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Journal Article


McCoy J, Rahman T, Somer M. Am. Behav. Sci. 2018; 62(1): 16-42.


(Copyright © 2018, SAGE Publishing)






This article argues that a common pattern and set of dynamics characterizes severe political and societal polarization in different contexts around the world, with pernicious consequences for democracy. Moving beyond the conventional conceptualization of polarization as ideological distance between political parties and candidates, we offer a conceptualization of polarization highlighting its inherently relational nature and its instrumental political use. Polarization is a process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in a society increasingly align along a single dimension and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of "Us" versus "Them." The politics and discourse of opposition and the social-psychological intergroup conflict dynamics produced by this alignment are a main source of the risks polarization generates for democracy, although we recognize that it can also produce opportunities for democracy. We argue that contemporary examples of polarization follow a frequent pattern whereby polarization is activated when major groups in society mobilize politically to achieve fundamental changes in structures, institutions, and power relations. Hence, newly constructed cleavages are appearing that underlie polarization and are not easily measured with the conventional Left-Right ideological scale. We identify three possible negative outcomes for democracy--"gridlock and careening," "democratic erosion or collapse under new elites and dominant groups," and "democratic erosion or collapse with old elites and dominant groups," and one possible positive outcome--"reformed democracy." Drawing on literature in psychology and political science, the article posits a set of causal mechanisms linking polarization to harm to democracy and illustrates the common patterns and pernicious consequences for democracy in four country cases: varying warning signs of democratic erosion in Hungary and the United States, and growing authoritarianism in Turkey and Venezuela.

Language: en


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