Demworks Live! Why is political polarization happening now?

Left to right: Sef Ashiagdor of NDI, Tom Carothers of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and NDI President Derek Mitchell.

DemWorks celebrates its 10th episode with a special live installment, discussing the rising threat of political polarization. NDI President Derek Mitchell sits down with renowned global expert on democratization, Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and NDI’s Senior Advisor for political parties, Sef Ashiagdor.
They discuss the points of resilience against severe polarization that exist and the role that political parties play in democracies. Additionally, NDI’s Washington, D.C. staff had the opportunity to ask the panel their own questions on why political polarization is a growing trend for democracies around the world.
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Derek Mitchell: Hello, my name is Derek Mitchell. I'm President of the National Democratic Institute. I want to welcome you all to NDI’s first live Demwork’s podcast, hosted at NDI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In this episode, we are joined by NDI staff here in the audience and feature a conversation with Thomas Carothers, Senior Vice President for Studies and Director of the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Tom Carouthers is a renowned global expert on democratization in U.S. foreign policy. He's been a long-standing partner of NDI and democracy support organizations like ours for decades.

Tom Carothers: Thank you very much, Derek. It’s always a special pleasure to be here at NDI, an organization that does such important and valuable work all around the world, and for me, a source of tremendous learning over the years from NDI staff. So, thanks very much for having me.

DM: After we hear some comments from Tom, we’ll hear some comments form NDI Senior Advisor on our Political Parties team, Sef Ashiagbor. Sef and her colleagues have been leading NDI’s efforts to research how established emerging political parties and movements are adapting to changing conditions where trust in institutions, for instance, is declining.

Tom and Sef, thanks for joining us.

Tom, as you give us an overview of your new book, Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Tom and other leading scholars examine specific cases of polarization to draw lessons from their example to consider how to reverse this dangerous political phenomenon. 

TC: Polarization is tearing at the scenes of democracies in many places. I started this book in- thinking about the book in 2017 after an election in the United States put this country into a period of intensive polarization. We'd already been a fairly polarized country but I could see then, immediately after the election that we were headed for something deeper and darker than even what we had experienced before. So I decided to try to get a comparative look at the topic. As you know, Americans are often not very good about seeing our own country through the eyes of other political experiences around the world and I thought it would be interesting to try to gain some insights from other countries, so, we put together a team of great researchers from different parts of the world to look at the case studies you mentioned, Derek, and try to get at least a few comparative insights.

So, let me just quickly touch upon a bit about how we frame the topic and a few of the findings. It's natural in a democracy to have some polarization. Parties naturally are different from each other, have different points of views, citizens need to be able to make distinct choices, so a certain amount of division is good. Too much is bad.

How much is too much?

What are the characteristics of what we call in the books severe polarization, which becomes a syndrome that, I'll talk about, is really dysfunctional and there are few signal characteristics of it.

1st, the two different opposing sides share very little common ground at all on any important issues.

2nd, they really begin to have a high degree of negative feelings about each other and negative actions towards each other so the intensity of political conflict ramps up.

3rd, the division between them becomes a subscene that overrides other divisions or connections within the society. So it becomes, like in Thailand, yellow shirts versus red shirts. It's no longer just, “I have this view on tax policy, you have that view”, it becomes something more.

4th, it's sustained over time. It's not just a polarizing meter for a year or two that upsets everybody, it’s something that's entrenches itself in the country and that leads to the…

5th, which is, it joins up the elite polarization with societal polarization. It's not just a game of conflicting elites.

These divisions filter down into the society and you have larger groupings that attach to the divided politicians. So, politics in a very  polarized in a severely polarized society becomes a clash of conflicting identities. Not just, “this side has this view on these policies, and this side on these policies”, but this side feels we are different from this side, we are different in some fundamental way. Unfortunately, as we know from our experience in this country, once politics becomes a clash of identities it's very easy to go from, “I disagree with you about this”, to “I'm just different from you”. Unfortunately, it’s easy for human beings to go from, “I'm different from you” to, “I don't like you, in fact I hate you”, then things get worse from there. When a country really breaks into two different groups, what's the basis for the division?

