Can Europe Make It?

To confront polarisation one must look into the abyss

What Brexit has shown us is that people are still easy to manipulate and that tribal divisions are still pretty much a feature of our political system.

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska
4 July 2016

The Abyss. Flickr/ Jamiecat. Some rights reserved.Disbelief has been a common reaction to the UK public’s decision last week to leave the EU. While politicians have been addressing the problem of how to minimise the damage connected with the painful political divorce, the European public should carefully examine the processes that have facilitated the current situation. Think them through and talk.  

The “Brexit-state-of-mind” is by no means a uniquely British problem, but it is part of a wider issue of political polarisation afflicting numerous societies around the world, in Europe and beyond. Poland, for instance, has been long divided into two camps which seem to disagree on every issue, starting with abortion, the role of the church, migration, history and the relationship with its neighbours. The anti-immigrant Law and Justice Party has successfully stirred up anti-refugee and EU-skeptic sentiments, having made calls for greater national sovereignty within the EU. The opposite side, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy social movement, has organised mass protests against the growing authoritarian and illiberal tendencies of the ruling party. Families and friendships have been breaking up over political divisions and there seems to be little or no room for dialogue.

Other countries like Greece, Austria, France – but also Ukraine and many others – have faced a growing polarisation of opinions. In the US, in a highly divisive political campaign, the openly racist Donald Trump has received the Republican presidential nomination.

Making several nations great again?

What these examples have in common is that in all these cases the emotion of fear and/or perceived humiliation have hijacked political rhetoric, leading to ever greater divisions. Those who share those feelings, on the one hand, and those who oppose them, on the other, have been entrenched in defensive positions without any space for reasoned dialogue. “Making a nation great again”, or “standing up from one’s knees” are slogans which have become far too common in the political narratives of a number of states.

The reasons are complex. First came the financial crisis, which left many people economically disadvantaged. The migration crisis and the terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, the US and elsewhere followed, fostering the feeling of insecurity. Globalisation and the processes it unfolds have claimed a lot of victims which in return challenged many people’s trust in mainstream political solutions and instilled fear. From there, xenophobia and the support for radical parties and isolationist policies were just a jump away. Properly exploited by skilled populists, the sentiments have brought results which were unthinkable just a few years back.

Europe is yet to make sense of the polarisation and radicalisation processes that it now faces. Research conducted in the US, which has long invested in studies seeking to understand its own political divisions, can come in handy. Political polarisation in the country has never been as high.

Frightening each other

According to the 2016 Pew Research survey, the animosity between Democratic and Republican voters has been the highest in nearly a quarter of a century. 55 per cent of Democrats and 49 per cent of Republicans say that the opposing party makes them “afraid”. Among those more involved in politics and campaigning, the same is true for 70 per cent of Democrats and 62 per cent of Republicans. In addition, 70 per cent of Democrats think that Republicans are more close-minded than other Americans, 42 per cent say they are more dishonest, 35 per cent – that they are more immoral and 33 per cent that they are more unintelligent.

By contrast, 52 per cent of Republicans think Democrats are more close-minded than other Americans, 47 per cent – that they are more immoral, and 46 and 45 per cent, respectively, emphasise laziness and dishonesty of their opponents. Furthermore, as research by Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood indicates, affective polarization along party lines is as strong as that based on race.

Political brains

In his 2007 book “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," Drew Westen argued that it is emotions and not reason that drive the majority of people’s political decisions and shape their political views. Other studies emphasise that conservatives are fundamentally different from liberals in several different ways; they are more attuned to assessing potential threats (Michael Dodd and John Hibbing, 2012) and have a deeper desire for stability (Paul Nail) as well as order and self-discipline (John Jost, 2008). Moreover, when people feel secure, they become more liberal, and become more conservative when they feel threatened, as suggested by a study conducted shortly after 9/11 (Paul Nail and Ian McGregor, 2009).

What we can see from the US research is that conservatives, and those who have been inflicted with fear or humiliated as a result of crisis, desire stability and clear answers. And these have not been offered by mainstream politics.

The various crises faced by Europe inevitably have led to anxiety, fear for the future and then, in consequence, to greater polarisation of opinions, radicalisation and an investment  in the appeal of identity politics. In the case of Poland, skilfully exploited sentiments have led to anti-immigrant hysteria in a largely mono-ethnic country; in the case of the UK, the populist rhetoric coming from the likes of Boris and Nigel largely influenced the Brexit vote. What follows is a demonisation of the other side and an increase in unfair and harmful stereotypes.

To address the polarisation which is fuelled by and fuels the social and political crisis in a vicious circle of accusations, misperceptions and the fear of unknown, we should firstly understand where they come from. And the sooner we see that the ever-growing divisions can only lead to a complete lack of common ground for discussion and mutual understanding – the better. 

Centrist conclusions

What Brexit has shown us is that, despite the growing access to sophisticated technology, people are still easy to manipulate and that tribal divisions are still pretty much a feature of our political system. As a result of his research on conservatives and liberals and in an attempt to find issues which could bring the two sides together, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a formerly self-identified democrat, has become more centrist.

Whatever one may think about this change, one thing is certain: he dared to gaze into the abyss. And we, in Poland, in the UK and elsewhere should too, before it is too late. Who knows, the abyss may gaze back at us.

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