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  • The Polarization Paradox
  • M. Steven Fish (bio) and Neil A. Abrams (bio)
Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Edited by Thomas Carothers and Andrew O'Donohue. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2019. 280 pp.

Thomas Carothers, Andrew O'Donohue, and their collaborators have produced a volume of depth and erudition on the global challenges posed by political polarization. Essays on nine countries analyze the roots, historical trajectories, and consequences of polarization around the world. The coeditors draw on rich and nuanced case studies to identify common cross-national patterns and attempt to isolate the key drivers straining a diverse set of democracies. The volume succeeds in its central mission of deepening our knowledge about political polarization. But it raises questions about the fruitfulness of the polarization framework for understanding and combat-ting the illiberal onslaught.

Polarization, it turns out, is not of a single stripe. The chapters by Senem Aydin-Düzgit on Turkey and Gilbert Khadiagala on Kenya illustrate how severe polarization contributed to democratic breakdown. Essays by Carothers on the United States, Niranjan Sahoo on India, and Joanna Fomina on Poland show how severe polarization has placed democracy under stress but not yet knocked it out. Andreas Feldman's chapter on Colombia and Naomi Hossain's chapter on Bangladesh depict elite-centric polarization that has not penetrated society deeply. The chapters by Eve Warburton on Indonesia and by Umberto Mignozzetti and Matias Spektor on Brazil showcase countries where democracy-endangering polarization has largely been avoided. Taken together, the contributions paint a panoramic portrait [End Page 182] of polarization and its potentially devastating implications for democracy around the world. While polarization can vary in intensity, the authors conclude that "severe polarization," meaning the division of society into clashing "us" versus "them" identities, imperils democracy.

In contrast to some other accounts, Democracies Divided highlights culture and not economic insecurity as the main source of polarization and democratic backsliding. As the contributors point out, Poles, Turks, Indians, Kenyans, and Bangladeshis actually realized dramatic economic gains in the decades preceding their growing rifts. Nor is polarization rooted in flawed formal institutions. While some contributors identify aspects of their countries' electoral rules and constitutional systems as aggravating factors, the broader take-away is that polarization is happening under every sort of constitutional system and electoral regime.

The exception seems to be Brazil's much-maligned combination of presidentialism and open-list proportional-representation voting for the legislature. Mignozzetti and Spektor argue that this setup checks polarization, but only by fostering other ills such as patronage politics, corruption, and a general lack of partisan accountability to the governed. Indeed, as the authors suggest, a system based on elite cartels designed to fatten politicians' wallets and campaign coffers only abets democratic dysfunction. Nor is it necessarily a reliable barrier to polarization. Public dissatisfaction with elite collaboration and rot led to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist president. In the view of Mignozzetti and Spektor, Brazil has not yet succumbed to severe polarization, but Bolsonaro's rhetoric and policies threaten to bring it about.

So what does cause polarization? The drivers are numerous, complex, and multifaceted. Among them are waning elite control over politics and rising popular involvement in political parties. In the United States, Carothers argues that the push for inclusion by marginalized groups during the 1960s and 1970s pulled the Democratic Party to the left. This, together with the conservative backlash it sparked, set the country on the path toward polarization. The authors also point to social media, which extend the reach of extremists, sort citizens into opinion silos, and allow populist leaders to communicate directly with their followers. These insights present a paradox: A richer, more engaged and influential citizenry often makes for a more polarized one, putting democracy at risk.

What can be done to stop polarization? While the contributors catalogue the various remedies that have been tried in their countries, none of these solutions are actually working. In the final chapter the editors offer their own suggestions, including reforming the media, political parties, and electoral systems. But they admit that such measures are extraordinarily difficult to achieve. The volume reports that corruption can limit polarization...


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pp. 182-185
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