My research showed there are really three kinds of bases.

The first is a country may be broken along ethnic or racial lines, but that's less common than you'd think. What Americans think when they think about divided democracies, they think it must be a ethnic division or a tribal or racial division.

In fact, a second basis is more common. That's religion. Religion is, unfortunately, in the modern world, serving as the basis for a fundamental division in a number of democracies. But it's not usually between two different religions, it's usually a more secular, less, religious view of the role religion should play in political and social life, versus a more religious view. So, it's the seculars versus the hardliners with respect to religion. This can be any religion, that can be Islam like an Indonesia, it can be Judaism like in Israel, it can be Christianity like in Poland, that sort of Catholic conservatism versus more secular vision, it can be Hindu religion like in India. 

Why is this happening now? The rise of religion’s role in life, in the modern world, seems to be triggering deeper divides and a lot of democracies talk about why that's occurring, but it's definitely occurring. So, ethnicity is one fundamental divide you see in some places, religion is another.

A third is ideology- of two types. It may be socio-economic division between a redistributive economic view and a market capitalism. Think of Venezuelan, Bolivarian revolution versus market system- a really angry division in Venezuela versus one view of how, you know, economics should be organized versus another. So, that's common in Latin America, in particular. But also ideology in the socio-cultural sense, think of Poland of a kind of conservative, anti-globalization, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-progressive agenda, versus a more progressive agenda on socio-cultural issues can also be extremely divisive.

DM: Where do political parties play in exacerbating or mitigating polarizations?

TC: Polarization is a puzzle because it doesn't follow any single pattern. In some countries, there's a formative rift. A division when the country is formed. It simply gets activated and won't go away. Think in Kenya, for example, after Kenya gained independence in 1963. The division between the Kikuyu and Luhya was immediately activated by various politicians of political entrepreneurs. They formed a government of national unity but it broke down very quickly for a cross-party coalition and Kenya ever since then has been experiencing this divide. So all of Kenya's modern history has this division.

In other cases, you have a division at the formation of the country, but then it doesn't surface for a long time, it comes out only later. Think of Turkey here. In the 1920’s there was a divide between the more Islamist and more secular conception of Turkey, but for 70 years, the secular vision dominated. It was only in the 1990’s when the AKP began to gain force, when it forwarded the alternative vision did that division surface. A third pattern is there's no apparent division and then you're surprised by one. Poland, one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, in terms of religion, in terms of ethnicity. It seemed like in terms of ideology after the end of the Cold War, it now finds itself a very angry and divided society. Political leaders, polarizing leaders, are unfortunately a major factor almost everywhere where you see polarization. A polarizing leader isn't a leader who produces polarization just because he is divisive. And by the way, we didn't find any she polarizing leaders, we only found he polarizing leaders. If you have a she in mind, I mean Indira Gandhi might be one candidate, but at least in the past couple decades, a polarizing leader produces polarization as a specific and political intent.

It is a governing strategy- I'm going to divide the society and it's going to be to my political benefit because I pursued. They do that through a fairly simple formula, they embody the division in the country, one side of it. They are the living embodiment of the identity narrative of one side. Then, a key tactic is you other the opposition, you don't treat the opposition like a normal opposition, you demonize it, you characterize it as disloyal, you characterize it as bad, you characterize it in really harsh terms in order to say, “this is a normal competition, this is the destiny of the country”. As Evo Morales said of the vote in Bolivia the other day, “this is the destiny of our country between those who loved the country and those who hate the country, or those who believe in the future and those who don't”, and so forth.

