News outlets increasingly cater to one set of views (like Fox news on the right, or CNN and MSNBC on the left), and the internet is a virtual breeding ground for extremist views.  Moreover, their commitment to these views are unwavering and their power to influence considerable.

The same is true in Europe where parties that typically live on the very fringe of European politics have been winning elections and, in some cases, forming governments. Take, for instance, Marie Le Pen’s far right National Front, that attracted more than a 1/3 of French voters in the most recent French election. Or, on the other side, look at the far-left Syriza party in Greece who recently took power. Extreme positions are represented more and more frequently in European politics, especially if they are on the right. In Europe, the far-right parties have made considerable headway focusing on immigration, trade and investment policies, and the whole issue of EU membership. Brexit is a startling case in point.

Political polarization is increasingly troubling, for a number of specific reasons. Political polarization can threaten foreign policy decisions that allow countries to protect individual rights and encourage prosperity, it strengthens the hands of enemies by weakening national resolve, and it has a tendency to fragment both regional and global markets.  Partisan animosity has potentially serious domestic consequences as well, increasing social and political tensions and encouraging (even if it is unintended) violence and extremist behaviour.

Political polarization, especially as it relates to nationalism and populism, is often fueled by fear: fear of immigrants, fear of economic decline, fear of violence, and so forth.

The antidote, in my view, is an increased commitment to an active program of public diplomacy along with a deliberate strategy to significantly grow international educational exchange programs. Fulbright is a leading example, but, by no means, the only option as we grow the exchange world.

International education programs move people, provide a genuine sense of what life is like in another country and another culture, and, in the end, promotes mutual understanding and reduces fear. Moreover, exchange programs create opportunities, encourage and reward diversity, and, we hope, lead us to greater peace and prosperity.

Nationalism, populism, and identity politics thrive on fear and discourage opposing views. International exchange programs attempt to reverse engineer that problem, by focusing on enlightened self-interest and honest debate. During the cold war it was common for Americans to fear the ‘godless communists’ in Russia. After a semester in Russia, it is clear that the core concerns of the average Russian (which have to do with social, economic and physical security) are fundamentally the same as the core concerns of Europeans or Americans.

Nations and states all face some level of economic uncertainty, threats to their national security, and challenges brought about by technological change.

Dealing with these challenges, whether they are driven by the increasing movement of people or reality of new technology, requires that our collective policies are smarter and that our knowledge of the world is greater (real knowledge, not someone else’s views or some collection of facts listed on the internet).

To quote Senator Fulbright, “International educational exchange is the most significant current project designed to continue the process of humanizing mankind to the point, we would hope, that men can learn to live in peace–eventually even to cooperate in constructive activities rather than compete in a mindless contest of mutual destruction….We must try to expand the boundaries of human wisdom, empathy and perception, and there is no way of doing that except through education.”

Erica Lutes is the Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission in Brussels.