Third, you choose symbolic moments or issues and you drive them. You don't argue about tax policy or pension policy or this or that, you choose symbolic issues and push on that wound to build a Hindu temple on the side of this mosque because that's really crucial to the future. You choose issues that are very symbolic. Lastly, the polarizing meter is relentless. You wake up every day and you polarize. There's no rest for the polarizing, no holidays for the polarizer. The party of the polarizing leader usually collapses around that polarizing leader, even if they have values or approaches different from that, they usually end up gravitating towards it for whatever, the power of the polarizing it brings the party to heal. The other parties are put in that terrible choice of, do we imitate the tactics and strategy of the polarizing forces hitting's, or do we try to stay in a more conciliatory approach, one of the points of resilience, the antibodies, or guardrails against severe polarization. Of course, there are the norms in a society, the norms of moderation, tolerance, fairness, truthfulness, that hopefully can stand up against this force, but often they don't. Often they're like small soft animals crushed under the steamroller of a polarizing leader, it just flaunts those norms, it just crushes them. There are harder guardrails and these are crucial, especially to an organization like NDI, that works on these issues.

Neutral election administration, independent election administration, this is a key guardrail. A leader still has to go and present himself and his platform before an election that has a certain credibility. This is crucial. So, therefore, independent election administration is often the target of a polarizing leader because they know that, they go after it. Bangladesh is an example where one of the parties in the 90’s really tried hard to undercut the independent election administration. Second key guardrail, independent legal institutions- courts, prosecutors, etc. Third, of course, the Constitution and the framework of laws and norms that regulate the politics in the country.

DM: What are your recommendations for how to reverse this trend? Specifically, how can NDI assist through its work? I wish the last chapter of the book was called, “the answer” and you just flipped ahead to that and said, why didn't we think of this before? Unfortunately, it's a fairly sobering conclusion that we have which is, first of all, our dream, our hope is always that there'll be a leader who comes in and rises above the fray and brings the country back together. Popular. It's hard to be popular as a de-polarizer, your own followers, they want blood, they want political blood, they want to crush the other side once they're back. The other side doesn't trust you. They're like, what sort of tactic is this depolarization? This was probably just a ploy for something. So it's very hard to rebuild the social capital in a country that has lost it. So, our dream that it simply is just a question of good leadership I think is elusive. It doesn't mean we shouldn't look for it and try to cultivate it, but that's rarely going to be the answer. Instead, it's going to be a configuration of a menu of things, none of which is a killer app, but all of which are going to contribute.

First, political reforms, looking at the electoral system, and the political system more generally, to say, are sort of institutional fixes that could help drive two people to the center in a way- it's like here in the United States, the search for alternative voting methods and other things. Institutional reforms are the ways we can strengthen the independence of the judiciary, re-strengthen the election management bodies and so forth and really looking harder at that.

Media reforms- is there a way to produce change in media so that social media isn't driving people apart? Instead in some ways bring people back together. 

Civil society activities- bridging exercises, dialogue, measures in the society, and things to bring the society back together in those ways.

So, there's no single answer but instead you see countries that are trying to get the polarization.

DM: Wonderful, thank you Tom. That's a lot of food for thought, that's sobering, but the work that we do is not easy, and we need to be asking these questions, critical questions overcoming this moment in polarization. As you say, it's been going on for decades.

Let me open this up to anyone with a question or comment for Tom or Sef.

Question: Thank you so much. So you notice that there's no magic bullets recognizing that you know, a room full of implementers, be great to have you drill down a little bit of the programmatic indications from your work. So, lessons learned that we across NDI and other implementers can factor into our work in democracy systems going forward.

TC: Well, at the general level- in countries where their outside actors who are present in the political life, either because it's an aid receiving country or a democratizing country in which their democracy, there's an opportunity, because those outside actors represent a political force, if you will, or a political presence, which is ideally above the polarizing fray. So, it's an opportunity. Think in the United States, for example, we don't have any such group, obviously, we're not receiving assistance from Sweden or the Netherlands, although we could. But if you ask an American and say, “name three prominent people who are fully above politics these days, who nobody would question their partisan orientation”. It's gotten hard to think of who those people are. Stokes point to some military people but even there, there's a lot of pressure on people to take a side, including Jim Mattis. So, the outsiders, in a place like Kenya after the 2007 elections, represented an opportunity because here was a group of people who largely well-intentioned were trying to help Kenyan democracy and could engage in trying to help combat polarization. So what this outside presence represents is an opportunity, first of all, to crystallize the problem and bring in comparative experience. So what we have here is an example in Kenya of a long period of polarization that's led to this kind of level of violence. It's not talked about and broken down and now what are we gonna do to bring in some comparative expertise on this? But in the case of Kenya, I think, you know, there was a helpful push by outside actors at that point to say to Kenyan political actors, generally, you've got to do better than this, the pastor doing better is going to have to be constitutional reform. Finally, Kenya's been chewing over constitutional reform forever at that point. There's a broad civic coalition that's been articulating an agenda for decentralization of power which can help take some of the pressure off the national state by the centralizing power. So, there were some thinking. that's an action there, some institutional reforms that were helpful to Kenya in doing that. So, ideally the outside actors can play this role if they're credible, bring some comparative experience, zero in on what some institutional reforms might be in that particular context and help support them. My general answer is the international community has a big responsibility in these contexts to take it seriously through and so forth.

DM: The issue is national leaders, as you say, and maybe it trickles down to other leaders, religious leaders. Is it good to go local and try and build bridges there? Is that shown to work? If religion is a divider - or one of the leading dividers - do you then have to really make a proactive effort to go after the religious leaders to get them to unify or see that it's in their interest, one reason or another. I'm sure not all of them will agree but if you can at least build a coalition on the religious side, religious leaders, that could be a way to address these questions. So you admit things at local levels, because there's no substitute for people sitting face-to-face. It’s very hard to be polarized with your neighbor. It can be if you're inspired by digital technology, social media, or other media. But it seems to me, at least in our context, we think about this- I wonder if other context chipping away at those local levels and other elite levels.

TC: Two different questions there together there, both interesting ones. The first... religion is, in general, outsiders have been very hesitant in many places to focus on the religious community because it's sensitive, they don't often feel they necessarily know those circles as well as they know other circles. So, it's been touchy and often stayed away from. In Indonesia, for example, people are aware that there's been a quiet Islamicization of so many social aspects of life in Indonesia in the last 15 years that prepares the ground for a political entrepreneur who wants to, like the AKP in Turkey, try to divide the country in a singular way between the more Islamist and the less Islamist consumption. It’s something Indonesia has avoided for many years in a great way, but it's so touchy, that if there were a, sort of, international actor who sort of thought, that's my goal or I want to do that, how would I do that? People would say, “hmm”, that’s very touchy and often people stay away from it even though that's an issue that's there. The Indonesia chapter is I think one of the strongest chapters in the book, it really gets at the complexity in Indonesia of how many people have tried to say don't worry about this, but the warning signs keep growing. Now is the time to focus in and say what could we do with communities.

Q: On the local versus national?

TC: Yes, of course, working at the local level can provide some bridge building and often as an entry point but the frustration is the power of singular narratives to crush the local level. I was just talking with somebody in the United States who organizes events around the country to bring together former Republican and Democratic governors or high officials and states to get together on the stage in Pennsylvania or Colorado or whatever. They sit there, and that former Democratic governor and Republican governor they have a pleasant conversation, the audience enjoys it and says, “oh, if only Washington could be like this, you get together, you talk, it's reasonable.'' There are singular narratives coming from political figures with the national reach  that are making that hard to do. Now, it's good to do those initiatives, but the tension between bridge building at the local level and the power of national forces to separate a country is really forbidding.

Q: What actually is the driver for the polarizing leader? Iis it that they are literally, as you said, they become the embodiment of the identification. Is it an identity politics? Or is it just, sort of, crude power politics? Depending on which way you go with that, you might end up with perhaps more potential ways of moving forward, so if it's just crude power politics, and you might say- Kenya, I mean how much of it is it really, really identity as opposed to power? Then a guardrail may be a more independent on building independent civil society organizations because you've got the institutions of state you've set out. I think you said the judiciary, the legal framework, and the electoral framework. But, you know, what are the other guardrails that could be put in place? Bangladesh, for example, is perhaps also indicative of where civil society has also become a part of one of the other sort of polls of this? So I guess my first question is what really is driving that polarizing leader and then second, does it really hold, could it hold that if you have a different answer to that, then you might have different guardrails in place?

TC: It's a great question, Sandra. Unfortunately the most severe cases of polarization are ones where the leader is being driven by a powerful sense of grievance to a community in the society, a large community. Grievance in the sense that we Hindus have stood aside and watched the secular progressive multicultural agenda run our country, we've been put at the back of the line and Muslims have cut in front of us, people from the wrong castes step forward, affirmative action has displaced us, it is time for the people who really own and run this country to step forward and claim the country for themselves. I've been watching the speeches. And Hugo Chavez, when he emerged as a leader, Chavez says, the people in this country who have been stepped upon for 50 years or now can be stepped on and we're stepping forward and asserting our own rights to the disfavored people of this country. So a powerful narrative of grievance or the AKP in Turkey of saying those who really respect Islam have had to watch people do this in public and watch this and watch that. So a narrative of grievance that is based in an identity community and society which you are going to represent and put it forward, you've got trouble on your hands in the society, because then you have a society with powerful grievance and together with a political entrepreneur who's using that grievance at a real punch. But Modi is not just a political operator. He is a man with a mission. He stands for something. He isn't just, I'm gonna use this because that will get me into the prime minister seat. He believes in something. He stands for something. Now, you're right. There are other cases like Kenya where I think it's much more superficial in that sense. It is more a game of the elites who turn it into a narrative and say, this is what I really represent, this community, whereas it's actually fairly thin. They're often constructing identities around rather superficial differences between groups and so forth. So that kind of polarization, theoretically at least, you can deal with more easily or differently than when you really have a grievance. When you have a democracy with a profound grievance community within it, that society has to figure out how to reconcile that.

DM: Sef, you look at local parties, specifically political movements in a moment where trust in institutions, as I mentioned earlier, is pretty low. That can be either a symptom or a cause of  polarization. It can be exacerbated, the leaders can be opportunists and taking advantage of this to gain power and advantage. So, interesting new thoughts listening to what Tom said and given your study of political parties, what can we do from that vantage point to try to address this very difficult problem?

TC: When I heard that Tom was coming out with the new book I had really mixed feelings. On the one hand I was excited because his work often provides us with frameworks for unpacking complex issues. It also pushes us to think even more critically about our work. When I heard that it was about polarization, I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't more specifically about political parties. Now that I've actually read the book I can say that I was wrong- it is in fact about political parties, it's just about more than that. It addresses not only political parties but a number of other institutions and factors that helped fuel polarization in a wide range of contexts. In retrospect, it was rather simplistic of me to hope for a book about political parties because after all, as I myself keep saying, increasing the problems that we seek to address through our work cannot be easily siloed by NDI functional area. They are problems that emerge from and are rooted in a series of interrelated factors and the relationships between them. As such, they require systems thinking. Perhaps what I liked most about the book but also what scared me the most was the framework it provides for understanding the different drivers of polarization and the key differences between severe polarization and less extreme versions of this all-too-common malaise. As I read the book, a powerful but scary image formed in my mind. That was the image of severe polarization as a perfect storm or chain reaction of sorts. Several countries have different ingredients required for the storm or chemical reaction. But those ingredients do not necessarily combine into a highly explosive chain reaction until a catalyst is added. Often that catalyst takes the form of a leader who exploits weak institutions, abrogates diverse societal divisions into a simple yet compelling us versus them frame and uses his support to weaken institutions further. Perhaps the section of the book that best describes the symptoms of polarization was a quote from the Pollan chapter that is attributed to a prominent leader from the Solidarity movement: “There are now two Poland's. We don't get the same news, we don't read events the same way, nor do we have the same values. It's as if we are losing our common language. We no longer listen to one another and we no longer talk to each other. Worse, we don't even want to talk to each other.” In the early chapters of the book, I could see the overlap between populism and polarization but by the time I got to the chapter on Poland it had become clear in my mind that polarization is a tool that populists and others use to achieve their goals. Ironically, polarization not only thrives on citizen disenchantment, it exacerbates it. The Poland chapter, for example, describes how polarization dramatically reduces government accountability. When severe polarization strikes, the government no longer feels the need to justify its actions. Severe polarization also makes it difficult to adopt profound reforms that require wide societal acceptance. As a result, the government may either avoid such reforms focused on populist agendas or ram through its preferred solution without the required debate. Thereby further deepening polarization. As the conclusion notes: “Political parties tend to experience a generalized loss of credibility and intensely polarized environments. Citizens see politicians engaged in constant fighting, including over the most minor issues. This fuels public alienation from formal politics. In addition, polarization often allows party leaders to suppress intra-party opposition by emphasizing the need to stick together against a common enemy. The resulting lack of deliberation within parties prevents them from being more accountable to and representative of their constituents.” I found this and other references to the relationships between the intro-party and intra-party consequences of polarization fascinating. To conclude- left unaddressed, long-standing societal divisions can help fuel severe polarization. This suggests that early warning systems and preventive interventions may be part of the solution. Bottom line, this was a reminder that institutions do matter and it is precisely their weaknesses that political entrepreneurs exploit to drive severe polarization.

DM: You went on an interesting point, where polarization is not necessarily, in some ways may not be negative. It depends on your perspective. Maybe it's an important point of transition as you start to address the changes or the trim the contradictions in a society. You see 40’s 50’s and 60’s in the US were times with unity and therefore the 60’s were the times with great division, that was in part the Vietnam War, I suppose. Massive civil rights movement, which we needed, which was overdue, for us to come to a reckoning. You talk about Hong Kong and other movements where change and transition creates a polarizing moment. As you work through some of the structural imbalances that are there, of course, it depends who is deciding on that. What a constructive polarization is and what is not, I would imagine in Poland they will say, at least the leadership and the elites say, LGBT rights, that's not the kind of change we want to see in our society while progressives around the world say that's what we think is the right kind of change. In many cases religious differences, it will create divisions and it needs to be worked out. As you say, if it's worked out through a political process where there's credible Electoral Commission's and such, people have debates and it's not violent then that may be simply politics working itself out in societies because ultimately you have two different ideas of a nation. One is blood and soil, ethnic or tribalism or religion. We always talk about in the United States that the idea is equal justice under law, everyone is equal and we are all united amidst our diversity. But it takes a long way to get to that point and in the process of getting there you have division, you have polarization, perhaps, maybe indefinitely. So the question is what is our, taking each context in its place, how do we contribute to mediating this issue of polarization? Mitigating its harm but also recognizing maybe in some way natural fate of democracies both because of the opportunism, exploitation by political leaders to be natural, but also just the nature of change? Maybe a final comment before we take off.

TC: That sounded like a final comment right there, Derek. Democracy is the attempt to regulate political conflict through civilized means. All societies are divided in different ways. People have different needs, interests, views, and they need to be reconciled and democracy is our best attempt to have a political system that does so through rules and peacefully. Democracy feels the strain. I think above all, not just when feelings are high, but when the society really begins to break into two different views that just can't get along. If it's just an issue. If you look at how, say Ireland, has dealt with the abortion issue- that's a very singular issue that's very divisive. But it didn't break Irish politics and Irish society into two dueling halves that will come to political blows over time since they were able to deal with a very difficult issue through a very, I would say in general, enlightened process. When you really have a deeper division, as I said, with lots of things line up on either side is just a single issue, but a question of, I'm this kind of person, that kind of person. Then democracies really struggle. Democracy really struggles to get along so that's when it puts a test on all the institutions and all of us to figure out how to melt those two ice cubes into the same glass, make everybody feel part of the same country.

DM: That's exactly it. 

Thank you very much, Tom, for really insightful and thoughtful, and Sef for your comments which were spot-on, and everybody here listening in the room and those of you listening outside on whatever technologies. Let me just say, share Demworks, our podcast, our videos on social media to amplify the voice of democracy here to talk about the role of social media and polarization to some degree. But, those of you listening, please share on social media and learn more about NDI or to sign up for a monthly newsletter, please check out

I am Derek Mitchell and this is Demworks. Thank you for listening.